The other night I accompanied our local Street Pastors on their walk around our busy town centre.  As I have yet to complete my training I was issued with a fluorescent yellow ‘observer’ jacket whilst the rest of the team wore their standard issue black donkey jackets emblazoned with ‘Street Pastors’ on the back.

As I entered the High Street on alert for vulnerable night clubbers and street sleepers and with uncertainty as to how we would be greeted I was amazed at how warmly the team was received.  Enthusiastic hand-shakes from door staff, welcomes from on-duty constables, bubbly banter with party-goers and shouts of ‘Allo Pastors’ from across the street.  The simple adornment of the ‘uniform’ immediately signaled us out as approachable and caring people and I felt humbled yet proud that we were so authentically identified.

Whilst also greeted warmly by those bedding down in doorways it was interesting however to note the subtle hiding of beer cans and spliffs and the obligatory apologies that accompanied regrettably released swear words.  Was this courteous respect or  uncomfortable deference to perceived authority?

I compare this to the experience of my friend Bruce, a recently ordained baptist minister in the UK, who whilst on retreat in Rome went for a walk through the city streets.  Although not a small guy Bruce was rudely bumped and knocked into as he walked along the pavements, blending into the mass of busy people.  As he navigated a road which he describes as having six lanes of traffic crammed into three, he struggled to find a gap to sprint across.

The following day he tells me that he was told to get changed out of his polo shirt and shorts and put on a black shirt, suit and clerical collar. He was then sent back out onto the streets of Rome. He tells me “Within three hundred yards of where I was staying I’d been invited to be in a photo with a family and to bless them. People parted on the street to let me pass with a nod of the head and a greeting of ‘padre’. It was a bit like a scene in Bruce Almighty!”

He then ended up back on the lethal road from the day before.  Seizing the opportunity of a gap he prepared to sprint, but, to his amazement the traffic immediately began to stop to let him pass. He comments “There were no horns honking, just every vehicle, van and vespa stopped to let me cross. I must admit that when I got to the other side I  wanted to chance it by moon-walking back across the road!”

The clerical collar – a sign of approachability, a symbol of respectability that might inspire an opportunity to serve?  Or a separation of them and us, a statement of authority, or ‘spiritual charge’* that inspires deference and inaccessibility?  Or, in a British post-Christendom context so contrasting to Rome, is the clerical collar seen here more as a joke, making wearers a target of mockery and shallow, patronising engagement?

As a non-dog-collar wearing baptist minister my experience of adorning the Street Pastor  ‘uniform’ was intriguing.  I felt glad to be able to readily engage with people who received us so warmly.  I doubt someone wearing a dog-collar would be received quite so well, in part because they would look like they were going to a fancy-dress party!  Yet I also felt concerned that people still felt that certain aspects of their lives need to be hidden from these ‘Christians’.

A quick search on the internet reveals that one reason behind the invention of clerical collars might have been to mark the clergy out from the rest of society in a classic sacred-secular division.  This is the route of my personal discomfort with them.  However if the invention of the dog-collar was motivated more by a desire to be recognised as an approachable, caring pastor who is there in the crises of peoples lives, then I wonder if in a decreasingly Christian context the donkey jacket uniform of the Street Pastors is leading the way in modeling a new approach to accessible pastoral care?

* BBC News article What Does a Dog Collar Represent, reporting the occasion the Archbishop of York cut up his collar in protest against Robert Mugabe in December 2007