Friday, December 16, 2011

Clergy-wear during protests


OK, I'm wandering into the territory of Beauty Tips for Ministers here, but a couple of recent conversations have brought up the issue of what clergy should wear for protests.

I know a number of Ministers who only wear clerical collars for protests. The logic is that it's important to identify as a Minister when you're supporting something society doesn't expect clergy to. So Ministers will wear a collar at gay prides or pro-choice rallies to make this point.

Now I could understand this if it you wore a collar going about your general business, and also did during a protest, but I'm quite uncomfortable with the idea of wearing clerical wear ONLY for protests.

The seems to be something worth exploring.

I have said before that I'm not in favour of special titles or clothing for religious leadership, mainly because Jesus explicitly said this was a lot of nonsense. Religious leaders should not need these articial crutches.

I have no problem with certain liturgical clothing during worship, although the ideal would be everyone wearing it, though that would probably freak out a visitor a bit. In leading worship a person takes on a temporary priestly role, and so in wearing a liturgical outfit they are becoming a symbol in themselves. Decorating the worship leader has the same meaning as decorating the altar. But it is temporary, and about the role, not permanent and about the person. A lay person could equally wear liturgical clothing. And the liturgical clothing comes off at the end of the worship.

I have never worn a clerical collar, but I did used to wear my stole for gay pride. As I relflected further I have decided not to anymore, as a stole is a symbol for worship and should not be used outside of worship.

So, back to protests: the argument goes that you make your point better by being identified as a Minister. Afterall (other than the MCC, an explictly queer denominiation) Unitarans are still the only Christian-derived denomination with openly gay Ministers. So people-who-look-like-Ministers in gay prides makes the point.

But let's look at the argument in detail. What are you actually saying in saying that it's more important for a Unitarian minister than a Unitarian layperson to be seen in a protest? What are saying in saying it's more important to see a Minister than a Quaker (who have no Ministers/or rather have no laity)? Implicit in this argument is the idea that a Minister's witness is more powerful than a layperson's. You see Quakers are witnessing to their pro-gay position by marching in Prides, but with none of them in clerical wear they are also witnessing to their deeper commitment to spiritual equality. There is a coherence and integrity to that witness.

Whereas wearing clerical collars only for protests seems to me to be a position that values pragmatism more than integrity. We're prepared to give up our integrity on one issue because we think it might "work" in achieving another. By the same logic you could use misleading statistics, misquotes, and half-truths to make your political point if you thought it would "work." The ends justifies the means.

Now if, for example, the press wanted to talk to someone to represent a position then it makes sense that a Minister might be the person who, because of their training and position, be best able to articulare the arguments. But in a purely visual way do we need to be carrying signs that say "I'm a Minister therefore you should pay more attention to my views"? That's what you're doing in wearing clerical garb in a protest.

I think it's unnecessary.

10 Comments:

Blogger RevDan said...

You make a good point and as you are no doubt aware I am still unsure what is appropriate wear for a minister full stop...I suspect I will never come to a conclusion about this except for the fact that I care less and less about the argument.

Having said this I do think that we Unitarians need to identify ourselves as a faith community in some way at Pride etc. I am not convinced that the word Unitarian itself actually achieves this. People know that Quakers are people of faith, they have an identity that people are familiar with, sadly we still lack this. Therefore I think it is helpful for colleagues to wear collars, although I do not myself. Will I do so one day? I do not know. Interestingly I would be more likely to wear a collar than a stole, although I suspect I will wear neither.

The impact of a group of clergy does indeed make a powerful impact at such events and I reckon that this the whole point

6:25 pm  
Blogger Paul Oakley said...

Totally agree with you, Stephen!

