One of the things I am getting used to is being out and about with a dog collar on. I should say that at this point that wearing a clerical shirt and a collar doesn’t sit particularly comfortably with my theology of ordination, priesthood, and ministry – but that’s a topic for another day (and in any case is still a work in progress)!
What has been interesting though is that, in a very small way, people’s behaviour around me appears to be influenced by the fact that I am wearing a dog collar. It seems to me that people are just a little bit nicer, or more polite, or kinder. At one level this is very superficial: people don’t want to swear in front of the vicar! In that sense I suppose it’s not unlike the police? So a couple of days ago I was out driving when I noticed a police car behind me. What was my immediate reaction? To check that I was driving within the speed limit, and to try and be a “good driver”. Of course, as soon as the police car turned off, I relaxed and stopped paying quite the same degree of attention to my speed!! You see this even more clearly on motorways, when cars will zoom up at 90 – see a police car and cruise steadly by at 72, then accelerate again as soon as they’re out of sight. This is not an entirely positive thing; after all it is essentially motivated by fear, and almost certainly a localised and temporary effect. But that said, the visible police presence (or, I suppose, clerical presence) is enough to make us pause, and check how our behaviour measures up against some sort of perceived standard of what is good/acceptable/appropriate. In my rose-tinted world world, this would lead to further self-reflection and change!!! (i.e. If my driving changes when I see the police, doesn’t that say something about my normal driving?)
As I thought about this a bit more, it struck me that – localised and temporary as is it – the world is actually (in general) a slightly safer place immediately around a police-man or -woman. And in the same way, in some sense the world is a slightly kinder or nicer place immediately around someone in clericals. People do genuinely seem a little friendlier around me when I’m collared. They seem more willing to meet my eye and smile (although I accept that this cuts both ways, and when I’m out in my collar I am also more intentional about meeting people’s eyes and smiling). The really interesting thing about it all is that I am not actually doing anything. The effect is entirely down to our presence. The posh word for this is ontological – it’s about being rather than doing.
I suppose there are a couple of thoughts that follow.
Firstly, I am reminded of Jesus describing us (i.e. his followers) as the salt of the world, in Matthew 5. At the risk of doing some damage to the original context, I think that part of his point was about seasoning – salt flavours and preserves the environment in which it’s put. This is maybe why he goes on to describe salt which has lost its taste as worthless. Salt doesn’t do anything as such; rather it is just by being there that it has a positive effect on its surroundings. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus chose that particular metaphor for those who follow him?
This in turn got me thinking of how much I (and the rest of us) can – and arguably should – have this effect, whether or not we’re wearing special clothes. I love that advert that was on the telly a few years ago, of a kindness “ripple” being spread from person to person, as each one is the recipent of someone being randomly kind, which inspires them to be randomly kind to someone else, and so. It obviously wasn’t a particular effective advert, as I can’t now remember the product, but there are plenty of “kindness ripple” videos on YouTube which portray the same sort of thing. This is where the salt metaphor breaks down a little (unless we venture into the realms of alchemy!!), as salt doesn’t turn other things into salt. But as we lighten someone elses day, in some sense this lightness can be passed on in a ripple.
The challenge for me, then, is to what degree am I making the world immediately around me a little kinder, or nicer, or better, or more like the Kingdom of God through my presence and – yes – my words and my deeds too? Do I always have an open countenance, a positive presence, whether or not I’m wearing a collar, or do I go incognito when the bit of plastic comes off?
Food for thought.. Oh, and pass the salt, will you?