Coverings and Bonnets, Part Three: Church of the Brethren and Quaker Stories
Back in 1966, both Charlene and I wore prayer coverings to Warwick High School. Here’s a picture from our senior yearbook showing both of us in relation to our classmates — enjoying the fun, but from a distance. Charlene is sitting closest to the windows. I am holding a paper.
Charlene was then, and still is, a member of the Church of the Brethren, Northeast Atlantic District. Today, she still wears her hair up under a prayer covering. She was most helpful to me in locating other friends from our growing up years, Judy, and Carol, both of whom are mentioned in Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World
When asked why she wears a covering, Charlene cited many of the same reasons mentioned by Kathy and of the Old Order Mennonites. She begins with the biblical command in I Corinthians 11. Then she focuses on the opportunity to be a witness:
“I was in a direct sales business for 29 years and there were a few times my veiling intimidated some people, but the majority of times it increased their faith in me. Christian women, especially, were happy to discuss their faith and relationship with the Lord with me.”
“I don’t think I worry much about showing uniformity with others, and most often I don’t have a meek and quiet spirit. I don’t wear a “plain” dress. I go to a regular store and purchase clothing that I like. . . . modest clothing compared to what many others wear. . . . That’s a separate decision from the head covering.”
Some of Charlene’s friends have abandoned the covering. Others never wore it. Charlene doesn’t judge either group:
I have always liked being with people and enjoyed meeting new people. Most of them just accepted me as I am and I wanted to do the same with them . . . . The prayer covering does NOT save any of us and I would never presume that it does. . . . I really dislike hearing someone say ‘My church makes us wear them.’ Without a personal conviction to wear a head veiling I really don’t see that it can be any kind of a witness to anyone.”
When you meet Charlene, you can tell that she is very comfortable in her own skin, with her own choices, and with faith and family that show not only her beliefs but her very identity:
“My prayer covering has been an important part of my life for over 50 years.”
You may remember Eileen. She’s the young poet whose book on silence I featured in a previous post.
Eileen, like Kathy Wenger, was in the audience when the book launch for BLUSH was held at Lititz Mennonite Church, Lititz, Pennsylvania.
I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and part of the Conservative branch of Friends. I attend Keystone Friends Meeting.
My reasons for wearing a covering of some kind are rather complicated. I started to wear something on my head in 2005, not because of Biblical reasons, but rather because I felt led by God to wear some kind of covering. My wearing it is a reminder of my submission to God, not of submission to men.
Of course, wearing it does remind me to be aware of the example I set for others, and it does remind me to think about God. My role is to be obedient to God. Certainly, my headgear does open conversations about faith in the larger culture–but I wear it out of a sense of leading.
I think another reason I wear it is cultural. Other women around me wear a covering, and so I feel, yes, some sense of wanting a consistent witness with other women, but it also feels culturally comfortable for me to do this. [Note: Some Muslim women cover their heads for cultural reasons, and not for religious ones, as well.]
Another reason is purely personal. My hair is important to me, and I feel like I need to protect it somehow. It’s private.
One time someone asked me about why I wear a covering and simple clothes, and I explained that my reasons were rather intellectual, feminist, and individualistic, so perhaps I didn’t do it for the right reasons. She said, “Yes, but when you’re in a setting that is intellectual, feminist, and individualist [I was in grad school at the time], what stands out about you is your simplicity.”So in the end, her comment brought me back to articulating my hope to live in such a way that keeps me focused and responsive to God’s presence and desire. Modesty and simplicity help with this.
Friends (Quakers) have always allowed women to speak during meeting, and I don’t think the book of discipline for my yearly meeting says anything about a head covering at all. I can’t even recall it being much of an issue in historical documents I have read. I think Quaker women in the past may have covered their heads out of modesty, perhaps, but also out of a desire to be separated from the world (and certain kinds of dress were encouraged by the meeting/congregation).
But women who preached during meeting still had to be submitted to God–to speak only what God would want–just the same as the men speaking during meeting. My meeting and yearly meeting do not see head coverings or plain/simple dress as a requirement; the current position is that it is a personal choice, between an individual and God. (This was not always the case, historically.)
I believe Friends would reject the God-man-woman hierarchy, for the most part, and would not cite 1 Corinthians 11 as a reason to wear a head covering. In the end, at least with the Friends I’ve been in contact with more recently, it comes down to the individual woman and God.
