Sunday night. I took off my suit and clerical shirt. No robes, cassocks, preaching tabs or anything like that for me. And definitely no cassock-alb – technically known in the congregation as ‘that white thing your predecessor wore’. A clerical shirt and collar is hard enough for me to cope with sometimes. As an Anglican friend once said of himself and me, ‘Not so much low church, more like subterranean.’ I changed into casual clothes, and thought, ‘I won’t need that suit or those shirts until 10th May now.’
It wasn’t a morbid thought along the lines of ‘Mama, please take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore’, as Bob Dylan sang at the beginning of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. Instead, it was a case that I had taken my last Sunday service before my much-anticipated sabbatical, which starts next Sunday. I shall have to put my mind into proleptic mode this week to prepare worship for 10th May. I shall also have a number of important appointments this week, not least including a Church Council and an away day for the Circuit Leadership Team. But unless a crisis occurs, the suit, clerical shirts and collars are sharing fellowship with the mothballs for the immediate future.
Realising I would now be wearing civvies for quite a while, I had another thought: ‘Great. I can be myself now.’ When I dress as a minister, I am putting myself in a rôle. That’s both bad and good.
It’s bad in this sense. If I have to put myself in rôle, like an actor putting on a costume ready for a performance, then I wonder whether something dishonest is going on here. This is not the real me, I’m not meant to be an actor portraying a different character. Ministry can only come out of who I am in Christ. Who is this guy in the clerical collar? It doesn’t look or feel like me.
But it’s also good, and the reason it’s good is like the obverse face of what I’ve just described in saying it’s bad. There are times when, to fulfil my calling, I have to play a rôle. I don’t mean that I’m pretending in the sense of trying to deceive anybody. I mean that it gets me into the rôle God has called me to take.
And that’s important for me, because – as anyone who knows me reasonably well will be aware – I frequently feel a dichotomy between who I am as a person and the fact of my calling to the ministry. I resisted the call to the ministry for ages, thinking I didn’t have it in my sensitive personality to cope with people’s deep problems. I still find that, like the majority of ministers in the historic denominations, I’m an introvert, and many congregations want an extravert. The latter is an issue I’m going to spend some of the sabbatical exploring.
I don’t like dressing differently from the rest of the church. Theologically, I have always recoiled from it. I find it undermines the priesthood of all believers and disempowers people when that doctrine and the related one of the Body of Christ calls all disciples to make a contribution, and not to honour the more obvious ones above the others. For the same reason, my stocks of calling cards have never had the word ‘Reverend’ or any abbreviation of it printed on them. They say I’m a Methodist minister, but titles give me discomfort, because it’s another dubious sign of status and superiority.
Personally, I dislike it, too. I’m just a guy who doesn’t like dressing up. Until recently, our four-year-old son Mark would always protest at having to dress up for fancy dress parties. ‘Can I wear ordinary clothes?’ he would ask. (Having said that, he’s starting to change.) But that’s me: ordinary clothes. I even resisted a suit for years. Looking smart, complete with a tie to strangle me, was something I associated with unhappy memories of school. Why repeat that? It took a long time to see I’d developed a self-esteem issue, and that scruffy appearance was an outward sign of feeling pretty scruffy inside. Feeling better about myself smartened up my appearance more than any harshly applied rules. There’s a lesson there, you know. I even began to enjoy buying suits and building a collection of striking ties. It dawned on me what I needed to do: buy shirts with collars half an inch bigger than I really needed. Then I could be both smart and comfortable. That was a winning combination I never expected after school uniform days.
But despite my theological objections and personal reservations, I still wear formal minister’s attire for formal occasions. Sometimes I admit it’s just to keep the peace. Some older, more traditional folk just wouldn’t understand my message if I didn’t wear it to take services, and especially not ones particularly associated with the ministry, such as the sacraments, weddings or funerals.
At other times, though, wearing the gear is a reminder to myself that yes, this is my calling, despite my periodic bouts of incredulity at that thought. ‘What am I doing as a minister? Should I continue? Wasn’t I right all those years ago to think I wasn’t suited?’ – these are thoughts that orbit my brain and occasionally land for a while. And that’s when I need reminders.
The reminders can come in many forms. At one especially dark time when I felt very close to jacking it all in, Debbie said to me, ‘What about all those ways in which you knew God had called you? If you quit, you’re denying all of them.’ I knew she was right. When I was exploring what the call of God on my life was, I had written down all the little hints of what it might be and the evidence why I thought God was saying that – Bible verses, striking passages from books, comments by friends, and so on.
That kind of reminder works well for me. They are like pieces of data that can be assembled to make a rational case. But visual reminders serve well, too. They work well for me because they are out of the ordinary in terms of the way my brain usually works. I like logic, theory and principles. Much as I can enjoy photography, you don’t see many photos on this blog. It tends to be words (apart from some video clips from time to time). The visual comes from outside my normal experiences of validation.
In using something that’s outside my conventional learning style, God creeps up on me. In speaking through something about which I have theological and personal qualms, God catches me unawares.
But no, I’m not planning to wear it at all during the sabbatical. Because first and foremost, before I put any sense of identity and self-worth in my calling to be a minister, I’m going to enjoy my primary calling.
And that’s the primary calling of all Christians: to be a child of God.