Sunday, May 17, 2015

Female Head Covering in the Orthodox Church & the Role of Women in the Christian East: My Personal Perspective

    Greetings in our Risen Lord!  Christ is Risen!  It is the almost the end of the Paschal season in the year 2015, and I have not written an article for my blog in a long time.  The past year has been very busy, and the pace did not slacken with the coming of 2015.  I have been very busy.
     As Pascha draws to a close, however, I have been reflecting on the prayers and pious customs of my faith.  I thought that I would share one particular custom that is often misunderstood in our day and age: the practice of a Christian woman covering her head in the Orthodox Christian tradition.  The Orthodox Christian approach to the practice of women covering their heads is quite different from that of other traditions, such as Amish and Mennonite.  Many people in today's modern world think of covering the head as a sign of female subjugation, but in the Orthodox Church it is the opposite: the head covering is a sign of female authority and honour.  First, I will briefly explain the Orthodox reasons for female head-coverings in church.  Then, I will share with you my own journey on how I became a woman who not only covers her head in church, but all the time.  I will also share my own perspective about how I cover my head, and why I don't cover all of my hair like some full-time head-coverers do.  I will present the facts in a question and answer format.

     Question 1:  Why do Orthodox Christian women cover their heads in church? 

     First, I will tell you what our head-covering custom is not.  It is NOT a sign of submission to men, or a symbol of submission to our husbands.  From what I've read about Amish and Mennonite traditions, I understand that submission to the husband is very much a part of their head-covering tradition.  I cannot emphasize enough that this is not the case in Orthodox Christianity, and I find myself getting piqued when people outside of the Church make assumptions that because I cover my head, I am an oppressed  victim of sexism with no rights and second-class status.  No, no, and again, no!

    Woman in the Orthodox Church has an exalted status, because it was through a woman that Christ chose to become incarnate of the Father.  Jesus could have come into the world any way He wanted.  He could have appeared in a flash of lightning.  He could have descended in bodily form from heaven to earth.  He could have simply appeared in a ball of light and fire right in the middle of Jerusalem, on a white horse with rich robes and apparel to show Himself as King and Messiah.  However, He did not choose that way at all.  Instead, He chose to be born of a woman, and to endure all the challenges, pains, and other great difficulties of the human experience.  He chose to be born incarnate as God and man simultaneously, so that He could raise up our human nature to the Divine.  To this end, He chose a Jewish maiden, the Most Holy Virgin Mary, to be the one who bore Him in her womb.  She bore the Creator of all, the Word, the Logos from the beginning of time, in her humble human womb.  A lot of people in various Christian confessions do not fully consider just how immense it is that the Lord our God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, was incarnate in the womb of a human woman.

     She also chose of her own free will to do this.  With the severe penalties that were imposed upon young women who bore children outside of wedlock in the ancient Jewish Middle East, she could have become afraid and refused when the Archangel Gabriel announced to her that she would bear the Messiah.  Then, the Gospel passage of the Annunciation would have been about a woman who didn't have enough faith in God to do as He commanded, and we would have a story similar to that of the prophet Jonah, only it would be about a young maiden instead.

     Yet, even though she could have been stoned to death, her answer to the Archangel Gabriel was "yes."  She said in response to his message, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word."   This "yes" on her part was huge, because in saying "yes," she showed supreme obedience to God and a model of faith in Him.   She showed us what we all are capable of if we trust God, and she presented an example of the path of faith for all Christian women in ages to come.

      So, because God came into the world incarnate of a woman, a woman therefore wears "a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels"   (I Corinthians 11:10).  There is a lot of discussion about what is meant by the phrase "because of the angels."   There is also a lot of hymnography in the Orthodox Church about how amazed the angels were at the Incarnation of Christ.   I do not know the reason that the angels like for a woman to have a head-covering on, and I won't know until the point when I pass into the next world and maybe get to actually ask an angel about it.  However, the fact that the Scripture affirms the angels' preference for head-coverings is enough for me.  Also, when I cover my head, I am honouring the Most Holy Theotokos, the Virgin Mary who bore Christ our God in her womb, for her obedience to the Father, her faith and her courage.  I am not only honouring her, but also imitating her, for she wore a head covering all the days of her life.  I consider such imitation to be a good idea spiritually.  The authority referred to in the phrase "symbol of authority on her head" is the authority inherent in belonging to the gender through which Christ came into the world incarnate, and hence to special spiritual authority I have as a Christian woman.

