Charles Cowling

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Posted by John Porter

Strangeways prison, Manchester 1982, pre riot. I was a student on placement and during my first week asked an officer what the red and white cards meant outside each cell. “White means CofE and red is for ‘left-footers’ – Catholic.”  Nothing for Jewish, Muslim, Sikh or any other religious flavour! I saw “HIV” on two cards! The red/white categorisation was, of course, a gross generalisation. Many said CoE because there were no other options being offered. Default religion. Not far from the truth, as the CoE remains firmly intertwined with the establishment by statute. Thankfully, the Queen, as “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England” is not yet seen as a literal stone figurehead in churches!

Relatively speaking the C of E brand is local compared to other super brands. Walking up a muddy track towards a small isolated village in eastern Perú in 1985 I saw a small red and rusty sign gently swaying in the wind. Coca Cola. I was surprised but should not have been as it was and remains prevalent. Even on the peaks of some Himalayan mountains you’ll come across an odd Coke bottle top. Litter at those heights is offensive to climbers.

Brands are not only about parting with cash, they are designed to stimulate an emotional response.

People behave differently in the presence of a dog collar

Imagine you are sitting in front of a funeral director planning the funeral of a close relative. You could be asked any of these questions:

“What kind of service would you like?” “Was he a religious man?” “Co E; okay what church would you like the service to be held?” “I know a local priest who would be just perfect, would you like him to do it?”

You may have a clear answer to these or not have a clue. You rake through your memory and remember Sunday School and how much you hated it. You said your prayers at bedtime as a kid but now, as a 53 year-old you, have little time for religion though have started to ponder about whether there is a life after death. For some reason you say “Oh the local vicar will be fine.” 

Is it the title “vicar” that persuaded him or was there something else going on in his mind? Who knows. The REAL brand power, in my view, is not the flavour of the religion, it is neither the title of the person officiating (though Rev or Fr has influence) nor church building. My money is on the garb every time and, to be specific, the dog collar, whatever the variety. Why?

In prison the dog collar meant that although you had keys you were not a screw (prison officer) so were more trustworthy. You may even have the power to forgive and forgive my crimes (sins).

In the army you automatically hold the rank of captain though are usually referred to a “Padre”.

In civilian life the dog collar is still a badge of some kind of authority, depending on what you believe.

People often behave differently when in the presence of a person wearing a dog collar. They may tone down their language and apologise for saying “Christ, that’s awful!” The same person without the dog collar sitting in a pub is unlikely to be treated the same way.

Spiritual insurance – a cheap ticket to heaven

I won’t go into the history of ordination, the call to holy orders or whatever else sets a minister with a dog collar apart, but this is the nub. Grieving people, religious or not, may view them as the “gatekeeper to paradise”. How many priests have given the last rites to a person without wearing a dog collar? Very few. “Ah, but they have studied for years and are closer to God than I am.” Well hundreds of years of church history have still not sorted out that conundrum (the priesthood of all believers etc) so I won’t attempt it!

All this may go a tiny way to explaining why people opt for a religious service. Spiritual insurance, if it’s C of E, costs just £164 as a disbursement. This is a cheap ticket to heaven compared to the professional services of a funeral director!

If the dog collar is the middle one – which suggests to me a Catholic variety – then the perceived spiritual power and authority is even greater. If the words he says during the Eucharist (holy communion) result in the bread and wine actually becoming the body and blood of Christ, then a few magic words during a funeral is surely going to buy the dead from purgatory and send them to eternity in heaven. Right?

As long as you wear the dog collar you will get work

As a funeral celebrant my competition is not the churches it’s the dog collar. If I put one on (and I was an ordained missionary in Perú), put that picture on my leaflet and presented myself to funeral directors and families I would have very different conversations.

Theologically, the dog collar is irrelevant. Practically, in 2014, it still means a huge amount to many people and very little to others. Who invests the power in the dog collar? It’s a badge of office, part of a uniform that must still be seen even when wearing full robes. The dog collar assures people. It is a sign, depending on your view and the flavour of the collar, that a church recognises that you are called, set apart to lead a flock. The church gives you authority.

What happens when you resign or do something wrong and get the sack, are de-frocked or whatever else it is called? Some wither away into obscurity, others become, yep you guessed it, a funeral celebrant! Ta-dah. Simples! Your former colleagues won’t like it. Some may write to the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury, but if you do brilliant funerals and have a pastoral heart then people will not ask questions. As long as you wear the dog collar and pretty robes on the funeral day then you will keep getting work.

Funeral directors, unless they are closely associated with a particular faith community, will not bother you. Some will pay you in cash before the funeral starts. Ker-ching! I have seen many of them. Some are dreadful. Some are amazingly good.

The dog collar brand is my real competition. I’m actually content with that.

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Richard
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Richard

David, I think your contradictions are identifiable to many. Though declining in numbers, Christians remain the majority in the UK. In the 2011 Census, Christianity was reported by almost 60% of the population. Around 25% reported to have no religion. Islam, though the second largest religious group, came way down from Christian or no religion, with just 4.8%—but growing. Former Archbishop Rowan Williams said in 2012: ‘If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian. It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. But Britain is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice… Read more »

David Holmes
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The buildings, the people, ceremony and music – Jerusalem, I vow to thee my country, Abide with me, all are comfortingly traditional at a time of great stress and uncertainty, regardless of actual faith.

I am very personally undecided about my funeral service, but in life have been fairly agnostic – despite singing in the church choir and attending several religious services each year in a non-funeral capacity! Perhaps many of us are this contradictory?

Richard
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Richard

John, thanks for this. I’m sure you’re right that many C of E funerals are booked by ‘default’, and that the clerical collar is a somehow reassuring deciding factor. However, wouldn’t people have to be pretty unschooled in religion to deem such funerals as somehow a ticket to heaven? The C of E’s enduring appeal at the time of death for those who, in life, have stayed more-or-less outside organised religion is certainly complex but perhaps less to do with your ‘ticket to heaven’ theory than other factors. As the ‘established’ church of the nation, it punches above its weight… Read more »