Thursday, February 5, 2015

Women's headcoverings in the Church

From the blog The Orthodox Life, a post entitled Women's Headcoverings.

For 2000 years in the Orthodox Church, the tradition has been for women and girls to veil their heads during worship, whether at church for the liturgy, or at home for family prayer time.

What is the Scriptural and Patristic evidence for this tradition, and why is it important?

In this article, we will take a look at headcoverings in the Old Testament, headcoverings in the New Testament, headcoverings according to the early Church, headcoverings in icons, and headcoverings today. At the end of the article there are links to additional resources for learning about Christian headcoverings.

Headcoverings in the Old Testament

Centuries before the birth of Christ, women’s headcoverings were an accepted practice for God’s people. It was not merely an option for those who wished to be holy. Rather, it was a matter-of-fact expectation that all women would cover their heads.

When the Holy Spirit inspired Moses to pen the first five books of Scripture, women’s headcoverings were simply assumed to be the normal practice. In the book of Numbers, when a unique ceremony is performed that requires an uncovered head, Scripture makes a point to say that the woman’s headcovering needs to be removed...

Complete post here.


  1. Usually this issue is a touchy one, with remarks about not wanting to look "like a Russian peasant" or the common objection that states that priests violate this Tradition just as much as uncovered women do. Fr. John Whiteford has a great post on headcoverings.

    Additional Patristic testimonies here:

    1. Thank you for sharing these links.

  2. More Orthodox fundamentalism (tongue firmly in cheek)....

  3. Haha! Unknown, I thought the same thing. Byztex will soon end up on the fundamentalist list like orthodoxinfo.

  4. I struggle with the practice of head covering for mostly practical reasons. Though I am somewhat intrigued and attracted by the biblical teaching and traditional practice, I admit I don't fully understand it. I tried to cover my head when I first became Orthodox for reasons of piety, but I ultimately found it to be a distraction from prayer because the scarf constantly slipped out of place and off my head (especially with bowing and prostrations). It also made me feel self-conscious because this is not a normal form of dress for women in my culture, . . . unless they are Muslim. Sure, the women in our Icons wear head coverings, and they also mostly wear ankle and foot length robes or dresses, too. Are all pious Orthodox women in modern culture being called to dress in robes and cloaks like that, too, because that was the standard of modesty in our Saints' Orthodox and biblical cultures?

    I dress modestly and don't have an elaborate hairstyle that requires much time. I spent far more time adjusting and readjusting my scarf when I was trying to wear a head covering, than I ever spend on my hair. When I came to my present parish, the issue became moot because the clergy there actively discourage women who don't normally wear head coverings from doing so in church (likely the result of the Bishops' policies mentioned by Seraphima in the comments thread below this article at the original site).

    Tongue-in-cheek quips about "Orthodox fundamentalism" aside, many of us have experienced a culture of legalism around practices like this in our religious backgrounds, and we are naturally not eager to see such attitudes take hold in our parishes now that we are Orthodox. It is very dangerous to judge the spiritual state of others based on externals like this, but it is also a very human temptation.

    In view of the reality of Western cultural norms around head covering for women (and the Muslim presence which defines this practice for many in the Western world), is there a case to be made for adjustment in areas of biblical custom when cultural norms have changed such that the lack of long hair and head covering on women no longer inherently indicate a woman of loose morals? I notice there are other prescribed practices from biblical times as well as canons of the Church, which seem to no longer be applied because with changing contexts they have seemingly become obsolete. One such is the proscription from eating blood from the Acts 15 Council. Do not Orthodox in some Slavic cultures eat blood sausage and the like? Is this still considered to be a violation of the canons of the Church?

  5. ofgrace,

    Another helpful like from Fr. John Whiteford:

    1. Thanks for the clarifying link, Maximus. I was confused because I had observed this proscription was not observed in some otherwise culturally Orthodox contexts. Perhaps there are other canons that would be better examples of a circumstantially justifiable change in application, such as the apostolic biblical command for presbyters to be "the husband of one wife," whereas later the Church later in her history saw fit to require bishops to be celibate. Another possible example would be the lapse in application of the canons for ordination of deaconesses as the strict taboo against opposite sex contact outside the family subsided within Orthodox cultures and the development of monasticism where women monastics came to fulfill many of the same needs within the Church.

      I understand the canons of the Church to be conditional/contextual applications of enduring biblical principles in which there are varying degrees of latitude designated to the bishops and in turn to presbyters as to what degree of strictness or economy are appropriate and allowable in varying circumstances in their application in local churches and for individual members. I also understand that all such traditions are to serve the purpose of the salvation of the members of the Church.

      It seems to me there can be misunderstandings of the canons that do not recognize a degree of fluidity in their application depending on the context as opposed to the underlying biblical teachings/principles and dogmas on which the canons are based, which are stable and unchanging. What I want to better understand is how to discern whether and where I may be adopting an erroneous perspective such that, to paraphrase Jesus from Mark 2:27, I act as speak as though "man (or woman) is made for the rule/canon, rather than the rule/canon for the salvation of man and woman" surrounding various small-t traditions and customs in the Church.