     The Christian man has authority also, but his authority manifests itself in a different function from mine.  My authority is not lesser than his, but it is different because God made us in His image, male and female.  If our ways of being in authority were meant to be exactly the same, God would not have created the difference in gender at all.  Remember that God can do anything He wants.  He could have easily created Adam to reproduce via some sort of mitosis, or He could have created Adam as an androgynous being.  But He didn't!  He divided humanity by gender, and made it so that the two must become one in order to make things complete.  "Different" does not mean "subject" or "inferior."   Orthodox female head-covering is a celebration of the difference between the female and male, and the fact that God has made us all distinct in His wisdom and love.  In terms of submission, the only submission it symbolizes is submission to God and the direction He gives us through Holy Scripture.   

     Question 2: What is the nature of the woman's authority in the Orthodox Church? 

     What spiritual authority do I have as a woman?  There is a lot of discussion in the Orthodox Church about the role of women.   But the best statement I ever heard was by a friend of mine, a Matushka (priest's wife), who was giving a presentation about the charisms of women in the Church:  the role of woman is like that of the Theotokos.  Just as the Theotokos gave birth to Christ in the flesh, so we as women are called upon to give birth to Christ in the hearts of others.  Thus, our authority in the Church is that of teaching, modeling the faith for others, and helping others grow in their Christian faith in whatever way we might be called to do so, whether it's teaching Sunday School, writing articles for blogs and newspapers, opening and running Orthodox schools, or directing the choir.

     There are many people today who think that the fact that Orthodox women aren't in the priesthood means that we are in a subjugated status.   But this is really a non-issue for most of us as Orthodox women, because you see, the Eastern view of the priesthood is not the same as that in the West.  In the West, as the papacy gained more and more power and the ecclesiology of the Church in the West became more monarchical and less conciliar, the priesthood became almost a type of small monarchy in and of itself.  The priesthood became more and more connected with the idea of earthly power instead of the simple act of service and apostleship it had been in the early Church.   As a result, the priesthood became equated with having a position of authority and power in the Church.

     However, the Orthodox Church has always held that the liturgical functions in the Church are not to be seen as roles of power in the Church.  Rather, being a priest is being a servant, as Christ instructs us all to be.  In Matthew 23: 11-15, Jesus instructs us: "11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." 
    Why do I include Christ's condemnation of the Pharisees in this article?  I do so because what the Pharisees were doing was exactly the kind of spiritual authority Christ did not want the Apostles to imitate.  The Pharisees and Saducees were all about power and being publicly exalted and honoured.  Because they were so caught up in their earthly authority and honour, they were no longer acting as servants of God, performing spiritual and corporal works of mercy.  In fact, they were marginalizing the poor and wretched, and giving the Jewish faithful impossible spiritual standards to follow.  They became arbiters of rules and regulations instead of loving servants of God.

     Christ's further instructions to the Apostles about spiritual authority in the Church are as follows, in Luke 22: 25-27:
25 "And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth."

     It is very clear that the priesthood should not be, and in the West should never have been, a king-like position of authority and power.  But it became that.  For that reason, the egalitarian and synergetic relationship between the male and female roles, which existed in the early Church, became lost to the Western Church by the advent of the Medieval period.  The anti-female way of thinking, the "all women are bad because of Eve" idea, became prevalent in the West and even started to infect the East as well at the beginning of the early Middle Ages.  The famous hymnographer St. Kassiani actually corrected the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire on the point that woman was not solely responsible for the fall of man, and that it was through woman--the Theotokos--that salvation came into the world, because she willingly bore Christ.  Overall, however, the original synergistic relationship between male and female roles preserved in the Early Church stayed intact in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  It is still there to this day.  If you don't believe me, go attend a few services in the Orthodox Church and hang around for coffee hour afterwards.

     The liturgical function of the male priest in the Church goes back to Judaism and service in the Temple.  The men serve in the Orthodox Temple as priests, deacons and subdeacons.  I also serve in the Temple, as a singer.  Male readers are considered to be tonsured.  However, so is the position of singer and choir director, both for males and females. Our roles as women--choir directors, chanters, teachers, mothers, matushki, diakonissas--are no less important or unequal to the men's liturgical roles.  In fact, we are the female side of that, if you will.  