I know this is not the classically Anabaptist way of thinking of things. Fortunately, I belong to a congregation and denomination that allows this kind of individual understanding, and, on good days, understands that obedience will not look the same for everyone.
Finally, I wear a head covering because I feel a sense of leading to. I don’t believe every woman will feel led to, and that’s okay. I respect women who choose to cover their heads and/or wear plain or simple clothes, and I respect women who don’t. What is important for me is being faithful to what I feel God calling me to. I am someone who feels called to writing as public ministry–that is to say, I feel called to write and publish poems and other writing and even speak sometimes–and somehow being reminded, through a head covering, of who I belong to and whose authority I am under frees me to write and speak. I often feel bolder and more confident, somehow.
Some years ago, while studying in Germany in a very international setting I met an Egyptian woman who wore a head covering. We talked about our beliefs and her reasons for wearing a head covering were very similar to yours, Eileen. I had so much respect for her because of her convictions and because she had the courage to publicly wear them, knowing she could be subject to ridicule.
I agree, Elfrieda. Having worn a prayer covering myself for six formative years, I have a real affinity for women who wear any form of veiling. I know that there is no one-size-fits-all answer for why they do it. And I know that daring to be different builds character. Thanks for your willingness to reach out and connect to someone different. I’m sure the woman you talked to felt your respect.
Elfrieda, I had Muslim friends and teachers in college. Their reasons for wearing head coverings have definitely influenced my own.
One of the things I appreciate about each of the women who’ve shared their story in this series is that the decision to wear, or not to wear, a head covering is their own. They have not been “made” to do, or refrain from doing so. It’s a personal conviction for both points of view.
Another thing I appreciate about each of the women, regardless of their personal perspective, is that they are non-judgmental of women whose opinion differs from their own.
Exactly, Laurie. In these days of “Mommy Wars” and arguments over whether to “Lean In” or “Lean Out,” it’s refreshing to hear stories that don’t attempt to tell others what to do but do clearly explain the ground upon which individual women stand. Even when yoked to communities, people are people. And women are individuals.
As always, you read with insight. Thanks for the comment.
I am also struck with all the various reasons why women wear a covering. I think it’s important for everyone to keep in mind that these are all valid reasons. Obviously some of the reasons resonate with each of us more than others, depending on where our own faith journey has led us.
Charlene said, “Without a personal conviction to wear a head veiling I really don’t see that it can be any kind of a witness to anyone.” There are several things in this statement that strike me. Perhaps she is acknowledging that not everyone wears a covering for that purpose, because that is an important point. But I would also say that some women do manage to witness to others when they are wearing a covering, even though they might not have a personal conviction to wear it. I have a Conservative Mennonite cousin who says that she would not personally choose to wear a covering, except that her community requires it. But she has also said that because of the covering she wears, she has been able to witness to others she wouldn’t have otherwise. It was the covering that opened the conversation.
Shirley, this is been a great discussion about coverings. Thank you for provoking our thoughts.
Yes, we all travel “the lonesome journey” by ourselves and no one else can walk it for us. And yet sometimes, someone (or a community) guides us down a path we don’t choose. Later, we find ways to claim goodness from the path anyway. That’s real spiritual strength, in my opinion. Thanks for the comment. Hope others reading this click on your name to discover your own blog and the book Bonnet Strings, which sheds more light on this fascinating subject.
Shirley, seeing the photo of you and Charlene in high school and reading the commentary from women who have worn head coverings reminds me that we had two female students from Kalona, Iowa in our 1960-1961 senior year of high school class who wore head coverings. Both wore conservative dresses. At our 40th anniversary reunion in 2001 one was still wearing a head covering and one was not.
In 2011, I was surprised to learn from another female student from Kalona – that I regarded as one of the most liberal members of our class – (we also had students in our graduating class from Wellman and West Chester) was a first cousin of them and that it was one of them who had persuaded her to attend our reunion for the first time in 50 years.
We can never judge just from appearances, can we, Barbara? And in small towns, it’s best to assume that everyone you meet is potentially related in some way to everyone else.
When I was a college president and attended multiple class reunions on the same day, it was easy to see that the fiftieth reunion pulled people back “home” in ways no other one did. Glad you could reconnect with covered and uncovered members of the class. Thanks for the story.
