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Prayer and Phophesy Well-covered

Elizabeth Brooke-Carr


Elizabeth Brooke-Carr takes a whimsical look at today's hat-couture,  or lack of it,  and St Paul's admonition to women of faith   -  to cover their heads in Church.  She salutes brave and enterprising women who have defied centuries of tradition, culture and prejudice to pray and prophesy in the contemporary world


What would St Paul have thought? The stunning collection of head coverings for women shown at a mid-winter, high tea celebration in Dunedin’s Savoyearlier this year would have rendered him speechless, perhaps. The special hat-couture occasion was smaller in scale but equal in colour and pageantry to the recent opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. Graceful young models wound their way around the tables carrying themselves and their sensational headgear with medal-winning aplomb. There were elegant, wide-brimmed creations of red silk and ostrich feathers, jade green shantung, fuchsia pink satin, blue chiffon, gold grosgrain, cream straw, and navy felt. There were stylish toques, turbans, pillboxes, berets and busbys. All created for the well turned-out women of earlier decades when they ‘went out’. And for many, their most regular outings were to church on Sunday.

It is likely that worshippers sitting in any but the front pew of their local church in the early decades of last century would have had great difficulty catching a glimpse of the preacher during the service. And it’s entirely possible that the preacher might not have known who was present until he shook hands with them at the door on their way out – so wide and high and lavishly trimmed were the ladies’ hats.

St Paul claimed that every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head and his moral indictment ensured that every modest, unassuming (and perhaps fearful) woman kept her head down and well covered. Of course this provided huge scope for distraction among fellow worshippers – even when the sermons were lively. Imagine if you will, sitting behind a glorious, gold, grosgrain concoction, its crown swathed in tulle, broad brim bedecked with seductively trembling pink roses while the preacher exhorted you to examine your sins. Or maybe your thoughts strayed to the sapphire blue shantung creation, set at a jaunty angle, shivering with spotted net and peacock feathers that brushed your face every time its wearer moved. There was truly great potential for ruined concentration.

At secular gatherings it was a different story. In some theatres in New Zealand lady patrons were requested to remove their hats when the lights went out. Some town councils went further, passing by-laws to ban the use of long hatpins on public transport, leaving ladies defenceless to retain their large hats, their style and sometimes their decorum in the public arena. A subtle shift from moral indictment to legal restriction had taken place.

St Paul’s was a powerful voice. And fashion a sly tyrant. In the following decades women’s head covering changed shape. Out with large brims and hatpins. In with head hugging, flowerpot styles that ensured a woman’s hair and most of her visage were still well covered. But she was less dangerous. In church, every woman who prayed or prophesied could still do so without fear of dishonour. Preachers had a better view. Members of a congregation were able to avoid being overshadowed or stabbed or becoming tangled in or distracted by the feathers and frippery of fellow worshippers.

Over time hats gradually became smaller and smaller until demand for them ceased almost entirely. It wasn’t long before hats were kept for special occasions such as weddings, funerals and similar social events. Brave and bold women began to appear in church with their faces shining and their crowning glory uncovered. They let down their hair and held up their heads. Women prayed and prophesied as before. Heads and honour stayed intact. And the Church didn’t collapse.

But it was on the hat block. The full brimmed confidence of male leadership was being re-shaped. Hatless women were acceptable – so long as they stayed in the pews. It was a different matter altogether when they tried to move into the pulpit. Discrimination against these hatless, hapless women was often more offensive than any wound their old hatpins might have accidentally inflicted on their subjugators.

Nevertheless, brave and bold women went on to ruffle feathers and claim their place in the pulpit. Ordained as worthy preachers and wise prophets and leaders in the Church, they turned their attention to liturgical details. But the trimmings, the little accessories, the embroidering of an ‘Our Father’ at the beginning of the Church’s most well used prayer, and the firm stitching of masculine images, words and concepts have remained so much harder to unpick and reshape. There are fears that it might ruin the fabric. So, outmoded tradition lurks like rusty pins in its lining, ready to give an unexpected jab – a reminder of women’s real status in the Church. Old forms and redundancy remain tucked into the pleats and swathes of worship, distracting veils of argument and debate surround issues of inclusiveness, obscuring clear vision. Women feel it intensely, because for centuries they have carried the weight of ecclesiastical fashion in all its guises. It’s a miracle that there are women still prepared to grace the Church with prayer and prophesy. Hats off to them, I say.





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