23/08/2017 09:57 BST | Updated 23/08/2017 09:57 BST

The Rainbow Clerical Shirt


The adventure of the rainbow clerical shirt began with a child's painting displayed in the window of John Lewis in Exeter. I was walking past and my eye caught a six-year-old's picture that appeared to be of a vicar in a multi-coloured, vertically striped shirt. "What a great idea," I thought. And then, "But I bet no one's making them."

The next logical assumption would have been, "make one yourself" but I'm about as handy with a needle as a haystack. But the idea wouldn't leave me, so it was off to the Internet.

Clerical wear is a bit of a moot point for women. When I started in ministry a decade ago any female clerical clothing was pretty rare and expensive and even now, apart from the obligatory pink, it is generally a bit on the utilitarian side here in the UK. You can get exquisite and costly cassocks and robes that are available online from the USA -- and pay the same again to get them through customs -- but clergy pay isn't generally conducive to such extravagance in the name of vanity.

Is it vanity to want to look good as a vicar? The clerical shirt is a uniform and, as such, it doesn't go very well with any other kind of clothing. It was designed for men and only ever intended to be covered with a cassock, a sweater or a jacket. I've seen clergywomen in fluffy wraps and frilled cardigans and it really doesn't work with the shirt but you've got to give them credit for trying to feminize it.

It took three days of looking and looking and changing the search words in Google before I found what appears to be the one supplier in the world who is making a multi-coloured clerical shirt. And she's in the UK!

And, of course, her stripes were horizontal ones so I rejected it immediately!

Now that was vanity.

And it was £85 which was too expensive...

That was parsimonious.

In the end, the question at the back of my mind was simply, "How much do you want it?" and I kept on returning to the Collared Clergy site even if only to look at its other stunning and dramatic designs for women priests.

I didn't really understand why it was that I did want the rainbow shirt. For a start, I'm not gay. Okay, I was going to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe and it would be a potential publicity stunt to wear it but I only had three performances booked over a three-day visit so it was hardly likely I was about to make a big splash. And I was due to leave for the Fringe in just over a week's time while the shirts were bespoke and took up to eight weeks to deliver...

But the gentle voice in my head that I know that I shouldn't ignore, kept reminding me and reminding me and seven days before leaving for Edinburgh, I went back to the Collared Clergy website. There was one -- just one -- extra large rainbow clerical shirt both available now and on sale.

I'm not an extra large; I'm quite small ... but there is a wonderful seamstress four miles away in Okehampton so I was out of excuses.

This time last week, I arrived at the Edinburgh Fringe in my rainbow clerical shirt. Did I make a splash? No. Did it bring me to the attention of any reviewers? No. Did it enhance my comedy? Probably not!

What it did do was warm the hearts of the LGBTQ community on the streets of the city and I was stopped, slightly hesitantly, again and again by folk saying, "Excuse me, are you really a vicar?" and when I said, "yes, I am" eyes shone, mouths curved, tears fell and hearts opened as folk who have felt outsiders in the faith of their family and their upbringing saw that they were acknowledged, loved and accepted.

Conversations followed, prayers were shared, tears shed and hugs exchanged.

I had no idea just how much this shirt would mean to the LGBTQ community . It was never for me; it was for the folk who would have been despised and rejected by the religious right in Jesus' day just as they are today.

Jesus himself only ever condemned those who put the law above love and who looked down on others they saw as different or inferior.

Never in a thousand years would I compare myself with Jesus of Nazareth but I do believe that I felt, in Edinburgh, something similar to the joy he must have felt when people came up to him in the hope of receiving love and healing. It's incredibly humbling that it's not my books, my teaching or my work that have inspired ... just the simple decision to choose one particular item of clothing was enough to make people cry with joy.

Finally, here is a picture of Jenny and me, taken on my last night in Edinburgh. Can you see her delight? What a gift to be able to be a part of that.