     I will use a visual analogy to explain.  Think of it like a Celtic Cross.  Imagine that the Celtic Cross represents a cruciform shape of a church.  The Cross bar on the Celtic Cross represents the iconostasis, behind which the liturgical functions of the Church are performed by the men.  But guess what, folks: there's a circle in the middle of the Celtic cross, going around from below that cross bar to around the top of it.  That circle represents the synergistic work of man and woman in the Church:  we form one circle, and that circle is the work of the Resurrection and the Holy Spirit.   There are men in the part of the circle that goes behind the inconostas, and then women are in the other part of the circle that's in front of the iconostas.  Our roles are of equal value, authority and dignity.  This is what the West cannot seem to grasp.  Different doesn't mean lesser.  Notice also that I didn't use the word "separate," so don't start thinking that I'm trying to peddle the "separate but equal" nonsense.  "Separate but equal" doesn't apply in the Orthodox Church either, because men and women are not separate.  We work together in harmony and synergy, just as do the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.  We are distinct as male and female persons, but one in human essence.  The Holy Trinity is three distinct Persons, and yet one in Divine essence.  Through Jesus Christ, we can participate in the love and salvific Grace of the Trinity and become partakers of the Divine nature (2 Peter: 1-4).

    So, why aren't women ordained as priests? Well, we don't need to be.  We already have our own valuable and important functions in the Church.  But, some people may persist to ask, doesn't that still make us less powerful and in a place of subjugation?  Aren't our roles still less than those of men?  Aren't the priests in power, and we're not?  No, because the priesthood is not about power in the Orthodox Church.  Orthodox priests aren't even materially well off. Many priests can't live on their church salaries, and often they hold other jobs during the week.  Often, the priest's wife works a job outside the home.  At Orthodox Church councils, the word of laypeople, both men and women, is both listened to and considered.  Laypeople can overturn the decision of a Church council, if that council makes a decision contrary to the teachings of the Church.  This happened in 1439 in Constantinople, when the laypeople of the Church heard the decisions from the Council of Florence that had been made by the Emperor and the bishops. The decision was contrary to the theology and ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, and the people of Constantinople would have none of it.  

     My point?  Priests aren't all-powerful, not even bishops.  Are they respected for being representatives of Christ?  Yes.  Are they regarded as leaders who can help and influence their flock?  Yes.  But women are equally respected, and women are, for the most part, treated with great respect by Orthodox clergy. In fact, priests and deacons generally have always treated me as their equal.  Those that don't are generally suffering from issues of pride or egotism, or they have a personality problem that affects everyone around them. Eventually, they get corrected by their bishop, they retire, or in worst case scenarios, they get booted out.

     The work of man and woman in the Church is not represented as a vertical line segment, with men on the top point and women on the bottom point.  Rather, it is represented by a circle, like the circle of the Celtic Cross that I mentioned earlier.  Circles have no beginning or end, and in a circle, all is equal.  It also happens to be eternal.  Ponder that.

     Question 3:  When and how does a woman cover her head?  My personal perspective

     I should take this moment to point out that wearing a head covering is not compulsory in the Orthodox Church.  It's a choice.  It's a spiritual custom, a tradition from the Apostolic period.  There are actually Orthodox women who don't choose to cover their heads, and the Church is okay with that.  However, wearing a head covering is encouraged for the reasons I discussed earlier, the reasons laid out in Scripture about the symbol of authority on our heads because of the angels, and the celebration of the Theotokos and our special place as women in the Church.

       St. Paul points out that the head-covering should be worn when a woman prays.  At the same time, we are instructed in Holy Scripture to pray without ceasing.  So, if I cover my head when I pray, and then I pray without ceasing, logically I would wear the head-covering without ceasing.  However, this doesn't work for all women, and most Orthodox women only wear the head-covering during church. How the woman covers her head in the Orthodox Church varies according to the individual, and what she may feel spiritually called to do or not do.

      I'm going to share with you my perspective: what I do with the head covering and why.

      When I was growing up in the Protestant denominations, I actually longed for sacramental and liturgical services.  I had that type of soul.  I also longed for concrete ways to express my faith.  I always wanted to wear something special to outwardly express the inward practice of my faith.  I've always been a person who likes to show on the outside the important things about myself that are inside.  I like to share that with other people, perhaps because I'm an artist (composer, poet, writer).  Along that same vein, I've also always been artsy and dramatic in my dress.  That's just me.  So, when I entered the Orthodox Church and found out about wearing head-coverings, I was elated.

