For Lent this year, I decided to wear a dog collar during ‘normal operating hours’. This decision had been building up for just a few weeks and had not come out of ‘no-where’, but it did open up the possibility of a shift in my understanding of local pastoral ministry and mission.
I have pastored three churches over 20 years. In my first two churches it would never have occurred to me to buy a clerical shirt, let alone wear one on a regular basis. My default, if anyone asked, was that I would wear it at a funeral if requested specifically by the family – not that I had one to wear – but otherwise I would be true to my roots which had always been suspicious of men (and women) in collars. My theology of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ normally resists setting apart one particular ‘priest’ over the rest (although I have been perfectly happy to embrace my ordination and the use of ‘Rev’ before my name.)
But when I came to Herne Hill, some things changed.
Early on it became clear that the church needed to reconnect with the local community to raise its profile and its presence. In the first couple of months I met with a local and very active community leader who confessed he had no idea what the church did and was unaware of any involvement that the church had in the community. Despite defending the church by citing some of the things that were going on, I knew he had a point: if one of the more engaged and active members of our local community knew little or nothing about the life of the church, how much harder would it be for the rest of the local community? We therefore decided simply to welcome more community groups who wanted to make use of the building.
As the new minister in town, I saw this then as an ideal opportunity to get to know some of the local people. However, I quickly discovered, particularly in larger community meetings, that it was difficult to greet very many people or easily to identify myself as the minister of the building they were meeting in. There was a quick and easy answer: wear a dog collar! People will then know exactly who you are. So, I decided to give it a go. Once shirt colour choices were made (Black? Too severe. Light blue? Perfect!) the rest fell into place. The change in (some) people’s reactions was immediately noticeable. Conversations changed tone, people made the effort to introduce themselves, space opened up in positive ways, and there were even the occasional ‘more tea vicar?’ smiles in my direction. Since then, I have almost always worn a collar at a community event either in or outside the church.
But there was a second factor. Since coming to Herne Hill, I have also been more intentional about being out in the community rather than being kept too busy in the church building. I go to the same coffee shop every morning, sitting in the same seat (and drinking the same double espresso order!) getting to know the regulars who come in at the same time. I try to get along to other events in the community although time for this is limited. But getting to know local community leaders in particular has been a more significant part of my life at Herne Hill than in previous contexts. Because of the situation I am in at Herne Hill, I have more time for it. But for the first time, I think that I am getting to know what it feels like to be a local parish priest with a sense of a local geography.
So, as the community was now in our building more and I was outside the building more, being in some way a visible and identifiable presence of the church feels like it has become more important.
So, to this year’s Lent.
I have never been a great one for Lent observance. So, I was a little surprised that not only did I have a sense that I needed to take Lent more seriously this year but that my Lent ‘thing’ would be to wear my dog collar throughout Lent during ‘normal operating hours’ but not on Sundays.
Four reasons for doing this took shape.
The first was simply to see what happens; a kind of missional experiment. Nothing more sophisticated than that. If I wore a collar on a daily basis, what difference would it make? Would it have a positive impact opening spaces for conversations and greater involvement, or would it have the reverse effect and close things down? What would also be the impact on the people I already knew? I was aware that any negative impact might not be immediately obvious; people don’t always tell you that they are avoiding you.
The second reason was an act of Christian solidarity. This sounds grander than it’s meant to, but it became a public expression of my commitment to the wider church. It became something that reached beyond my immediate Baptist boundaries.
The third reason was for personal discipline. People asked me what I had given up by wearing a collar? It became clear that I had given up my (public) anonymity. It’s surprising how more self-conscious I was in public with the collar on than without it on. From buying coffee to walking past the homeless man begging at the bus stop, I became more aware of the fact I was (possibly) being watched and my actions and words may matter. It was also interesting to examine my inner thoughts when I got home, took the collar off and silently declared myself ‘off-duty’!
Fourth, as a Baptist and nonconformist I wanted to find something that expressed some sense of my own tradition. It did feel like a small act of nonconformity against those who insist the way to reach the culture is to dress like the culture. But more interesting was doing some thinking about how this might relate to the historic roots of my nonconformity as a reaction to the relationship between the state and organised religion. I celebrate the fact that we continue to have freedom of religion in this country and I am not with the doomsayers that perceive an imminent outbreak of organised state persecution. But I am with those who see a political and cultural resistance to the legitimacy of religion in the public debate in society. In this (very small) way it felt therefore like an act of public defiance (and nonconformity).
The reaction from almost everyone has been largely positive. Several church members have encouraged me to make it a permanent thing. A few are less convinced and politely silent. It is true I was smiled at more when I was out walking, and it was interesting getting used to the furtive glances in my direction on buses and trains.
Has revival broken out at Herne Hill? No. Have I been inundated with requests for conversations about faith? Not yet. So, what then has been achieved?
The simple answer is an exercise in local practical theological reflection. From past experience I have found two equal and opposite dangers in local church life. The first is to be enthusiastically innovative and experimental but without proper theological reflection along the way. Success or failure is usually measured on largely pragmatic grounds. Did it attract more people? The other danger is to be so bound by theological assumptions, new ideas and initiatives that challenge these assumptions are prematurely rejected stifling new thinking and new practices.
Will I continue to wear it? I think I will wear it more often on routine days, not just on special occasions. I just haven’t quite worked it out yet.
But in the end this was an exercise primarily in missiological rather than ecclesial reflection. Theologies of ordination can continue to be debated but for me, these four questions remain:
- How can we as a local Christian community be a more provocative and visible sign of God’s presence creatively engaging in meaningful conversations and faithful involvement with our local community?
- How can we work with the wider Christian community publicly taking our place alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ acknowledging and celebrating our differences recognising that not one local church has the monopoly on faith and witness?
- How can we live more consistently and self-consciously as faithful disciples in our public (and private) witness in the smaller and larger interactions of daily life?
- And how can we as the Christian church creatively and prophetically resist the marginalisation of public faith in ways that are taken seriously by our local community finding our place in the local spaces and public debates?
More than anything I was surprised how much the simple act of wearing a small piece of white plastic for six weeks forced me to think and pray.