Today gave me the very great privilege of Baptising four young people, and welcoming them as new Christians in the midst of our community in Aylesbury. I have fast discovered that there is little that exceeds this in terms of ministerial high-points, and I rejoice with Chenai, Tatenda, Tafadzwa and Lamora and their families as they take the courageous step of accepting their rightful place in the Army of Christ. Part of that process of initiation was to anoint them, by signing them with the Cross upon their foreheads with the Oil of Chrism. As I explained in my short preamble, they wear that Cross as a soldier wears his Cap-Badge. A soldier will give up his/her life for the badge he/she wears and for those who wear the same. A soldier wears his/her badge with utter pride, as it marks him/her out as belonging to something worthy, a collective of parts that creates a far more impressive whole.
Within the context of this service today, we were blessed with the gift of song given to us by the Zimbabwean community, from among whom the baptismal candidates came. They sang a hymn in their own language, wearing the uniform of the Zimbabwean Mother's Union, as they do every Sunday. We Brits had no inkling what the words meant, but we felt good, we felt alive, and we sensed that we got its essence if not its specifics! I thank God for them!
I have been given, therefore, a couple of reasons to consider the whole subject of 'badge and uniform'. We send our children to school in a uniform, and it is often a uniform to which we and they feel much loyalty. Our health-care professionals wear a uniform - and we know that we can trust them and their training, implicit in their attire. The man (fact, not exclusive language) who puts my letters through my door wears the uniform of the Royal Mail - and even if he fell out with his employers, he would man the picket in his uniform. The armed services live and die in the context of their uniform, as I have already described. People in business wear a uniform, the uniform of the business suit, shirt and tie. Retailers are decked in corporate colours. Imagine if the Army went to war in cords, a stripey shirt and a comfy beige jacket from Marks. Imagine of the kids in our school went in everyday in jeans and hoodies! Imagine if the nursing staff in our hospitals tended to their patients in chinos and a fleece. Imagine a person closing a multi-million pound deal in hiking trousers and a wicking t-shirt! Imagine if the Police on response on a Saturday night arrested their client base whilst in Hawaian Shirt and Bermuda shorts. Imagine a devoted Manchester United fan, a committed lifelong one, turning up to the game in anything other than the team colours.
So why are priests the exception to this?
This is not a picture of me, but of the style of collar I prefer to wear. Style is of no real importance beyond the significance of its genus.
It seems to me that a rapidly increasing number of the ordained members of the Church consider the uniform of the 'job' to be optional, or even undesirable. The reasons given are to do with the 'barrier' that a dog-collar presents in encounters with others. Other reasons surround progress and 'moving on'. In one conversation, an ordained person (that person was not comfortable being called a 'priest') said that they 'like to get to know someone before they tell them that they are a minister', in case the disclosure put the other person off. Now I know I am being controversial here, but I feel strongly about this. Yes, the image above comes with some negative connotations, largely to do with gender issues at the moment. When I pitch up to gathering of clergy, I go in my uniform, and this still causes much mirth! Why? I dunno, mate!
To my mind, the collar is akin to a cap-badge. It is our uniform. Priests, whether is palateable or not, are set apart to do a job to which we are called by God. It is a wonderful job, but not always easy. However, when you see someone dressed in a collar, you can make a whole raft of assumptions that set the scene for an encounter. You know that they are Christian, you know that they are (to a greater or lesser extent) trained in their work, on the whole trustworthy, steeped in prayer and in a close relationship with God. I am proud of all of that, and a dog-collar is the only way, short of tattooing it on my face, to declare this to the world around me. I have no appetite or right to be a priest-by-stealth. I have been chosen and sent-out from a community to work in another. I am so proud of my priestly orders that I can't imagine why I wouldn't wear its cap-badge. From my own experience, I have more meaningful encounters in collar than I do out of it. Barrier schmarrier. The people of Aylesbury have an absolute right to know what and who I am when I talk to them, otherwise I am not being straight with them, in my modest opinion. If the removal of our uniform and all that it represents is 'progress', then I pray earnestly that the members of our armed services (who would die for theirs), remain in the Dark Ages!