Bishop Keith Ackerman reflects on the clerical collar

Years ago, when I was a parish priest, three other priests and I needed to go to Manhattan in New York City. When I arrived I was met by the three priests, all of whom were dressed in mufti – that is, without a clerical collar. They initially made a little fun of the fact that I always seemed to be wearing a collar, and asked why. Moments later we saw a bit of scuffling near us, which is not that uncommon in Manhattan. A woman broke away from the scuffle and ran towards the four of us. She embraced me, and said, ‘Please help me, Father.’ I found a policeman (I could identify him easily, as he was in uniform), kept her close until the police took over, and prayed with her. Then, as we continued on our way, I turned to the three priests and asked, ‘Why didn’t she ask you to help her?’

We do not wear a clerical collar in order to receive some sort of preferential treatment. In any case, that ‘treatment’ evaporated several decades ago. We wear the collar to remind ourselves that we are under Orders and under Vows. In one way it is not a ‘uniform,’ but in another way it is. It is basic, not fancy, and it involves no fashion decisions. It allows us to focus better on what we are – and I am totally unimpressed with the modern concept that priesthood is simply a function from which we can ‘retire’ or be ‘off duty.’ Priesthood is an ontological reality, and a lifetime vow.

If I were told that I had a choice whereby I could either wear clerical dress in my church or when I was outside – travelling, in the street, or in restaurants – then I would not wear it in church. The people there already know to whom they can go if they have a spiritual need: they know my face. Rather, I would wear clericals where people may have a need: that one second in their life, perhaps, when they simply wanted to know more about Jesus and didn’t know whom to ask. Beware of clergy who say that clerical dress is a barrier – that’s a feeble excuse. You don’t hear policemen, soldiers, paramedics, or firemen offering that sad opinion.

Is it annoying to encounter needy people, or to sit next to someone on public transport who wants to talk about religion? It certainly can be. But there is no promise made at ordination that we can avoid the very people to whom Jesus reaches out. In today’s world the clerical collar is one of the most valuable signs of our priestly vows.

The Rt Revd Keith Ackerman was formerly Bishop of Quincy