I'm happy to say, though, that in the US there are quite a few religious denominations and congregations that now openly ordain/ fellowship openly LGBTQ people:

Metropolitan Community Church
United Church of Christ
Unitarian Universalist
Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
The Episcopal Church
Presbyterian Church USA
Christian United Church
Old Catholic Churches
American National Catholic Church
Ecumenical Catholic Communion
Liberal Catholic Church
and other Independent Catholic Churches
Apostolic Johannite Church
Unity School of Christianity
The Swedenborgian Church
Reform Judaism
Conservative Judaism
Reconstructionist Judaism
Jewish Renewal

Hopefully the C of E and other churches in England will do it soon too! :)

9:33 pm  
Blogger Andrew said...

I largely agree, but I do wear a collar for occasions such as the dreaded Mayors Invitations to the town hall. Now and then for a wedding if requested, I always ask couples what they want me to wear..pointing out lycra does not suit my figure. I will wear an academic robe and stole on occasion. I would however not wear it in a protest. I think that is just inappropriate. Mind you I am prone to wear a collar for hospital visiting out of visiting hours it opens doors!

9:37 pm  
Blogger Daniel said...

As a Minister who does wear a collar occasionally (not just for protests) perhaps my view is slightly skewed.

There is an important point here about what we are saying when we wear the collar in public. It is a declaration that we are Ministers. Whether we like it or not, the collar is a uniform that enables us to become visible to those who are used to more traditional 'vicar' garb (or take their only church experience from the 'Vicar of Dibley' or 'Rev.').

Putting protests to one side for a moment, if you wear the collar into town, even for one day a year, you will discover you are called to bring ministry to people you may never have realised were looking for it. This is leading me to question whether I should wear a collar more frequently - but that's another discussion!

But on the issue of protests, by wearing the collar to events such as protests, we are making clear that our public position is unified across the movement. This is in contrast to some other denominations where you may have individual members' support for a cause such as Pride, but you would never see a public expression of support from the Ministry. This does not necessarily say the Minister's witness is more powerful - it can say instead there is a unity in our witness.

A picture paints a thousand words - and the sight of a collar at a protest sends an immediate message. It is certainly not more important for a Unitarian Minister than a Unitarian layperson to be seen in a protest; it is important to see both in a protest.

Unlike the stole (which I wear less frequently than a collar), I would not see clerical dress at a protest march as liturgical decoration. It can be, instead, a visual declaration of the unified position of the Unitarian movement - a message we should be proud to promote.

10:01 pm  
Blogger Jim Magaw said...

I have seen hand-held signs at protests that identify the bearers of those signs as teachers, social workers, union members, dock workers, university students, etc. Are they making a statement that their witness is somehow more important than other peoples' witness? I don't think so.

Instead, by identifying oneself as a member of a particular group, you are, at least in part, challenging other members of your self-identified group (in this case, clergy) to think seriously about the issues raised by the protest and to invite them to join in solidarity with all the other groups represented, as you are doing.

Whether or not you usually wear a collar seems to me beside the point in this instance. Most of us don't usually traipse about with hand-lettered posterboard signs in our day-to-day lives, either. But it can be an effective (if somewhat crude) method for delivering a message. In this case, the collar is simply short-hand.

It's hard for me to imagine that I would be compromising my integrity in any way by donning a collar. Have we as Unitarian taken some kind of principled stand against wearing collars?

10:08 pm  
Anonymous Amy said...

I'm quite uncomfortable with the idea of wearing clerical wear ONLY for protests.

But I don't need to wear it at other times. When I'm at church, people know I'm the minister. When I'm introducing myself to someone at church who might not know it, I inform them.

Religious leaders should not need these articial crutches.

So if you alter what you wear depending on the circumstances, that is artificial? I confess I wore a really fancy dress to my wedding. Was that fake? Was it a crutch (after all, one can declare one's love wearing jeans, or even nothing at all--actually quite a good outfit in which to declare one's love *g*)? Or was it saying "Something extraordinarily important is happening here"? That's what I'm saying when I don robe and stole on Sundays. After the service, I take them off for the reasons you give: it's about the role and the special time and place.

