Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Clergy Collars, Barriers, and Boundaries

In response to a previous posting on my perception of shades of ambivalence among clergy colleagues concerning appropriate versus inappropriate times to wear the clerical collar, one commentator notes that "one priest I know said he doesn't wear his collar lots of the time 'because it creates a barrier.'" I, too, have heard this. And if I'm not mistaken, it may be one of the reasons why some ordained Protestant ministers never wear clerical collars.

As I continue to think about this, I wonder if there are wider implications to the sense that wearing the collar "creates a barrier" than just the laudable desire to maintain connections with the laity. In other words, does the thinking behind the rejection of wearing the clerical collar "lots of the time" play into other ways of rejecting the differences between clergy and laity? Does it play into ways of rejecting differences among clerical orders?

For instance, does the fact that only priests and bishops can celebrate the Holy Eucharist create a "barrier" with deacons and laypersons? (Is this a reason why some within Anglicanism press for lay presidency at the Eucharist?)

Does the fact that only bishops can ordain and confirm create a "barrier" with priests, deacons, and laypersons?

And for that matter, does the fact that only licensed lay ministers may serve as chalice bearers create a "barrier" with the non-licensed who may want to serve in this capacity?

Or what about the fact that, according to canon law (if not actual practice), only the baptized may receive the consecrated bread and wine of Holy Eucharist? Does that create a "barrier" with the unbaptized that should be broken down by embracing communion without baptism?

(There are many other examples of the point I'm making, so let your imagination run freely.)

To put my point into focus with a question: is it possible that we are confusing the distinction between barriers on the one hand, and boundaries on the other?

Off the top of my head, it seems to me that barriers are meant to keep some people out and others in, thus establishing a rigid "us-versus-them" dichotomy and an "either/or" mentality. Boundaries, by contrast, are about defining self in relation to others, thereby maintaining a connection in which similarities and differences are nurtured and honored. Barriers tend to be exclusionary in an absolutist and ridid way. Boundaries are inclusionary in a principled, normative, and flexible way.

I readily acknowledge that there's a serious dimension to the concern about creating "barriers." Clergy are, after all, set apart from, but not set above the laity. And that's about boundaries, not barriers. Which means that there's no sense in which clergy are "better than" laypersons. We have different callings and different roles to play in the Body of Christ. And all of us - laypersons, bishops, priests, and deacons - are indispensable to the health of the Church.

It seems to me that confusing the differences between boundaries and barriers, we risk setting aside or even destroying the uniqueness of what makes us the Episcopal Church as opposed to something else.


thomas bushnell, bsg said...

amen! the collar, of course, marks a distinction. and it is a habit of baby boomers to think that distinctions are barriers; that i can only minister to people who are like me. this "creates a barrier" talk correlates extremely well generationally in my experience.

it's also wildly false, which was part of the point of my comment, for the very person who said it also said that it makes one a magnet when traveling. a magnet, of course, for people who need a pastoral conversation of whatever sort.

i'll tell you what does create a barrier in today's church. putting the altar up as a physical barrier celebrating the celebrant from the assembly. now that's a barrier!

Bryan+ said...

Thanks again for another perceptive comment, Thomas.