I haven’t been to Iowa in years. I think it might be a good place to put on my book tour. Thanks for the reminder.
Charlene’s and Eileen’s stories have at least two things in common. First of all, both have strong convictions they are able to articulate well. Also, they illustrate with specific detail how faith and everyday life can intersect–sometimes in ordinary conversation in day-to-day living, other times through poetry.
You are amassing important documentation about the prayer veiling, then and now. I always learn something on your blog posts, Shirley. Thank you!
Thanks, Marian. You observe accurately and compassionately. I love your keen eye and open heart. These are some of the most important traits of the creative person. Glad you learn from me, because I certainly learn from you and your curious mind. Your blog posts are both humorous and well researched. Keep ’em comin’ in both Plain and Fancy.
Not certain if males are allowed to comment here, but I’ll try. I also wear a “head covering” much of the time — hat or cap. However when a public prayer is given or if I enter a church worship service, I find the strong urge to remove my covering. If I am in mixed company, I find that practically all of the men will remove their hats/caps during prayer or in a church worship service (even if their spouses don’t cover their heads). (Devote Jewish men of course put on their prayer caps.) So it is interesting to explore this gender-based practice. Many Menno women no longer cover their heads in practice; but I think I’m right most (if not practically all) Menno men will uncover their heads in worship or prayer. Why?
Of course men are welcome to comment, Roman. How interesting. Men are taught to remove their hats indoors by custom in society in general. And when they don’t, (as in the case of the baseball-capped undergraduate slouched in the back seat of a classroom), they often send a message of disrespect. During ceremonial services, even academic ones, men are told to remove their hats during a prayer. My guess is that this practice is probably traceable to I Corinthians 11 if you go back far enough in the history of the university. But that’s just a guess. Here’s confirmation of the protocol: http://correctoncampus.com/?mainID=5&subID=7&type=default
And on the other hand, my significant other keeps his hat on during worship. Quaker tradition has men remove their hats when they stand to give ministry but keep their hats on when others are ministering. Similarly, women would remove their bonnet (but keep the cap) when ministering.
It has been a bit culture-shock-ish for my Catholic family that he keeps his hat on when we go with them to Catholic Mass or a wedding.
Charlene and Eileen have made head coverings ‘their own,’ so to speak, and I respect them and appreciate their thoughtfulness.
I will keep my covering in the back of my drawer.
I realize, from reading your blogs on coverings, Shirley, that I keep my hair long, to connect to the rite of passage of ‘covering wearing’ I experienced at baptism but later gave up. Now, it is my long hair that is a symbol to remind me that I am not in control…that I need to seek God’s grace daily, that I have time, that life’s highest priority is not about being efficient, and so on.
I love when the exploration of an idea and the sharing of stories leads to an insight readers can tuck away (in the back of mind and heart, if not drawer 🙂 for further reflection and self-understanding. This is the very core of memoir. Thank you for opening yourself to it and reclaiming a part of yourself with new meaning, Dolores. And even more thanks for sharing your appreciation and insight here.
Thank you Roman for your comment! That is actually the main reason I still continue to wear my head veiling today. I realized most people do not agree with me on this issue, but in I Corinthians it states that men should pray & worship with their heads uncovered and women should have their heads covered. If your hair is given to women as a covering and no further covering is needed then “why” don’t men need to shave their heads to have it uncovered? I’m sure there will be some other explanations for this scripture, but this is how it makes sense to me and the reason I do what I do.
Charlene, thanks so much for being willing to share your story and for this comment. It’s good to see both you and Eileen here. I hope you felt well represented by this selection of quotes from your responses to my questions.
Your comment to Roman and his comment added a dimension to this issue that I had not thought about in the same way before. Today, even secular institutions ask men to follow protocols (removal of hats or mortorboards) that only religious institutions impose for women (cathedrals and mosques say nothing about men’s heads but may require women to cover themselves before admission).
How do we signal submission? To whom? Under what circumstances? And is covering or not covering, long hair or short, a significant symbol for self, our chosen communities, or the world in general?
We may all answer these questions differently, but, because of these stories, we may think about them more and hold our answers both lightly and deeply. I hope so.
I was told some time ago that I should consider wearing my covering at all times. I only wear my in church. Some people use the verse ” pray without ceasing” meaning you shouldn’t pray without your head covered. But that should go for men as well as women. Most men cover their head with caps or hats. I am still searching for truth and meaning for myself in covering all time, in church only or not at all. Love reading all the post of what people have to say on this subject.
