How do you feel about clerical collars, often known as dog collars? I was asked recently for a head and shoulders photo for the State Library of Queensland's Dangerous Women project in which I have been involved. After a little consideration, I sent the photo above. For in that circumstance, my priestly status is highly significant. For, even before we come to my transgender journey, it is still strange and/or enlightening for some to realise that female clergy have been around for a little while now. It is therefore sometimes important for women to wear their collars, in a similar way to that in which Dr. Julia Baird rightly encourages women with doctorates and/or other qualifications not to hide them, as we can be quite sure that many 'lesser' men will not hesitate to use whatever symbols of achievement and influence they have (see further Julia's wonderful book Phosphorence chapter 12 'Own Your Authority'). On the other hand however I do feel ambivalent about the clerical collar and what it sometimes represents..
Historically, the clerical collar is certainly a novel item. It emerged in the 19th century, particularly in Church of England circles, as the great modern professions began to develop and processes of secularisation started to accelerate. Clergy themselves became more 'professional', sometimes as part of newly evolving clericalisation, separation from the laity and a 'retreat to the sanctuary' (or the pulpit). As an English-born woman, i am also keenly aware of the connotations of class in this development, with clergy collars often being reworked versions of the English gentleman's cravat. The clerical collar has also never seemed to me to be an especially attractive item and not one a woman would have devised for herself or others.
I am personally certainly not opposed to distinctive garb for particular people and circumstances. Whilst, not least in common with my Quaker siblings, I see God present in the 'everyday' and 'heaven in the ordinary', I am sufficiently an (Anglo) Catholic as to value appropriate dress, rite, symbol and colour as part of much worship and cultivating 'the beauty of holiness'. It is also true that wearing the clerical collar can sometimes represent a positive sign of pointing to divine presence and of opening up conversation and accessibility. I deeply value colleagues for whom this is important and a helpful part of the3ir ministry. On certain occasions, including in multi-faith and other situations, I have myself found this very constructive, as well as important in terms of representation. In general however, for myself, wearing a clerical collar has, literally as well as metaphorically, often created unhelpful 'social distance' from others. Yes, it has enabled holy conversations at times, but also many very stilted ones, or even frankly religiously disturbed.
On a personal level, I have always hated neckties and clerical collars seem even more constraining. There is also some truth I think in the observation that they represent the way in which some clergy (and Christian laity) have metaphorically cut off their heads from the rest of the human bodies (and, sometimes, the larger the collar the greater the rupture). I am further struck by the way in which, in First Nation cultures, true elders and people of spiritual wisdom typically do not stand out from the crowd in their manner of dress or other outward characteristic, except in ceremonial or other vital situations. Perhaps, as the old Anglican adage has it about other 'adiaphora', when it comes to wearing clerical collars, it is a case of 'all may, some should (at least on occasions), none must'?
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.