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The Clergy & the Police – a Uniform

June 4, 2009

police_uniform_fleeceI don’t believe it is fully appreciated what a change ordination makes to a young man of 24, as I was in 1967 when I was ordained. Of course I had been taught that at ordination I would not just be given a job, but would be sealed into a new character, a new mode of being. As a Catholic, I believed that ordination was a sacrament that was permanent, and that set one apart for God’s work in a very special way. 

But it was not this high doctrine of the priesthood that hit me after my ordination, at least not directly. One day I saw a young policeman, no more than 20 perhaps, at the scene of a bad car crash. There were dozens of people around, some of them no doubt much more experienced in medicine or crowd control or whatever. But every eye in the group was on this young man in uniform who calmly phoned for an ambulance, made an injured girl comfortable, and began asking for witnesses to the accident. It was the uniform that did it – as well as a good training.

In the same way, a newly ordained priest or deacon, from the moment he appears in a black suit and a clerical collar, is treated differently by all around. I’ve heard it said that the collar constitutes a barrier between the priest and the laity, but I have always found it the complete opposite. At first, I was astonished to be greeted in the street by complete strangers wherever I went. People would come up to me and ask me to pray for a relative who was ill, or for themselves. “Going through a rough patch” or “Just lost my job” or “I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer”. The uniform was hiding my greenness and my uncertainty about my abilities, and I was learning, like the young policemen, to grow up very quickly. I had led a pretty sheltered life, and for almost the first time I was confronted with the real “trials and tribulations of this mortal life”.

About fifteen years later I became Convenor of Lothian and Borders Joint Police Board, which in American terms is the Police Commissioner for the South of Scotland (I think!). In a later blog I may explain how I came to be a politician, but at the moment the point is that I had the opportunity to try an experiment based on what I had observed as a young priest.

I had noticed that when I talked with the young policemen (or women) in the Lothian and Borders Force, they often assumed that the clergy  were a wet, liberal bunch, who added to society’s problems by taking the criminals’ side. And conversely, when I talked with the young men who were at Edinburgh Theological College training for the priesthood,  I found that they often looked on the police as sadistic thugs, slightly to the right of Genghis Khan!

So I approached the Chief Constable and the Principal of the Theological College, and suggested that we put together a joint course for the two groups, the one training to be priests, the other training to be police.

I’m not sure either of them was very enthusiastic about this, but as long as I would run it and organize it, they were willing to give it a go. The course lasted, I think, eight weeks, and got off to a great start when I had a welcoming party for the twenty or so who had volunteered for it.  At first it was a bit like a shotgun wedding, with the two groups eyeing each other suspiciously. But after a few beers and a very short word from me, things improved considerably.

All I did was to tell of several incidents, such as the accident when everyone looked to the young policemen to do something, or another incident when I told how (though I was 25 0r 26 at the time) I was asked to talk to a man who was threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. Both examples showed how our uniforms identified our callings and brought great responsibilities. The youngsters were highly amused when I told them that I had been successful in getting the would-be suicide to come off the bridge by telling him that I had just been ordained, and if he jumped, the Bishop would fire me!  

That broke the ice, and the group never looked back. Friendships that were made across the lines have endured to this day, and I am sure that it broke down many prejudices and stereotypes.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being Police Convenor was that I had the duty of presenting medals to members of the force who had   been commended for acts of bravery. As the citations were read out I was conscious of the many perils a policeman faces. Some were getting their medals for rushing into burning buildings and rescuing children; others had dived into the docks at Leith (the port of Edinburgh) and pulled people out.

I presented a certificate of bravery to one muscular young constable who had rescued someone from the water for the third time, and as I was handing it over, one of the senior officers on the platform was heard to remark: “I think he pushes them in first”, which brought the house down.

I had to make a short speech at all these occasions and, of course, found it impossible to find something new every time (shades of a Christmas Eve sermon!) so I usually fell back on some version of pointing out how most of those who were receiving the awards were slightly embarrassed to be doing so. They did not think of themselves as extraordinary people or particularly brave. I always reassured them that they probably were not, but that in almost  everyone there is a reserve of strength which can be called upon in extreme situations. Their job brought it out more than in many jobs, but I thought most people had it in them.

And the interesting thing is that I could have made the same speech to a newly ordained bunch of priests.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. The Rt. Rev. Peter Robinson permalink
    June 4, 2009 3:12 pm

    I have noticed much the same thing about clergy and police. Also, I wonder what your Edinburgh Theological College chaps would have thought of a bishop married to a retired detective. Cue wicked grin! You are also right on the money about the clerical collar being a conversation starter in many cases.

  2. David O'Rourke permalink
    June 5, 2009 8:30 am

    Who is the young priest, Father? You at an early age?

  3. June 5, 2009 12:26 pm

    Not me! I googled “young priest’s picture” and “young policeman’s picture” and these are what came up, among others.

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