One of the things that fascinates me is how very often people – and especially teenagers and young adults – want to talk to me as I walk around the parish or travel on the train because I wear a clerical (or dog-) collar.
I remember perhaps ten years ago hearing a vicar explaining why he didn’t wear a dog-collar most of the time. He had gone into a shop and joined the end of the queue to be served, and someone insisted that he should go straight to the front of the queue. If you know anything about the place queues occupy in the British psyche, you will appreciate the degree to which this is deference to someone else because of their position in the community. The vicar did not want to be treated in that way – and I totally appreciate that.
Perhaps society has changed. I very rarely get preferential treatment because I am a vicar...and on the rare occasion when it does happen, my observation is that the person in question is actually expressing something towards God. They are, in effect, saying, “I know that I don’t come visit you in your house very often, but I have not forgotten you.” I don’t think that they are trying to earn God’s favour; but to give thanks for favour they already recognise as coming from God’s hand, where ‘going to church’ is no longer an opportunity to do that, for a host of reasons. And so, while I would never demand preferential treatment, I won’t deny someone the opportunity to express gratitude towards God.
But more often, people want to talk to me, making themselves quite vulnerable: sometimes to ask me a question, in search of guidance; sometimes to make a form of confession (TARDIS-like, my confessional is surprisingly large and moves around); sometimes to ask for a blessing. Many of the people who talk to me have walked away from a Church that won’t embrace them, and yet...Perhaps for a very few my collar provokes mild and passing guilt over their absence; but what I think it actually provokes for most is a yearning for home – for a home they have been kicked out of, or for a home they have never known.
And because the Church can be a living nightmare – a dysfunctional and at times dangerous environment in the very place that should be safe and nurturing – I am grateful for those times I get to walk the dog-collar.