(I talked about this at length in a sermon inaugurating my weekly use of a robe and stole: http://www.uucpa.org/sermons_05/sermon051002.html)

What are you actually saying in saying that it's more important for a Unitarian minister than a Unitarian layperson to be seen in a protest?

No. If a member of my church went to a protest I would strongly urge them to wear a UU t-shirt, or carry our banner. That's about the only way for a layperson to signal that they are there on account of their faith. (By the way, it is that, not "supporting something society doesn't expect clergy to," that drives my wish to identify myself publicly as clergy at a protest. Though you are right that that wish was intensified when I first took action on LGBT rights as a minister. That's when I bought my collar and LGBT events are the only times I've worn one.)

Whereas wearing clerical collars only for protests seems to me to be a position that values pragmatism more than integrity. We're prepared to give up our integrity on one issue because we think it might "work" in achieving another.

This only makes sense if one's integrity is being compromised. You haven't explained how wearing a collar or other culturally-understood shorthand meaning "this person is clergy" lacks integrity, so I don't see any conflict between integrity and pragmatism here.

But in a purely visual way do we need to be carrying signs that say "I'm a Minister therefore you should pay more attention to my views"? That's what you're doing in wearing clerical garb in a protest.

I disagree. What one is saying is "I want you to know that the person with these views is a minister."

When I go to Pride events I like seeing the people who signal that they are there as parents, friends, or other allies of queer people: a PFLAG shirt, a "straight but not narrow" pin, an "I love my gay dads" sign. It has never occurred to me that they are saying we should pay them more attention. They are sharing a piece of information that I for one am glad to know. It may not be necessary; neither is knowing that that person in the Occupy protest is in the 1%, or a police officer, or the mayor. But it's certainly significant.

Jesus didn't tell us to wear special clothes, but he did have something to say about hiding our light under a basket. When you're speaking up at a protest, go right ahead and tell people your other roles in life. If you're lucky enough to have a uniform that announces it, wear it.

10:33 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Interesting comments everyone. I'm enjoying the conversation.

Just to let you know if you haven't already seen it there's some interesting parallel conversations going on here:
http://beautytipsforministers.com/2011/12/17/uua-standing-on-the-side-of-augh-my-eyes/#comments

and here:
http://boyinthebands.com/archives/oh-god-no/

8:56 am  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I would never wear a clerical collar because I can't stand things to be tight round my neck. I don't like seeing Unitarian ministers wearing them. I would prefer to see ministers dressed in something relaxed and comfortable, though I like stoles, because they look liturgical, and they're pretty.

Did you know that the stole was originally worn by ancient pagan priests (and possibly also priestesses)?

2:14 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Daniel said:
"It is a declaration that we are Ministers. Whether we like it or not, the collar is a uniform that enables us to become visible to those who are used to more traditional 'vicar' garb"

Of course this conversation is ultimately about our theology of ministry, a topic I'm wrestling with at the moment.

I think my broader point is that I don't believe that I am the equivalent of a "vicar."

Unitarians (in Britain) gave up ordination. We have no theological distinction between minister and layperson. I believe our theology says we are NOT vicars. We are in fact lay people with a role as spiritual teachers.

Because sociologically we operate in a broadly similar way to "vicars" we have mistakenly thought that we are the same. But we are not. We do not have apostolic succession, we are not ordained, we are not commissioned to perform particular rites. Unitarian ministers are not vicars.

5:59 pm  
Blogger Paul Oakley said...

Thanks for the clarification about Unitarian non-ordained ministry in Britain. Despite US UU Ministers' being ordained, there are still ways that what ministers here are commissioned to and authorized to do shares some ground with you. Whichever way one goes on clergy wear, it ought to be consonant with our theology of ministry, what we intend to convey to the public, and what any particular public will, in fact, understand about the wearer of clergy wear from the fact of its being worn.

7:00 pm  

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