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No Dog Collars Allowed:
A Justification of the Western Clergy Collar
Most Reverend Father Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.

Semiotics and the Dog Collar

As a long-practicing American Buddhist, I have realized the importance of being earnestly Western, and specifically, American. Too many Buddhists here are trying desperately to turn into some other race or nationality; it is beyond me why a born and bred Texan, for example, would want to convert to Soto or Rinzai Zen Buddhism just to turn into a Japanese.

This is nothing to do with racism, mind you- I once wanted to be Chinese and I also went through a phase during which I desperately longed to be a full-blooded Eskimo. That is neither here nor there. The point is that religions adapt to their cultural environments.

Buddhism, as an example, saw its monks scrambling for clothes when they first reached China. It had less to do with weather than with appearances: the Chinese would have no truck with raggedy mendicants. Indian Buddhists, accustomed to one thin robe and an even thinner outer cloak, found themselves swathed in Chinese yi, those lovely proto-kimonos. They had to put the old, thin Buddhist robes on top of the nice Chinese robes.

The modern Western clergy collar, sometimes wrongly called a "Roman" collar, is the example of the millennium. In surfing the web trying to find clergy apparel dealers, I ran across the most asinine debates about the propriety of, and necessity for, the clergy collar. The essays and comments ranged from the desperately pro to the rabidly con.

A clergy-collared shirt is an integral part of my daily dress. This is because in the West, a priest or minister is recognized by this particular detail of his "uniform". I was not the first to introduce Western clergy apparel to Buddhism in the West; that credit goes to Reverend Master Jiyu Kennett, Abbess and Founder of the Soto Zen Order of Buddhist Contemplatives in Mt. Shasta, California. Reverend Kennett saw the need to Westernize Buddhism in that particular way in order to ease it comfortably into American life.

My clergy dress on a daily basis always includes a clergy collar. I may or may not wear robes over my Western clothes, depending on the situation, and thus I will never be confused with a Christian. It is only meet that Buddhism should adjust to America as it has adjusted to the cultures everywhere else it has been. My Western collar is part of that natural evolution.

The controversial collar originated as a Mandarin collar on the black cassock worn by Catholic priests after the Rennaissance. The priests found their black collars becoming soiled, and covered them with a simple, folded band of linen which could then be removed and laundered. By the time they adopted the practice, everyone else had opted for long, frilly linens and lace at the throat. Thus was born the white "dog collar", and hence the term "man of the cloth".

The outer cassocks which were adopted later had a larger Mandarin collar with an opening at the front- this fit nicely over the linen-banded collar. It created the classic collar we know today: that rigid black circlet with a small square of white at the front. Today, cleverly and comfortably designed clergy shirts are available in a rainbow of colors and styles.

My favorite shirt is called a tab-collar, called a "tunnel-neck" by the British. It has a beautifully tailored standing collar with a small opening at the front. A strip of white plastic is inserted into the opening, and presto!- instant clergy. A few old school folks like myself sometimes also wear the old "parson's" white neckband collar.
It seems the disturbance is truly caused by the way others perceive the collar. I have read ridiculous apologetics written by clerics, and vitriolic criticisms about the abuses of collar-wearers. The problem is simple: if one is a minister, rabbi or priest, does it matter very much what strangers think? If someone sees me in a hospital and assumes I am somehow "abusing my privileges" because I'm wearing a collar, is that my problem, or theirs?
The symbolism of the collar or the message it conveys to others is not the point of wearing the collar, and never has been. Some hot-heads believe the collar's outer message/symbol is all-important, but is not. The whole point of the clergy collar consists of an inner message and symbol: that it cause discomfort, both physical and spiritual. In such a collar, any priest will tell you, one is reminded of the example one must set. (One has no choice but to guard one's behavior while strapped into one of these collars.)

Even at their most comfortable, they are uncomfortable. They are unbearably hot – even in the dead of winter- and are often soaked and grimy at the end of the day. No wonder so many spiritually lazy people want to toss them out the window. I say go ahead, if you want to surrender the least part of a faith worth defending. But, if you cannot be trusted there, how far can you be trusted? Einstein once wrote that a person not to be trusted in small matters can never be trusted in great ones.

It sounds contradictory and cheap, but yes: looking the part of clergy is inherent and implicit to any ministry, albeit the least important aspect. My heartiest agreement is with those who say it is ridiculous to tee off, garden, mow the lawn or dig a hole while wearing a clergy collar. My recommendation to such a collar-crazy person would be to check into the nearest "rest home".

Yet the collar is the sole identifier ministers have left- unless they belong to a religion that employs another habit of dress. Not so long ago, Catholics howled when priests first appeared in the clergy collar and black suit. "PROTESTANTISM!!" they shouted. Not long after, the pope ordered that all priests wear the "Roman" collar at all times while out of doors. Today, Catholic designs in clergy shirts are the standard, with the exception of the exquisite Anglican shirts- but even these descend from the modern Catholic designs.

Of course even a minister or priest must enjoy personal time, and no clergy collars are allowed then. One may relax alone or in company; casual dress can be excused. One may even find oneself in an emergency pastoral situation and not be appropriately dressed. (During the cold months, I keep a spare shirt in my car at all times.) At all other times it is the minister's duty to keep on his collar, if his religion employs the use of it for its ministers. When I was a boy, even seminarians and theology students wore "clerical" collars to distinguish themselves from other students.

I am one of those priests who loves wearing a clergy collar. It is my karma, a part of my service and duty to the universe in my vocation as a humble servant. There is no way I can imagine anyone abusing the ministerial office using the collar itself for the purpose. Americans are not that easily cowed.

Americans are generally a respectful people. They see a clergy collar - true, sometimes they can't see past it - but they respect it. It is one of the little blessings that helps ease the burdens associated with the collar itself. As with all blessings, it cannot be ignored or refused; it should be accepted humbly and gratefully.

I took note of the argument that wearing a collar elicits hoots, laughter, hateful stares and other ridiculous scenarios. Certainly I have experienced my share of this. If a person can't take that sort of childishness in his stride, why be in the ministry at all? If it's mocked or despised, isn't the collar its own best defense? After all, such rude people don't really know the person wearing the collar. Thus they are like dogs chasing automobiles.
Now, if the reader doesn't mind, I shall slip out of my little blessing and into a t-shirt for some puttering around the yard.
© Rev Antiono
Hernandez September 2003

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