Sunday, January 21, 2007

In Uniform

The picture I use for this blog was taken at work. Thus, in the picture I’m in clericals. When I work in the hospital I always wear clericals. There is a story (there is always a story!).

During my time in seminary in the late ‘70’s, a priest came to the seminary community from Uganda. He was a refugee, one who had escaped with wife and family from the government of Idi Amin. In a sermon in the seminary chapel, he told this story.

A group of ladies at a parish of the Church of England had a successful fund raiser, and had several hundred pounds sterling to share. Knowing of the difficulties experienced by the Church of Uganda under the Amin regime, they wrote to a Ugandan bishop of their desire to help. “What can we send that would help you most? Would you like altar ware or linens? Prayer Books or Bibles or vestments? What would help you most?”

He answered, “Beloved ladies, sisters in Christ, bless you for your generosity. We need all those things you mention; but more than these, we need clergy shirts and collars. You see, when our people are being rounded up by the police, not knowing whether they will live to see the dawn, they want to know that their clergy are there with them.”


Since my ordination I have always worn clericals when working, reflecting on this story. That has been particularly true of my work in hospitals. The fears at the bedside are not of bullets and crocodiles; but they are real enough nonetheless. When I walk the floors, and especially in the midst of crisis, I want it clear that someone is there to reflect the love and concern of God in that trouble. Sometimes the symbol isn’t recognized. Sometimes it is recognized, but represents for those present challenge rather than comfort. I have to deal with those feelings, certainly. As I often say, if God is The Boss and my colleagues in congregations are in Sales, then I’m in Maintenance; and dealing with those feelings is also part of my ministry.

Now, am I a priest without my clericals? Of course. And I don’t wear them to sleep or to mow the lawn. But if I’m in the hospital to work, I have clericals on. There, while threats are different and the outcomes much more hopeful, the fears of death and loss remain. In the midst of those crises, I want patients, families, and staff to know that someone is with them whose purpose is to reflect the presence and compassion of God whatever may come.

3 comments:

aaronorear said...

I really enjoyed and appreciated this post. Here in Canada, and especially Toronto, clericals are often a target, permission to abuse the wearer. Still, I've always thought that, should I (God willing) be ordained, I'd wear my collar while "on duty."

Ann Marie said...

I wear clericals depending on the context. There are definitely times when I want people to be reminded that God is present in all aspects of life and my presence with my clericals on is a reminder of that. Of course, I wear them for services although there are some ecumenical services that I don't.

But on the flip side, I have found that not wearing them will help those who have some baggage regarding the church accept my presence and open up. Of course, I live in a small town and everyone knows who I am: the Anglican priest - you know, the woman with the purple hair (it's really not that vivid of purple but it is different enough for people to recognize me).

My father has been a priest for 50 years. About 30 years ago he tried to visit one of his parishoners on a psch ward in a local hospital. When she saw him, she asked him to leave. She later told him that when she saw his collar all she could see was a heavy burden of religion on his back and she couldn't face that.

I have had this discussion with a number of my friends in the priesthood and realize that I am in a minority in this area. But it appears to work for me in this particular parish.

I fought for the right to wear my cross in CPE and won. Now I don't wear my cross anymore but I do wear prayer beads (wreath of life) and all who know me know what they mean. That is my visible sign of who and what I am for I am never without them.

Marshall said...

Aaron, Ann Marie, thanks for responding.

I'm aware of those matters of context. Aaron, I'm aware that in Boston, where the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandals have been so divisive, clericals are also often a target. I'm aware of places abroad (for all three of us) where clericals are illegal outside the context of worship. Ann Marie, I also encounter those who find my clericals threatening; and I'm not always able to bridge the gap (although I can more often than not). I think, as I've said, the context of the hospital, where everyone is in crisis all the time, it's very useful; and that here in the American Midwest, at least, it plays well.

I do think it's interesting that both of you are Canadians. My experience here is that few suburban clergy wear clericals (or what I used to call "Baptist clericals:" the perennial shirt and tie and blazer) except in the context of worship. Perhaps it's something like believing bishops are of the pleni esse of the whole church, whether "episcopal" in structure or not. Those who don't use them can still point to them and say, "We have visible evidence of the continuity of the Body of Christ even to our own day, even if in our part of the Body we don't use that structure."