The first time my mother met my bishop, he was wearing his pyjamas and having a fag in the garden. I should emphasise here for my American friends that ‘having a fag’ in the UK means ‘smoking a cigarette,’ but from my mother’s reaction it could easily have been the other thing.
Mum had never met a bishop without his purple shirt, clerical collar and pectoral cross and you could tell from her sharp intake of breath as I introduced them that she was deeply unimpressed.
To be fair, she was half an hour early and he was half an hour late getting up but it wasn’t a very good start and she did say to me, “he’s not myidea of a proper bishop.”
After my ordination at which he was splendidly dressed in cope and mitre, they met again and, as she praised the ceremony, he smiled impishly at her and said, “so sad we couldn’t get a proper bishop.”
There was one of those frozen moments and then (thank God) they both laughed.
At the splendid afternoon tea after the ceremony, he told us a story of how another of his priests approached him and said people had noticed that he often didn’t even wear his dog collar in public and other clergy and even bishops who studiously did so had commented negatively about it. His response was, “they’ll get over it.”
In my church, wearing a dog collar all the time is not encouraged — mostly because being in the Independent Catholic movement, we are slightly heretical and like to do most of our work behind the scenes rather than in front. However, there are two places where we are told that it is a Very Good Idea. Firstly, in a hospital because then you can get to the person who has asked for you without worrying about visiting times or any other impediment and secondly, on a long-haul flight. If anything goes wrong on a flight then the crew and the passengers will know how to find you for prayer or help (or blame).
I don’t wear mine very often and I was actively dissuaded from wearing it when I worked as a hospice chaplain because I was told the patients wouldn’t like it. I could see the logic in that as it might seem as though I was trawling for conversions (as I’m sure some vicars do) when my work was to offer a non-denominational listening ear to those who might want to discuss things that might be troubling them. However, on the days when I did wear it, I found that those who did want to talk found it easier to do so, whatever their faith or none. I once sat for three hours with a dying Muslim boy who was grateful that I could understand at least part of his faith.
It seemed to be the doctors who disliked it the most.
I certainly didn’t wear the collar when I started doing stand-up comedy; I thought it would be disrespectful and my bishop would disapprove. I should have known better! He was the one who insisted that I start wearing it on stage because laughter is what opens people’s hearts and minds and when they are open, we can dissolve prejudices and see matters in a new light.
If you don’t wear it all the time, then when you do wear the collar, it is an enormous wake-up call. For a start, it’s never quite comfortable so you are always aware of it; it keeps you conscious; helps you remember that you are a keeper of souls. I know that may sound strange in a world where so many Catholic priests are, deservedly, in so much trouble. Perhaps if you wear it all the time it’s easier to disregard its meaning?
The meaning is a lot older than the Church. This is the Collar of Anubis.
Do I have any proof of that statement? No, I don’t. It’s part of the oral, mystical tradition; I’ve trawled all the written sources of information that I can find. But it’s what my bishop told me before ordination and what his bishop told him, and his bishop before that and so on and so on, back into time. If it isn’t true, then I think it ought to be true because its message is so clear.
The ancient Egyptians believed that when you died you travelled to an afterlife, a heavenly place where you spent eternity. But there were rules. To enter your afterlife, you had to have a light heart. To find out if you qualified, your spirit had to enter the Hall of Maat where the god Anubis weighed your heart against a feather and the god Thoth recorded the findings. If your heart was lighter than a feather, you passed the test and entered the heavens.
But, if your heart was too heavy because you had thought hurtful thoughts or behaved badly, the god Ammut, the Devourer, would appear and eat you up.
This means that the duty of the priest — the only duty — is to lighten hearts; to help the soul to rise into its own beauty, glory and peace. Each person is a unique reflection of whatever their concept of God may be. And any priest who doesn’t help them on that unique path — in whatever way they are guided to follow it — is forgetting a sacred duty. We are not here to frighten people but to inspire them.
So comedy is my ministry now. And without wishing to scare you, if you’re a comedian — atheist or believer — it’s probably your ministry too. If people can leave your presence with a lighter heart and a jaw aching from laughter, you will have done their souls more good than any sermon or lecture ever could.