     I always liked things on my head as a little girl:  hats, ribbons, Juliet caps, flower garlands, hennins, and crowns.  It's part of that whole Princess thing that little girls do.  And now, because I was Orthodox Christian, I would get to wear something pretty on my head at church--like a Princess!  My inner little girl was thrilled.  Best of all, it could be any colour or pattern I wanted!  It could be lacy, silky, red, blue, pink, white, gold, flowered, or multi-coloured!   I could match it with my clothes and earrings.  I could fulfill my natural female inclination to be a weaver and fashioner of beauty, and all in the name of devotion to Christ and ceaseless prayer.  I mean, like, wow!  As a major part of my Christian practice and devotion, I would have the undisputed opportunity to be. . .a girl!

     So, I was happy to celebrate my gender difference by covering my head.  I was also happy to honour the Theotokos through imitating her in wearing a head covering, because even from my Protestant youth I had always loved her.  When I got home from Methodist church every Sunday, as a twelve-year-old girl, I would sing the Ave Maria because I felt that leaving it out of the church service just somehow wasn't right.  Then, later in the Orthodox Church, I would enjoy the fact that every Sunday, a hymn to the Theotokos is sung at a major point in the service.

     However, I did have some struggles about how to cover my head at first, because there were women in the congregation of my early Orthodox experience who believed that they should cover their heads entirely, covering up all hair, even their bangs.  Being older women, they decided that what they did was also what I needed to do.  Trying to satisfy them was not a wise thing for me to do, nor was it salvific.  For one thing, covering up my bangs or trying to tuck them into the scarf was terribly uncomfortable.  The bangs were too thick, I'd start sweating on my forehead (totally forbidden for a Southern belle to do in public!), and the bobby pins holding back my bangs would get all tangled in them.  I would spend more time fiddling with the darn bobby pins than praying with attention in the service.  So, regardless of the strong opinions of some Slavic women around me, I opted not to cover my entire hair.  Then, my sweet Subdeacon of a husband rightly pointed out that only nuns cover all their hair, and married women are not called upon to do that.  He also said that covering up my hair entirely was not pleasing to him aesthetically, and as he considered me to be his very beautiful wife of whom he was proud, oughtn't he to have some say in this?  So, he showed me a way to wear a kerchief that allowed me to still show my hair, and also I didn't have to tie the kerchief under my chin, which I can't do because I have a strong gag reflex.  I can't have anything against my throat without gagging, which is also why I don't wear turtleneck sweaters.  So, I started wearing my kerchiefs always tied in the back instead of the front.

     As my head covering practice evolved, I eventually added in other ways of doing it, like wearing veils and mantillas.  I had always wanted to wear mantillas, so this worked out for me just fine.  So now, I have cut and styled my hair so that the kerchief or mantilla can blend with my hairstyle in a way that frames my face.  I wear different types of head-coverings according to liturgical season and mood.  I wear kerchiefs, long scarves, and lace mantillas.  During Pascha, I wear white ones. On Pentecost, I wear a green one.  At Christmas, I wear white or red head coverings.  On feasts of the Theotokos, I always wear a blue one.  I unite what I do in head covering with the liturgical mind of the Church.

     As I started covering my head in church when I prayed, I started to feel naked without it when I would pray at home.  Then, I started trying to pray all the time, offering up my very acts of daily labour as acts of prayer.  It started to make more sense to me if I covered my head all the time, since I prayed all the time, and Holy Scripture did specify that I should cover my head when I pray.  Also, my husband is of Montenegrin heritage.  In that culture, wearing a head covering all the time shows that I'm married.  It also shows that I'm the wife of an Orthodox clergyman.  In some Balkan and Slavic cultures, only wives of deacons or priests cover their heads all the time.  In the Montenegrin and Serbian tradition, subdeacons' wives do it too.  Last but not least, I discovered that the women of Ireland, in the place where my ancestors came from (County Fermanagh), had long been in the habit of wearing kerchiefs on their heads when out and about in town.  They always wore a kerchief or a hat.  It seemed to me that I had not only a spiritual reason to cover my head all the time, but also a cultural precedent.

      In Orthodoxy, whenever one of the faithful takes on a type of asceticism, he/she asks the blessing of his/her father confessor.  I asked the blessing of my father confessor to be a woman who covered my head at all times, and he gave me that blessing.

      What did covering my head all the time do for me spiritually?   A lot!  For one thing, I stopped being so vain and picky about my hair during church.  If I had a kerchief or mantilla on instead of hair barrettes, I wouldn't be fiddling with the barrette all the time or worrying that the hair I had in those barettes had gotten out of place.  The other big thing that happened was that I actually started praying more, and the times when I didn't pray--like times when I was watching my favourite TV show--also slowly became times when I invited God's presence.  However, I must tell you that if you start inviting God's presence when you're watching TV, you're very liable to find out that He doesn't like what you're watching, and there will be times when He makes it clear in your heart that He wants you to turn the thing off!

