Are Dog Collars on Vicars outdated?
This is the question that seems to be gripping my workplace at the moment. Its been argued, as I understand it, that its an outdated fashion and that it makes relating to others more difficult and less obvious. But is there more to Dog Collar wearing than meets the eye of today’s fashion critic?
Dog collars are a little weird, in a way. Unlike a cross or a fish, there’s no real biblical significance to them. But almost everyone knows that a man or woman wearing one works for the church to some or other extent. In fact, experience tells me that even members of other religions know this to be the case, and with the prevalence of shows like Father Ted and Vicar of Dibley, its still something young people are picking up. In a sense, it makes you instantly recognisable.
On the flip side, I worry that a priest or deacon who doesn’t choose to wear one might almost be accused of befriending people under false pretences. I suppose they might feel a bit like one might feel if they discovered they’d just been talking to an undercover police officer! There’s a sort of damage limitation side to it, even if one wants to escape being put in a box.
Many of you will know that I used to wear a wooden cross round my neck on the end of a lanyard. I would say a small wooden cross, but everyone tells me it was bigger than I ever remember (it was about 1.5inches by 1 inch, honest!). Anyhow, the results were often quite unexpected, and very challenging for myself. I would get asked questions out of the blue, be told that someone’s Gran had died when I didn’t even recognise them, all sorts. Having spoken with a couple of dog collar wearers, its pretty much the same for them.
To myself, one of the most challenging things about the idea of being a priest is availability; you get a day off every week, and that’s it. The rest of the time, you need to be available. This can mean going down the local pub and drinking a pint whilst wearing your dog collar. I’ve seen priests do exactly that with the result of marriages reassembled, lives turned around and I know stories of completely out of the blue conversions. My mum has had to master getting through a checkout, paying for the groceries and doing a quick bit of prayer ministry at the same time down at the local supermarket.
It might have no biblical significance or magical power, but a cultural symbol like a dog collar can enable the most amazing encounters. Too much of the Church’s visibility is made of stone as it is. If the only thing we’re left with that people can point to and say “that’s part of the Church” is a building, we’re definitely failing to communicate the human nature of the Church.
On one level, its good to question these sorts of things once in a while. My answer to the question would be simply this: is there any other way of making it clear to the world what role God has called you to? Wider questions can be raised of the contract between the Church and society: are we the Church obliged to make ourselves visible to society in the ways society dictates? Should we refuse to play ball, so as to break the expectations of those around us? Should there be some give-and-take on this area? My initial reaction to the discussion was possibly a bit knee-jerky, and I’ve realised that there are some genuine reasons for avoiding the pre-figured cultural code that dog collars come with, but I genuinely believe the Church has to remain incarnational, to be God’s hands and feet in society, and to continue to be a visible presence, especially through those it invests in as deacons, priests and bishops.