(Although, heaven knows, that's where Father A.'s expertise really lies.)
Our dear friend Gillian, with whom we studied theology ages ago but who has only just recently been ordained to the diaconate, doubtless en route to the priesthood, asks about collars. Where, when and how often does one wear them these days? A good question, and one that shouldn't lie stuck in the "comments" section.
Audrey's answer is straightforward: "When you are at work, wear your collar. When you are not, do not." She says that this has served her well, but adds (and do we detect a rueful tone?), "This means I wear it a lot."
That advice serves extremely well, depending on one's definition of "work." Alone at the typewriter on a Saturday night? We're working, but probably in sweats.
Our own answer is a bit more nuanced. The principle of a distinctive dress for the clergy is medieval, although of course everybody wore distinctive dress in those days. (And damn all those modern lawyers who want to look like bankers! Put your wigs on, people!) But unlike, say, the cassock, the modern strip-of-cloth-or-plastic clerical collar is a fairly recent innovation, dating only to the 19th century. Unlike, say, the alb, it is clearly not a sacred vestment, but a piece of street attire. (And yes, all this depends upon a sharp distinction between sacred and profane which may not stand up to rigorous theological analysis. But it's how these things are organized, so go with it.) So the customs are new and the rules, such as they are, are flexible.
Some people don't wear them at all. And not just Baptists. Our late and cherished grandfather wore collars (made by Brooks Brothers!) in his youth, but quickly abandoned them. His argument was that the collar created an emotional distance between the clergy and those they were called to serve. He considered this a bad thing; experience has made us think it can sometimes be a very useful one indeed. A little distance can prevent a lot of misunderstanding.
More to the point, it can be very useful indeed to be recognized at glance. After 9/11, our bishop urged pastors in New York to wear their collars, saying, "People need to see you." He was preaching to the choir, since we were a multitude already clad in black.
Still, there was a time when Father A. thought he might himself go collarless, out of deference to the old man. Then came CPE, during which all student-chaplains were required to wear "professional dress," which our director defined as "jacket and tie, or clerical collar." Father A., then known formally as Impoverished Seminarian A., owned only a single blue blazer, which was locked in a trunk, stored in a dormitory basement, in another state. The math was simple: three black shirts were cheaper than one new jacket.
The turning point came when he was dining alone in the hospital cafeteria, enjoying a flattened ham-and-cheese sandwich on a stale kaiser bun along with an underripe banana.
"Pardon me. Are you one of the chaplains?" The woman standing across the table had a frantic look in her eyes. And no wonder. Her younger brother was in the emergency room. He was a thirty-something man who for some years had been struggling with a chronic disease, and it looked as though he was going to lose the struggle shortly. For most of his life, he had been estranged from his family and from the Church, but lying on his gurney waiting to be admitted, he had wept on his sister's shoulder and whispered that he wanted to see a chaplain.
So I went. And did the things you do in that situation. It was a privilege. And it would not have happened had I been wearing a necktie and nametag, because the sister would never have spotted me across the room.
Since then, Father A. has been passionate in his affection for the clerical collar. As our favorite OT prof once remarked, "It opens more doors than it closes." So we wear it whenever we think that it may serve to open a door to pastoral conversation. That means always when visiting, always when traveling to and from church events, and usually at the office. This, at least, is our rule when playing on familiar turf.
Because location does play a big part in this. In New York and its environs, clerical collars are very common, and send a clear cultural message. Here in Romania, they are quite rare, and we now wear ours only in the churchiest situations. It felt strange for a while, but we have adjusted. No, that's a lie: it still feels strange. And, because we have capitulated to local custom, who knows how many doors have remained shut?