It can get complicated, can’t it, Teresa? Fortunately we can trust in a loving God and what the Quaker’s call the Inner Light and others call the Holy Spirit. Other people in our communities help us evaluate the inner voice. Thanks for being part of this conversation. You can read more about my own history in the memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blessings to you on your journey.
I read your memoir Blush in three days. It help me understand plain people and their ways. I enjoyed your book very much, it made me laugh and touched my heart. My husband ask me what I was laughing at so I told him, he laughed too. Living in the deep south you don’t find to many women that wear head covering. So it can be a little uncomfortable.
So glad you enjoyed the story, Teresa. I especially enjoy hearing that it made you laugh. And now you have so many new stories to consider. So glad you’ve joined the conversation!
Shirley, this series has given me much to think about. The combination of several comments about wearing a covering as a witness together with Roman’s comment and your reply about “sending a message” has begun to crystallize a thought nobody has specifically articulated: the response of “outsiders” to the covering.
I can only speak from personal experience. My views have been changing in the last several years, but for most of my life I followed the tradition I was taught of not calling attention to differences. That, coupled with bans on talking about religion, politics, money, sex and most anything interesting, would have kept me from EVER asking a woman about her covering or unusual dress, at least if it seemed to have spiritual implications.
But I’d be unlikely to ever ask such a person anything at all. To me, signals of difference, especially religious difference, were (please note the use of past tense) a clear sign to keep my distance. Such signals implied things to me:
1) They were probably judgmental, believing they were “saved” and their way was the best way, and thus I’d be seen as an unsaved sinner or at least ignorant of Truth. (Who needs that?)
2) They might try to convert me. (Probably not, but I flee from any possibility of such encounters.)
3) They wore the covering to signify their determination to separate themselves from “the world” and I was of the world, thus to be avoided.
4) They were probably as shy about differences as I, thus not wanting to talk about them.
5) The whole idea of marked differences made me deeply uncomfortable.
The cumulative effect of these previously unexplored attitudes was the perception that these coverings (and also “plain” clothing) screamed LEAVE ME ALONE! You indicate awareness of this reaction in BLUSH, so it must be fairly common.
Living in Pennsylvania, I’ve occasionally encountered women in prayer coverings (and also veils), sometimes in stores, more often in Turnpike rest areas. Over the years as I’ve become more comfortable with diversity and differences in general, I have begun making eye contact and smiling as I would with anyone when they meet my eyes, but have not had occasion to chat. Your series has reinforced my inclination to begin a conversation should the occasion ever arise.
I respect and now understand women who feel proud and comfortable with coverings, especially as a symbol of devotion. I suspect that attitude would show in their non-verbal signals. I think it would be obvious that they welcome contact if they don’t initiate it themselves. I’m curious to know if those who wear a covering “as a witness” have ever considered the sort of fruit that witness is bearing.
Thank you for providing this enlightening discussion forum.
Thanks for your interesting comment Sharon. It reminded me of an important fact that has not been mentioned before. “Plain People” — Amish, Mennonites, Brethren and others are the same as everyone else. They are people with different personalities and dispositions. Some of us will talk to anyone (and sometimes you probably wish we wouldn’t) and others are quiet and like to remain to themselves. Some are meek and quiet and others are definitely not. If you meet a woman who wears a head veiling and she makes eye contact and smiles, I have a feeling she would be more than happy to talk to you. There are many women who wear a head veiling that I do not know and yet they will talk to me when we meet. But, there are just as many who will look the other way and don’t want to make contact. That is their decision and I realize they are not as comfortable meeting new people as I am. God made us all differently and as I grow older I have learned to appreciate the differences in all kinds of people.
You also asked if we think about the witness we make to other people. That answer is a definite YES!! I feel my head veiling marks me as a Christian and I want to leave a good Christian witness to others whenever I can. That often means remembering “a soft answer turneth away wrath”. Being kind to those we meet whether it is working, shopping or a casual meeting of some sort is important to me and I think to most women who wear a head veiling. Even though we are people like everyone else many people look as us differently because of our dress and for that reason we need to be extra sensitive to the impression we leave with others.
