Monday, October 08, 2007

Woof Woof! Are Clergy Collars Going to the Dogs?

Vicars who wear dog collars are more likely to be attacked and, to keep themselves safe, should stop wearing them. That’s according to ‘The Clergy Lifestyle Theory’ report commissioned after the murder of the fifth British priest in a decade.

Are they barking mad? In my experience socialising and working with priests, I find the majority of people defer to the dog collar and treat the wearer with a respect they would not afford to an ‘ordinary’ member of the public.

Just two weeks ago, I turned up with a priest friend at a crowded city restaurant without a booking. Having seen the melee inside, and people already waiting for a table, we fully expected to have to find somewhere else for lunch but no, we were promised a table in ten minutes and given a complimentary glass of champagne each while we waited. “It must be the dog collar,” I said, and my friend admitted that yes, it often helps, commenting how often strangers smile and say hello to him in the streets – but only when he is wearing it. Without his dog collar he fades into the crowd.

I believe firmly that one of the reasons the Church is losing its authority in society is because it has dumbed down much of its own status. While selling off old rectories may have had financial compensations, I’m not sure it was worth the true cost of effectively making a clear statement that the church and all it stands for no longer deserves a pace of primary importance at the heart of village life. And, call me old-fashioned, but when trendy vicars strip off their dog collars and cassocks in favour of jeans and T-shirts during services, I feel they are doing themselves a disservice most of the time. They are making a mistake in trying to make out they are no different to the rest of us, when they are. They have committed themselves fully to their vocation and their dog collar is a sign of that vocation, in the same way that a wedding ring is a sign of commitment in a marriage.

Any uniform gives the wearer status and, more importantly, helps them identify with their job and do that job better. The news last week that more and more schools are returning to insisting pupils wear a school uniform on the grounds that doing so seems to improve both discipline and academic results in schools, makes the point. For priests, the dog collar acts as a personal reminder of their own duty and their need to stand out and shine in society, while reminding the rest of us to offer due respect to God and God’s representatives on earth.

Sure, there are unsavoury elements in our society who will always target priests who are vulnerable because they are always expected to be on call to open their doors to the drug or alcohol addicted, but priests are trained in how to deal with these issues and most take sensible precautions to protect themselves. Anyone wearing some kind of uniform - be they policemen, paramedics, or Islamic women wearing the veil - are making a statement which some delinquents may see as a challenge and an incitement to violence. But no one has to wear a uniform all of the time and priests can exercise their own discretion.

One harsh reality is as true for priests as it is for the rest of us; all of us are most likely to be assaulted or killed by someone we already know. For priests, that inevitably includes parishioners, who presumably know who their priests are, so whether or not they are wearing a dog collar makes not one bit of difference.

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