I’m one month into a year-long job/internship/”field ed” experience at a church here in NYC. It’s great—I’m helping lead services and preaching and calling up newcomers and planning for a women’s Bible study and helping with Sunday school. You’ll probably hear more about all this, even if it’s me running up against a deadline and giving you a sermon instead of a proper blog post (I would never…). What I want to write about today, though, is one little aspect of my new placement, something that has very little—and everything—to do with what I’m actually doing.
If you know me, or have been following things I’ve written on this blog, you know that I am a seminarian and an Episcopalian. You may also know, generally speaking, that Anglican clergy wear collars/clericals.
Well, at my field site, I wear a collar. It’s a “seminarian collar”—it has a black stripe (a “racing stripe,” according to my husband) to show I’m not all the way there yet. I understand the reasoning behind my wearing it—marking me as a member of the pastoral staff/clergy—and I’m perfectly happy to comply.
It’s a uniform that I wear to do my job. But it’s a uniform with baggage. People know that collar = priest. Seeing a twenty-something woman in a collar is something of an anomaly.
If I wear it on the street to and from work, I get noticed. Usually just in a neutral way: people do a double take, or their glance lingers. The thing is, I’m pretty nondescript most of the time—medium height, medium build, brown hair, no loud clothing or accessories. I still have to deal with the odd catcall, but generally I slip by unnoticed.
If others are aware of me, certainly I am also aware of myself. Even in anonymous mode, I have an inner struggle with how to deal with panhandlers. I could write out all my internal arguments for doing one thing or another, but the bottom line is that my usual M.O. is to walk quickly by without a second glance. When I’m wearing a collar, though, my inner dialogue goes haywire.
These experiences could belong to any newly-ordained collar-wearer, but I have another layer: I’m not ordained. I am and am not clergy. I am inhabiting, in a very physical way, a role that I’m still growing into. It is very much a liminal space—so, as a result, I expect to grow from it.
Now, let me be clear: I’m pro-collar. After months of sitting with my masters-thesis material dealing with women’s ordination in the Episcopal church, I believe there’s a lot of rhetorical power in women wearing clericals, power that may lead to ordained women being more widely accepted and embraced.
I’m also pro-clarity, though, and most people—even the people to whom I’m ministering—can’t interpret my collar. They don’t entirely understand the difference between my role and the role of a deacon and the role of a priest. When someone calls me “reverend,” I struggle with how to make the correction, or even how worthwhile it is to do so.
My husband has many suggestions for places I should wear my collar (brunch, family gatherings, The Cure in concert, etc.). I ignore his suggestions, unless I’m running late straight from church, and even then it’s easy enough to detach the collar and just look like I’m wearing a polyester dickie with a weird neckline.
I wonder sometimes, though, about how quick I am to snap off the collar as I leave church grounds. Yeah, it’s my uniform, and I’ve left work. But it’s a uniform with baggage—baggage that I’m living into, leaning into. The fact that I am cautious about the propriety of wearing the collar is healthy, as is my acknowledgement of its import. Perhaps, though, I need to balance caution with boldness, to embrace this transitory time and wear my transitional collar with pride.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.