This might sound a bit funny, but…
I’m a Quaker of the “convergent” variety (straddling the liberal and conservative branches). I’ve been slowly, over several years, dressing more plain and have gone off-and-on with my covering. The times when I feel the visible witness is extra-important are the times when I’m working for justice. So often, matters of justice are dismissed as “stuff for liberal atheists,” completely ignoring what Jesus calls us to.
For example, if the US was gearing up for a new war, I’d be particularly sure that my head covering wasn’t in the wash the day of the anti-war protest. Why? Some people like to say “God is on our side” when the US goes to war, but we know Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers,” and I think sometimes people pushing for war need to be reminded of that.
Charlene, thank you for reinforcing the conclusions I have come to as I, to echo your phrase, grow older (and perhaps a wee bit wiser).
I am coming to see that wearing a head covering, especially for those who do so entirely of free will, is not so different from wearing a cross. The main difference seems to be that the cross is almost universally recognized in our culture, where the significance of the covering or veiling is not, so the message understood by the masses seems a bit different. With the recent explosion of interest in “Plain People,” that may be changing.
In either case, there is always a bit of ambiguity, because as Amish and Mennonite women wear head coverings for various reasons and degrees of commitment, so others attach slightly different personal significance to wearing a cross. To some it’s primarily jewelry, sentimental though it may be. Others wear it as you wear your veliing, as a perpetual reminder and visible token of commitment, respect, and personal identity.
Sharon, thanks for having the courage to say how you have sometimes felt in the presence of religious garb. To call attention to difference via headgear is actually banned in some countries, perhaps for some of the reasons you outline as well as others. I was aware, growing up, that people who were not Mennonite saw plain dress as an announcement that we felt we were “holier than thou.” This created a dilemma. How to witness to faith while not either being arrogant of APPEARING arrogant.
Be bringing up this delicate subject and showing how you are changing your views by getting to know women willing to share their stories, you have opened an even deeper level of communication.
And Charlene, thank you for your gracious response to Sharon as well as pointing out that uniformity in dress never creates uniformity in personality or even in rationale and ability to communicate.
I thank God and each of you for sharing the Light as you see it and the Spirit that guides you. I’ve been touched more than usual by this conversation. You are the people who made it possible.
I have been a Fundamental Christian for 30 yrs, and head coverings are taught to be the woman’s uncut hair. I have not cut my hair since my conversion, and it’s only recently that I am having a change in belief. After studying 1 Cor 11 over the last several months, I am coming to the conclusion that I feel inclined to wear a head covering, though the rest in the church I attend do not. My husband said he recalls his grandmother always wearing a scarf on her head when outside for modesty purposes. My husband helped me find some that I can wear during the day, as a reminder that I am under the headship of my husband (and his head is Christ). It does not make me unequal as a person, but let’s him and others, and God, know that I place myself under my husband’s authority. This new journey is making me realize I still have a lot of learning to do. The feminist movement caused a lot of women to shed their spiritual beliefs about marriage and femininity, and the difference in gender roles. God has an order in his church, whether one believes it or not, and things work more smoothly when we yield to God’s way, rather than hinting we have all the answers. Father, Son, Husband, Wife, Children. When I wear my veil, I remember that I am covering MY glory (my hair), & and can focus on the glory that belongs to my God. Nothing else should get in the way of our worshipping God. To pray uncovered is to bring dishonor to my husband. How can that be pleasing to God? But I am still new at this and how to explain this to other church members who still believe no covering is needed…
Susanna, thank you for sharing your new understanding of 1 Cor 11. The conviction you have upon reading that text is one you share with many other women (and men) in the world. I respect your belief and your practice even though I don’t share it. I too am a follower of Jesus. I have just returned from a family reunion with hundreds of women who wear head coverings. I was very moved to sing with them, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” and many other hymns we have in common even though our practice is different.
I will be attending my first Friends meeting in around 2 hours.. and I think I shall keep my Tweed Cap on. ie. cover my head as would an “orthodox’ woman Friend.. hope I don’t raise a stir.. or perhaps I do. All I do know for certain is an undeniable spiritual faith. Feel free to return a statement of Friendship. Devotedly, Robert Teague. Providence, Rhode Island
Thank you, Robert. I can tell that you are deeply committed to Friendship. Blessings as you cover or uncover your head according to the Light within. I am an admirer of Tweed Caps. 🙂