Collars and Kenosis

The Red Pill Brethren talked about UU ministers wearing clerical collars.  Go look at the record of
the conversation.  

I don't have any deeper insight than these colleagues.

I have been resistant to the whole collar business.   It has always felt inauthentic to me, as though we were picking and choosing how to relate to Christianity, adopting it opportunistically.  More than once, I pronounced, as is my way sometimes, that a UU minister who wouldn't wear a clerical collar to church on Sunday shouldn't wear one on Saturday down at the Federal building.

But I recognize now that I long had a little Christ-shaped chip on my shoulder.  I saw everything through the lens of the Unitarian Universalist failure to acknowledge its relationship to Christianity. Given that perspective, I saw the collar as a misappropriation, not much different that chocolate communions.

Recently, I have been more persuaded by the logic of the collar that says it has social power which we should wield wisely.  It can add social power to protest.  It can, by upending expectations, subvert reactionary forms of Christianity.  It can make certain relationships and interactions possible which were not otherwise.  Many of the stories told by the Red Pill Brethren have this theme.

But all of that social power and symbolism is derived from the fading authority of the church.

My development away from carrying the Christ Chip on my shoulder was that I observed that the church was entering (in the global North, at least) into the tomb.  Christianity is being stripped of all social power and all authority.  As the letter to the Philippians says, "he laid no claim to equality with God, but made himself nothing".  Unitarian Universalism itself is an expression of this move toward the tomb -- a church stripping itself of the claim of providing a more direct access to God.
(Christians ought not to be afraid of the tomb; it's just a rest stop on the way to new life.)

So while it is useful, perhaps, in the short term to lay claim to the social authority of Christianity by wearing the clerical collar, it is will have diminishing returns.  Our ability to inspire others will have to come from some other source: our authenticity, our consistency, our humility, our transparency.

How would we convey what we are trying to communicate with the clerical collar if we did not wear it?


  1. Dear Tom: I agree that Christianity is "going into the tomb." And I agree that the tomb (particularly in winter, in icons, the manger looks like a tomb) is a "good" place to be. Could not the collar be a sign of commitment to anew kind of power (really an old, pre-Constantinian kind of power) born of kenosis? It is for me.

    Though, in truth, I also have a "Christ chip" on my shoulder, that, in my case, it is a "Roman Catholic chip." I was born a Roman Catholic. I remain a Christian within UU-ism. (That's a longer story, from exclusivism to beyond pluralism.) I now attend the evening school of a Roman Catholic seminary (Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, MD). I started wearing a collar to classes to remind the RC seminarians that I was a seminarian too. That was several years ago. I've gotten over that. Now, I wear it to remind myself of my commitment.

  2. My bride is a newly-minted doctor in residency at the local hospital. I am a fledgling seminarian. She often tells me she is jealous of the path I've chosen because she watches people seek out that little oasis of calm in the midst of turmoil that is the chaplain.
    People know to 'make way' for the long white coat she wears as she bustles about. The garb that the chaplain wears also has ascribed significance to people in need.

    Recently there was talk among the UU Community Ministry for the need of recognition for Lay Community Ministers in civic space. It was suggested (and I think abandoned) that we should wear 'deacon stoles,' the diagonal sashes.

    I take your point about the Jesus-shaped chip (maybe a relic of the cross) on my own shoulder. Symbols, signs and signals are important, if they are recognized.

  3. Steve Cook8:38 PM

    I've always been an "out" Christian in my twenty years as a UU minister. That has been a better fit in some ministries than in others. I've chosen to wear the collar very sparingly, only at ecumenical or UU Christian gatherings. Now, as an interim, it is easier on an already anxious system if I don't bring THAT along with all the other change I represent. I will certainly wear a collar, though, for public witness if need be and feel no hesitancy about claiming that identification and whatever (these days modest) authority it might bring.

    I also wear it for myself. Like a stole and/or robe, the collar reminds that I am responsible for what I say and do to a larger reality; to my church, to those who have worn it before me, and to the God I serve.

    In regard to stoles as symbols of authority, I would just note that choirs also wear stoles. Further, I have more than once, at denominational occasions, seen non-ordained, district staff show up wearing long scarves draped stole-like over their dark clothing. What was in their minds I cannot say. However, the collar is unmistakable.

  4. Clyde Grubbs12:42 PM

    Never owned one. I don't call myself Reverend either. I do wear a stole (and when it isn't too hot a robe) in worship but that is sort of "for the congregation. When I was young the older generation of radicals thought we should wear neckties to demonstrations. Now emails ask clergy to wear collars to demonstrations.

    I worked as very active occupier for 15 months here in Boston and my fellow occupiers knew who the clergy types were and asked us to do blessings, prayers, ceremonies, teach non violent communications, and covenant making (ways of being.) We were the church without walls and the occupiers respected the roles we played (but not as an "office.")

    Tomb? Interesting image on Christmass Eve. Manger church?

  5. I totally agree with you! Our ability to inspire others will have to come from some other source: our authenticity, our consistency, our humility, our transparency. My question is when will we stop resisting our historical roots? I don't believe the collar is the answer to ministerial authority. I do believe that stepping into our religious authority is key in transforming the world from where we are positioned.


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