When I am serving in a pastoral capacity, I wear a clerical collar.
It is a white band that attaches to my black clergy shirt. In Northeast Mississippi, it is pretty distinctive in an area where, if folks “gussied up” for church, it’s by putting on a dress or a coat and tie. The collar seems to be associated more with priests in the Roman Catholic Church than with any other tradition.
I was reminded recently of that common association after I had left a Sunday service and was going into the Corinth hospital to make a pastoral visit when I encountered some folks in the entrance who seemed quite interested in my wearing apparel. Nothing was said until I was down the hall and someone in the group made a comment loud enough for me to hear suggesting they thought I was a priest.
It was not the first time I have encountered that mistake in identity, having been addressed as “Father” on several different occasions. But the incident prompted me to share a bit about this part of clergy attire.
According to reliable sources, the clerical collar originated not in the Roman Catholic Church but in the Presbyterian tradition. Apparently, the Rev. Donald McLeod, a Church of Scotland minister, first invented this distinctive part of clergy apparel in 1865. It had been common prior to that time for Reformed clergy to wear a white cravat around their neck with the shirt collar tabs pointing up.
By the middle of that century, it became a practice to fold the collar down so that the only white visible was below the throat. McLeod simply developed a detachable collar that created the same appearance. The collar was subsequently adopted by the Anglican clergy later in that century, followed by the Roman Catholic Church.
Because the latter church eventually mandated that priests wear the black shirt and collar, this attire has come to be associated with the Catholic Church, even though it was originally borrowed from Protestants. While the clerical collar is still worn by most clergy in the Church of Scotland, many American Presbyterian ministers now prefer the traditional coat and tie.
The choice of what to wear is a personal one and should be made based on what makes a minister more comfortable in his or her role. Whatever we wear though, as a wise person once admonished, Christian ministers should devoutly serve our call while we must not take ourselves too seriously.
That bit of wisdom was visited upon the collar-wearing pastor who I understand was asked by a youngster about what was around his neck. Trying to make the young fellow comfortable about asking such a question, the minister removed the collar and handed it to the child.
As the youngster examined it, the minister asked him if he knew what was printed on the inside of the collar. The child, not wanting to admit that he could not read, intoned, “Kills fleas and ticks for up to six months.”