     Covering my head also helped me fight against and overcome some really bad habits I had picked up before becoming an Orthodox Christian:  using bad language, gossiping, complaining and having road rage.  For many years, as a musician, I worked playing gigs.  During that time, I encountered lots of people in the music business who made four-letter words such a regular part of their vocabulary that they didn't even think about it during casual conversation.  Being around those people regularly caused me to fall into the habit of talking like them.  By the time I was chrismated in the Orthodox Church, I had gotten a lot better about my language, but I still hadn't kicked the habit totally,  especially when I lost my temper.  But when I started wearing the head covering, I got way better, because having the scarf on my head acted like a WWJD bracelet.  Soon, those curse words ceased to be a feature of my regular vocabulary.  I didn't want to talk that way in front of God, and the head covering made me more conscious of being ever in His presence even though I couldn't see Him.

     Gossiping was a habit I picked up when I was first in the Church, because of the unfavourable influence of some people around me at the time.  From my youth up until my late thirties, I was fairly easily influenced by older women. (Now I'm forty-five years old, and formidable). In my mid-thirties, I went through a period where I found myself increasingly influenced by some negative talk by older women at church events and trapeza.  Wearing the head covering all the time was like having a string around my finger, reminding me not to behave that way.  I eventually gained the wisdom to stop hanging out with negative, gossipy people of any age, old or young.  But even now, if I catch myself getting into a complaining cycle when talking with my brothers and sisters in Christ at trapeza, the head covering reminds me that I need to shut up and get on the right path before speaking again.

     The road rage was connected with my aforementioned temper.  I still struggle with it.  However, wearing the head covering helps me remember Whom I serve as well as Who I'm imitating.  Can I imitate Christ if I'm screaming at the person who cut me off in traffic?  Of course not.  Would the most holy Theotokos slam her brakes on, cut in front of the pokey person in front of her out of impatience, zoom forward, and risk other people's lives on the road?  I don't think so.  Having the head covering on helps me remember to pray for the people driving around me, and strive to regard them as sons and daughters precious to the Lord, instead of annoying people who are in my way.

                                                                Some Closing Thoughts
     In conclusion, I cannot tell any Orthodox Christian woman what she should do, whether or not she should cover her head, or how she should do it.   I can only say that it certainly has worked well for me.  I must also add that the decision whether or not to cover all the time is one that needs to be carefully weighed and considered.   Covering one's head all the time is an act that entails considerable sacrifice, because when you do it, you will no longer fit into the mold.  You will be different, and people will sometimes stare at you in public.  Some people will be quite gauche, and may ask you what the heck you're doing and why.  You will be treated differently at work, and it may be hard for you to find an employer who will let you wear your head-covering.  In a professional situation, you want to be sure that your covering is solid-coloured and very conservative in shape and type of cloth.  I advise that you never wear a bandana for a head covering at work, and that when you wear a head-covering, don't cover up all your hair because that isn't acceptable in American culture by and large.  Wear tailored clothes when you have your head-covering on at work, and avoid combining your head covering with artsy skirts or blouses.  In short, cover your head as non-conspiciously as possible.  If people notice your head covering, but at the same time it's not too obtrusive, then they will start seeing it as being no more extraordinary than a pair of glasses.

     When people ask you about it, you want to answer honestly but succinctly.  You don't want to go into a lot of detail. The truth is that most people who don't know you really don't want details from you.  They just want assurance that you're not some sort of weirdo, or that you're a possibility for social affiliation.   "Why do you wear that scarf on your head?" is usually a translation for, "You are okay, aren't you?  You're not in a cult, I hope?".  Sometimes people are genuinely interested in what you're doing, but most of the time it's about establishing their own boundaries and preserving their comfort zones.

     I hope that this article has been helpful for Orthodox women who like to cover their heads, food for thought for those women who are staunchly opposed to head-coverings, and useful information for anyone who has ever walked into an Orthodox church and thought, "What's with the scarves?".

      I personally dedicate this article to all the kids I've taught in school over the years who have asked me,  "Mrs. Bronzich, what's that thing on your head?"

      Christ is Risen!  Signing off now.

                                                                                 ---Gabrielle Bronzich

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