Pre clerical tension

Adjusting her dog-collar. One of St John's placement supervisors. This shot is widely used by journalists in the coverage of the Women Bishops legislation in the summer of 2010.

Not PMS but PCS - involves heightened sensitivity, cause for deeper than usual reflection and itching around the neck area in anticipation of a certain cotton collar...

I have been suffering from a heightened sensitivity regarding how to describe myself and have been conscious that different descriptions are causing different reactions. Describing myself as a student never really batters an eyelid and I like to kid myself I might even look young enough to pass for one, however the photographs tell me otherwise and I am aware that this is a little delusional but understand now what my mum has meant all these years as she continues to describe herself as never feeling any older than 21, until she looks in the mirror.

If I say I am on placement, I usually then add that this is part of a Theology degree and that usually creates conversation about studies, unfinished dissertations or the hopes to do something as interesting and unusual one day.

Today I tried two or three different descriptions. People were curious why I was at the toddler group but without any small people of my own in tow.

I told one woman I was helping out for a month, she looked a little bemused but wished me well.

With another woman, I discussed parenting and I lamented a little with her and threw in heaps of encouragement too and stories of my own exhausting times but when I said I was 'vicar training' to her query about why I could possibly want to be there when my own children were at school, I wondered if my description rather made her shudder and whether she will be quite so open with me next time.

I do not know if I want people to adjust their language and rearrange their sentences because I am a vicar. I know that little plastic white thing is going to enable encounter and listening and entry into people's hearts and lives so that God might do his thing but I am also aware that it will also cause people to think before they speak and to perhaps, at times, be less spontaneous. So for now I live, at times, in a state of Pre-clerical tension, sometimes it hurts a bit but most of the time I just get on with it all and forget all about it really.

In the meantime, I found real comfort in reading this essay (snippets from which I include below) from Rob Culhane, who seems to understand my Contemplative Crisis

At first, wearing the shirt may be exciting, much like the excitement the bride feels wearing her new wedding ring, a reminder of the translation which has recently taken place in her life from one role to another and the change in her relationships with friends and family. But this clerical shirt could also become a cloak, a comfortable identity which I use to stop or excuse the need for the hard work of holiness and continuing transformation and professional development which is required of all of us until the day we translate into the next life.

For me the shirt is something quite different: it is the symbol of the mourning of loss, the loss of being hidden, amongst the crowd...

Before ordination, I enjoyed being a hidden contemplative, alone with God during the week and enriched with the Sunday morning home coming of sharing with my Christian brothers and sisters at communion and worship.

Some of course will wear the clerical shirt out of a sense of nostalgia or a desire to recover an idealised past. Some may or may not choose to wear it due to simple laziness in having to wrestle with clerical identity and ambiguity. For others, there is no ambiguity either way on the issue. Blessed are they who sleep well at night on this issue. Some may choose to wear it from a desire to claim an identity which they find rooted and nurtured in the rich history of the Church. The shirt and collar may express both a theological truth embedded in this past as much as to a sense of being called forward to express this truth in this historical particularity. Of one certainty I am sure: that we will be using
some of these reasons to lesser or greater degrees with differing  degrees of self awareness. 
In the end, clerical identity is rooted in our sense of calling, but we must also always remember that our deepest sense of who we are is rooted in our relationship with Christ. Daily we must turn again and confess: ‘Our life is hid in Christ, therefore we seek the things above . . . ‘ (Col 3:3). We are loved by God for who we are, not what we do or how we perform. Putting on the shirt and collar comes after this confession...

...now that's as good as any aspirin you might use for the cramps...


gerrardus said...

I've said the trouble with the clerical collar is that, every time I see myself wearing one in the mirror, I swear.
Being a SSM I tend to use it as a sign that I'm "on duty". And because that only means 2-3 times a week, even after two years I'm still acutely aware of it when I wear it. And because I still live where I've lived for ages, I'm aware that when I meet someone I know when wearing it, it brings them up short!

Rob said...

Just over 2 years in and I still struggle with the wearing of this, particularly the should I be / shouldn't I be thing.
People have a mixed reaction - but it is still a reaction and I think (only think) I have come round to thinking it's a good thing to wear in that it shows something about what I am (avoiding people thinking I have tricked them into talking to me) along with it giving people opportunities to talk/ask/request that they would not have done if they did not know I was a deacon / priest.
In time people get used to the dog collar .... and then I fear that people won't recognise me when I turn up ithout wearing on .... oh actually that has already happened!

enjoying following your blog ... thanks for seeking me out and hope placement goes well.

Rachel Marszalek said...

Rev Gary, so funny 'swearing every time you put it on' - praying - no, swearing, are you sure?

Thanks for your insights and encouragement Rob.

Alastair said...

After fifteen years I still feel excited about wearing a clerical shirt (and the trousers, I mean it's not like I prance about wearing only a dog collar, um, er...)

Anyway, cause of excitement and joy is the huge privilege it is to be in this ministry, despite the crap, despite the negative images that people have, despite the ongoing quips about 'only working one day a week'; it's still such a gift to do this.

And maybe its because I am in rural ministry, but there are a certain amount of doors that are opened just because I am wearing what people see as a badge of office, it's not that there's a respect as such, but a recognition that this person is willing to talk about God and about faith and about the important stuff of life, and won't think that someone is weird if they want to as well.

That said, people still think we clergy are a bit crackers, and there is a joy in being eccentric, and I also think it's a personality thing. Sometimes wearing the collar or not is just about preference...

Rachel Marszalek said...

Thank you Alistair

That is so hugely encouraging to hear. I feel really blessed by what you say. You transmit that energy and joy that indeed I know God promises his servants in whatever role we are called, but that passport the dog-collar provides for open dialogue about God is indeed something I anticipate with real excitement too. In a sense, I wonder if when people are disturbed by the collar, that this is God, in his way, through us, doing his business with his people. It is often out of place of discomfort, once we examine it, that we come to realise our need to be in relationship with this God who has presented himself perhaps suddenly to our consciousness through that very collar, just one of a magnitude of ways through which he might be getting our attention. It is indeed a privilege to be used as a vehicle for his glory.



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