Look again

This is day two of my ordained ministry.  The events of the last week or so have been momentous, and no doubt I will be reflecting on them for years to come.

It struck me, though, that on the pre-ordination retreat, one of the things which seemed to be causing the ordinands most angst was the question of clerical dress.  Should I wear a clerical collar?  All the time?  Just some of the time?  In what situations?  All of us were assessing our individual ministry contexts, and wondering how to present ourselves in ways which fostered connections rather than unhelpful barriers in our pastoral relationships.

The retreat conductor encouraged us to wear a clerical collar.  He spoke of ordained ministers as a “living sacrament,” an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace which is God’s presence in the Church.  I am not particularly comfortable with the language of “living sacrament,” but I am comfortable with the idea of being a visible prompt to consider the possibility of God.  I am reminded of the words of a bishop once, who told me that the job of the Church is to “keep the rumour of God alive.”

The ordinands discussed amongst ourselves the response that clergy often get from the public for presenting themselves visibly as clergy.  Especially for men, it is not unusual to be verbally abused, spat on, physically intimidated or even assaulted while out in public.  (Women seem to receive a less harsh reaction, perhaps because for many people a woman in clerical dress is still a surprising or even puzzling sight, or perhaps because people are still more inhibited about abusing women in public).

But why do clergy get this response?  The biggest, most obvious, most gut-wrenching factor is the clergy sexual abuse scandals around the world.  A man in clerical collar, even if he has never abused a child, abhors abuse of all kinds, and is committed in his ministry to everything which is the antithesis of abuse, is still a visual representative of institutions which have utterly failed so many precious and vulnerable people.  It is little wonder that that provokes a negative response.

But beyond that, I think there is something slightly deeper and more subtle at work.  As I talk to people outside the church, I regularly discover that the most common non-Christian perception of churches is that they are institutions which aim to control people; that they are oppressive of their members and seek to use their political influence to extend that oppression beyond their membership to the general public.  That oppression is seen to be an institutional expression of misogyny, homophobia, and narrow-mindedness and cold-heartedness in general.  Small wonder, then, that clergy are viewed with hostility!

It leaves me wondering, though.  To an outside observer, what does a woman in a clerical collar stand for?  Is she a collaborator within an oppressive system, exchanging compliance for special privileges?

I wonder if it is possible to be something else, to be a visible witness to a God who relativises and subverts all human systems of control and oppression, even those in the church?  To be something of a sign of contradiction, which points beneath the surface of the church to a deeper reality?

I hope, if nothing else, that as I learn to manage how I present myself as an ordained person and deal with the responses – both positive and negative – that that receives, I can at least be a prompt to people to look again, think twice and question whether things – whether the reality of God or the nature of the Church – are really entirely as they might seem.

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