For Caution in the Use of Clerical Collars

King-Ho Leung has written some reflections (part 1, part 2) on his desire to attend a church whose minister wears a clerical collar. Why, he asks, do some Evangelical ministers wish to drop it, and why does he want it retained? I cannot pretend to address his personal reasons – for that is not a public matter per se – but I can, I believe, speak to the general matter, having tried to weigh its merits myself.

The clerical collar has come to be, in some parts of the Church, a particularly visible and distinctive part of the clergy’s dress. In the Church of Scotland the collar is fairly common; a former Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, on the other hand, has rejected the things. Given my strong preference for the Anglican tradition of Reformed Christianity, and even for some rather high ceremonial (e.g. the washing of the presbyter’s hands immediately before he prays for the consecration and effectual use of the Lord’s Supper), some may be surprised to know that I dislike the clerical collar used as a thing of its own, because I find it too distinctive a mark of the clergy qua clergy.


Ultimately, I think the clerical collar lawful, but the choice to use it ought to be informed by considerations more involved than the mere observation of its prevalence among Anglican and Church of Scotland ministers. Instead of indulging in ‘consumeristic evaluation and critiques of different churches’, it is instructive to consider first the clerical collar’s origin and form, and then the prudence of its use.

Origin and form

The Banner of Truth website reproduces a short but helpful synopsis on when and how Anglican ministers began to wear the collar regularly:

In 1976 the Church of England’s Enquiry Centre produced an A4 sheet concerning the use of the ‘dog collar’ among the clergy. Apparently, it had been invented, they said, quoting the Glasgow Herald of December 6, 1894, by the Rev Dr Donald McLeod. Something similar, the Roman collarino, dated, perhaps, from the 17th century. The Oxford Movement of the 19th century led to the adoption by many Anglican clergy of a clerical collar, certainly by the time of the First World War. A reaction began in the late 1960s, especially among evangelical Anglicans, who returned to lay neckwear, as had been the normal practice among clergy before the mid-19th century. This was probably due to their rejection of the Roman Catholic doctrine of priesthood. Very few evangelical clergy today wear the ‘dog collar’ except on formal occasions. There is, incidentally, no requirement in canon law for the ‘dog collar’ to be worn. A ‘middle-of-the-road’ clergyman speaking in the late 1950s said that, in wearing a white shirt and white tie, he was being a loyal and traditional Anglican.

Below I discuss at greater length the collar’s form, with some reference to its antecedents and its historic use.


The clerical collar takes the place of the cravat, an earlier piece of neckwear that in time evolved into the four-in-hand necktie worn by many men today. Most strongly associated with the likes of Mr Darcy and Ludwig van Beethoven, the cravat looks like this:

From the elegantascot Etsy shop.

From the elegantascot Etsy shop.

The cravat is also sometimes seen tied in a bow. At any rate, the resemblance between this and the clerical collar is clear, and the transition from the one to the other nearly imperceptible. To this day, some clergymen own and at times even wear the cravat; the clergy are, after all, an estate whose members tend – except when infected with the terrible tastes of the 1970s – to dress conservatively. Looking at the cravats and older neckwear of the Archbishops of Canterbury, one sees that they very often support a pair of preaching bands.

John Bird Sumner, Archbishop of Canterbury, wearing a cravat with a pair of preaching bands.

The Most Rev. John Bird Sumner with a cravat and preaching bands.

Preaching bands

Indeed, when there is an opening in the cassock (long coat) which shows the clerical collar – such as has now given rise to the lame fashion of tab collars – it serves the purpose, first and foremost, of accommodating bands. Below you may see the open collar of the cassock under the white rochet, which in turn is topped by a black chimere. See how the cassock makes way for the bands.

Charles Longley (1794–1868), Bishop of Durham (1856–60).

An early form of the bands, the fold-down collar, could be seen on Archbishop Juxon, and in a later stage on Archbishop Sancroft, approaching the appearance of bands on Archbishop Tillotson. In these earlier forms, the bands spilled over the top of the cassock, and thus were in no need of an opening in the cassock collar; eventually, when the bands were not the collar itself, but an addition to it, they were served by an opening in the cassock. This is the opening that now makes the clerical collar so distinct and visible as a patch of white in front of the neck, but it is worth remembering why this opening appeared in the first place: to let the bands fall through.

And bands, lest any American forget, are not the sole preserve of the clergy. The British profession of the wig – the law, that is – is also marked by the use of bands; likewise, male Cambridge graduands all wear bands. Bands, then, imply a formality related to the attainment of higher learning.

BBC1’s Garrow’s Law: Tales from the Old Bailey. Photograph: BBC /Twenty Twenty/Shed Media.

