When was the last time that you changed your physical appearance to enter into worship? Have you removed your shoes to walk a labyrinth? Removed your hat for a moment of silence? Have you placed a covering on your head to enter a sanctuary? Each of these practices is rooted in Biblical instructions spanning from Moses to Paul. And each action contains its own unique history of evolution from what the Biblical writers intended to what we now observe as contemporary practice. More importantly to me, each practice invites us as people of God to think intentionally about how we prepare to present our physical bodies – an integral part of our whole selves – to the divine and to each other before we enter in to worship.
At Bethany Seminary I focused my master’s thesis on the third practice mentioned above, women wearing the prayer covering. My work concentrated on Church of the Brethren understandings of this practice, but I dream of connecting our tradition to how covering heads intersects with a variety of world-wide faith traditions. We can observe head covering in wedding veils, nun’s habits, Jewish Yakamas, elaborate hats for African American worshipers, and the often controversial Muslim burkah, just to name a few.
Dots of white coverings were visible throughout this year’s annual conference. On any Sunday morning you would see women in some Brethren congregations still wearing the covering for worship, and a few more women donning the covering for love feast or communion with their faith body. Some women wear the covering at all times, from the moment they rise until they are ready to sleep. In extreme cases, women have even chosen to sleep in their covering. This grows out of connecting their interpretation of Paul’s instructions to cover their heads during prayer with another instruction to pray without ceasing. Therefore, they believe that even at night in bed they are called to be in prayer, and so they never remove the covering. While many Brethren women today do not wear the covering, by far the most common reaction to the topic when I bring it up is for people of both genders and of a wide span of ages to share fond or humorous memories of a grandmother or pastor’s wife from a different generation who wore the covering.
What motivates any Brethren women to cover their heads with a thin white piece of cloth? And where did the practice originate? It’s already been mentioned that Paul instructed the practice in his often cited but difficult to interpret passage in I Corinthians where he states, “…but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head… For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” (1 Corinthians 11: 2-16, NRSV) Historically, this passage has been interpreted in ways that both inspire women to cover their own heads, or drive men and women to force others to wear coverings. Some women feel a sense of empowerment and holiness from the practice, while others feel controlled or denigrated to a position of subservience by the act. These reactions are not formed as one coherent feeling. They inter-mingle so that many women, if they consider or practice covering at all, fall somewhere on a wide spectrum of motivations and emotional responses about the practice.
Some of the most commonly cited motivations for wearing the covering in written accounts of the practice include obedience to scripture and to the leading of the community, a sense of identity, divine empowerment to offer leadership by virtue of the covering, and a feeling of reverence. By far, the most cited of all reasons for practicing covering was a feeling of reverence. This reverence intersects directly with women’s experience of worship. For many women, placing a covering on their head heightens their personal reverence to God in preparing for, and participating in, worship.
No records have been uncovered yet to trace the beginnings of Brethren covering. It seems to have been a part of Brethren dress from our very beginnings in Germany and connects most closely with an entire ensemble of plain dress. According to Annual Conference minutes, the most recent Conference decision about the practice dates back to 1925. A study committee was formed at that time to consider the practice, and the determination of that committee was that women should wear the covering. Practicing local congregational freedom, choices about size, color, duration of wear and other specifics were left up to each congregation’s conscience.
However, although the most recent official statement recommends participation in covering, fewer are participating in the action of wearing a prayer covering. The observable slacking of the practice directly correlates with a broader Brethren assimilation to prevailing surrounding culture beginning in the early twentieth century. This assimilation includes a whole host of beliefs and practices including participation in war, prohibition to alcohol, seeking and voting for public office, and the rise of cultural evangelicalism. But, even with these recognizable cultural shifts, some women still participate in covering as congregational communities or individually as part of personal devotion.
I do not want to wrap this up in a way that does not acknowledge the deep hurt and frustration felt by some Brethren women. Throughout my writing process, I was most compelled by personal stories shared about the practice. While many stories tended toward sentimental and humorous, the most heart-wrenching were those who share stories of pain, struggle and separation. For women who interpret the covering to symbolize domination by men, or for those unable to practice covering because of some external reason, it is particularly difficult to see reverence in the practice.
However, as I write this, I am looking at my own lace-lined covering sitting on my desk in front of me. It was lovingly sown by my great-grandmother for my first Love Feast after my baptism. I still generally remember to wear it for Love Feast, which is the way that tradition was passed to me from previous generations of Brethren women. And it reminds me of my deep links to those important women who have shaped my faith and Brethren identity. My own experience is one of heightened awareness of the presence of God and the support of my foremothers in my own faith formation. More profoundly, I have learned that each woman has her own unique story of covering. My deep desire for Brethren women is that each of us can examine and express our own understandings of covering with one another. And then that the practice can be embraced or rejected based on the inspiration of the spirit for each one of us living in this community we call Brethren. And maybe, at its best, a practice like covering can be a tool to remind us of how we bring our whole being into the presence of God through worship.
Monica Rice is a 2011 MA graduate of Bethany Theological Seminary. She currently serves as the Administrative Assistant for Institutional Advancement and Coordinator of Congregational Communication. She is also a member of the Brethren Journal Association Editorial Board.