A lot more years ago than I want to think about, my then-High Priest and I embarked on a little experiment. We had been talking about Witchcraft as the mastery of manipulating symbols, and how vulnerable people without training in symbolic thinking were to having their symbols used against them. So for an entire summer we wore clerical garb in public, except of course at work. It was illuminating. And hysterical.
We walked into the Catholic supply store in Seattle and bought him a royal blue shirt with the proper white “dog collar,” which is actually just a plastic tab thingy that inserts into the collar. Did you know they don’t make any effort to keep laypeople from buying clerical garb? We didn’t, but we walked out with the shirt. One for me was not as easy, so I bought a conservative blue wool suit and a lighter-blue shirt at Goodwill, sewed the collar down and inserted a home-made white “dog collar” piece cut from a cottage cheese carton’s lid, using his as a template. You’d think someone would have noticed the whole thing was fake, but in our first confirmation we were onto something, nobody ever did.
We discovered that Christians see clerical garb and immediately go blind to all else. Neighbors who’d never before given either of us the time of day smiled at us on the street. My HP had been wearing a crystal Hagalaz pendant for a year or so with no comment from anyone. When he wore it over his clerical shirt, a neighbor complimented him on his ‘beautiful and unique cross.’ When I wore my clerical garb on the Greyhound bus to visit my then-fiancé, not only did I have a whole row of seats to myself but the only time anyone spoke to me, they commented on the crystal I wore on a chain and asked in deferential tones what order I belonged to. I highly recommend wearing a clerical collar when traveling, by the way; you’ll arrive unmolested, having received first-rate service en route.
One time we were traveling via the Washington State Ferry to a Pagan festival, and my HP decided he needed to “retoxify,” as he called having a cigarette. Smoking was allowed only on the top deck, so he headed up the stairs. I’m allergic to cigarettes, so I stayed on the lower deck. About 20 minutes later, he came back laughing. It seems he’d lit up as he was reaching the top of the stairs. And every smoker on that top deck, despite his standing there with a lit cigarette in his hand, immediately looked guilty and hid their cigarette behind them! All they saw was the collar, and childhood conditioning took over.
During our experiment summer, a Fundamentalist church launched a “prayer offensive” against a Gay rally in a city park. There had been a series of raids and arrests there of Gay men engaging in consensual sex in the restrooms at night, and the community rightly considered it harassment. This church had declared that the reason there was so much “ungodly” activity in the park was that it was a “hell mouth.” Somebody had been watching too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The bus from the church soon arrived – from out of town – and a few adult men herded a bunch of scared-looking teenagers into the fray while they hung back in the woods. Loud praying and sobbing and attempts at exorcism ensued. Rich kids straight out of the suburbs walked up to Gay men and tough-looking Lesbians whom they believed to be possessed by devils, and tried to talk them into repenting and coming to Jesus. You gotta give them credit for guts.
Many of us in the Pagan community were there to support our Gay friends, and my HP and I wore our clerical duds. We were given the stink-eye until some people recognized us, asked us what was going on, and accepted our explanation about the experiment. This one little blonde girl sat on the edge of the stage, praying loudly and sobbing harder and harder, until I was quite concerned for her. So I walked up and asked “Sweetie, are you OK?” Now, over my clerical shirt I’m wearing a pentagram about 3” across. I don’t see how she could have missed it. But she started, looked at me with completely dry eyes, said “I’m fine, Reverend,” and went back to her performance.My HP was gay and single. He placed a personal ad in the Seattle Gay News in which he stated he was a Wiccan HP looking for a like-minded friend and… And when he got answers – he didn’t get many – he showed up for their first date wearing his priest duds. You’d be amazed how many Gay men are afraid to so much as touch a man who looks like a priest! It puzzled him and made him more a bit angry, as he knew damn well priests cruised gay bars; they just didn’t wear their collars while they did it.
But by far the most interesting was the day we took my mother to lunch. We’d told her in advance what we were doing, and she, too, was curious what would happen. The three of us walked into a steak house without a reservation. The greeter took one look at us, his professional smile mutated into something positively obsequious, and he instantly whisked us to this luxurious booth far from doors, bus stations, or other annoyances. In hushed tones he promised someone would be with us right away, and “right away” was longer than it took. Instantly there was water, a basket of warm rolls, butter, and a deferential waiter at our table. Practically bowing and scraping, he recommended special dishes and drinks that weren’t on the menu. He took our orders as if we’d entrusted him with the Holy Grail, was back within 90 seconds (so it seemed) with our drinks, and back again in a remarkably short time with some of the finest steaks we’d ever eaten. Water and bread were refilled before we even noticed we were running low, and every word addressed to us by anyone was in low, respectful tones as if we were visiting royalty. By the time we left, escorted to the door by the greeter guy who gushed about what a pleasure it was to serve us, we were feeling more than a little guilty!
We wound up losing enthusiasm for our project. It was just too easy to manipulate these poor, superstitious people with nothing more than a piece of white plastic at our shirt collars. And, it was more than a little humbling, despite being funny as hell at the time. While we hadn’t hurt anyone while confirming our theory, we’d derived a lot of unkind hilarity from being able to activate people’s childhood programming on a whim. It was also a warning about how easy it can be, by donning the symbols of superior status, to start feeling superior.
But, it was still a worthwhile experiment. If nothing else, it taught us how easily corrupted the person is who holds that kind of power. I can’t speak for my former HP, but for me it solidified my opposition to paid Pagan clergy, and gave me more compassion for people who retain that exaggerated deference for authority figures their whole lives. I’d actually recommend Pagan clergy try the experiment and see for themselves the power of the programming the average Christian is saddled with. If it doesn’t give you pause, there’s something wrong.