BBC1’s Garrow’s Law: Tales from the Old Bailey. Photograph: BBC /Twenty Twenty/Shed Media.

Incidentally clerical

In its origins, then, the clerical collar only incidentally distinguishes clerics from laymen. Mainly, it has taken the place of the cravat, and its visibility is due to the need to make room for a pair of bands.

Prudential evaluation

We return to the original question: What are we to make of the clerical collar? King-Ho wonders aloud whether his desiring a minister who wears a clerical collar is actually secular in spirit, rather than religious. In response, I wish to reframe the considerations. As both Zacharias Ursinus and Richard Hooker would have it, clerical dress should not be taken for a religious matter at all, since the Bible neither commands nor forbids it in these last days. For edification, however, for all godly and good order, it seems to me expedient that ordained ministers should wear garb that is fitting for their office, pertaining to their learning and, where relevant, their current ministrations. So in the Church of England they have worn a cassock and a gown, black for the sober dignity of their station; and so also a white surplice (as choristers also wear) when they minister in Divine Service. These garments are, above all, fitting: they highlight in black the sober learning required of those who are in holy orders, and in white the joy of the beauty of holiness.

A number of Christians, however, uphold an unreformed notion of presbyters (also called priests for short) as indelibly changed by ordination, such that they form a priesthood that, more than simply representing and presiding over the exercise of the priesthood entrusted to all Christian believers, is distinct in essence. Against this background, it seems particularly risky to wear something that by design makes a single distinction: the clergy and the laity. In contrast, the gown is essentially an academic garment, and the cassock and surplice are worn not only by clerics but also by laymen; even the black scarf of the clergy distinguishes, by its material, those who have a Master of Arts degree and those who have none. Of these four articles of clothing, none create a simple binary between the clerical and lay estates; and, unlike them, the clerical collar serves no other purpose than to make this one distinction.

Now, like King, ‘I do not want my minister to dress up like a businessman and give a powerpoint presentation with an iPad.’ For me, however, this is not an anti-secular sentiment. As life must be ordered, as its parts must be ordered one to another, one in relation to another, so ought ministers to dress like the scholars they are. It is in this persuasion that I commend the use of the cassock and gown, for scholarly dignity, and of the surplice, for distinction of Divine Service from other parts of life – not that Divine Service is a supernatural part of life, unlike the natural parts of life, but that the ordering of Divine Service should especially serve the highest natural end, namely the adoration of God. This orientation helps the Christian subject all the rest of life to the word of God, in order that adoration may be the queen of human acts, just as theology is the queen of the sciences.

NPG 1207; John Bird Sumner by George Gammon Adams The clerical collar, however – on its own, at least – exists to tell us something that should not matter to us: the bare declaration of clergy versus laity. It does not tell us of a Christian minister’s qualities, nor does it tell us of a particular duty. It expresses one thing alone: separation. Worst of all are the tab-insert collars, which serve no practical purpose at all; I hope ministers shun them.

There are plenty of those, of course, who wear the clerical collar but do not hold a sacerdotal view of holy orders or a clericalist view of the Church. It is, indeed, to these first and foremost that I have chosen to speak. It is no sin to wear the clerical collar, but it will mislead some Christians into a clericalism which militates against the classical Protestant doctrines of ordination, the visible Church, and the two kingdoms. When what is affirmed of the sacraments is that they work, rather than that the Lord’s promise is true, we shall know the clerical collar is imprudent. When it shall feel unnatural to address a clergyman as Mr Macleod, not Father Macleod or ‘Reverend Macleod’, we shall know the clerical collar is imprudent. When the Church is felt to be a separate, spiritual society ruled spiritually by the clergy, whether on bishops’ thrones or in presbyteries, we shall know the clerical collar is imprudent.

The clergyman differs from the layman in his lawful office, not in the indelible ability to confect a sacrament. Let him by all means wear the clerical collar, but let him not think his imperium to command is anything but temporal. Let him indeed have a high view of the privilege and weightiness of declaring God’s holy word, but let him also be impressed with the fallibility and infirmity of his own judgement. Let him not be pleased with the vain fripperies of clerical fashion. Let the clergyman seek in his attire to edify according to all sound doctrine, that others may learn the counsel of God. I shall not pretend to judge whether it be good to wear clerical collars with a cassock, a surplice, a hood, and a black scarf: only let all things be ordered to edification.


4 responses to “For Caution in the Use of Clerical Collars

  1. Pingback: Links 12 – 24/10/13 | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: Who Really Invented the Clerical Collar? | Colvinism

  3. Is it possible to buy a white cravat in the style a clergyman would have worn in the Victorian era? Would something like this ( be similar?

    Liked by 1 person

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