For generations, the so-called ‘Hat Brigade’ has ruled the fashion roost in many churches and denominations across Christianity, but the coronavirus pandemic could put a swift end to its domination once and for all.
With churches and places of worship in total lockdown, many clerics are delivering their sermons via social media and the internet. The concept of the virtual church is now a living reality.
In a previous Fearless Flying Column, I alluded to the view that this could change the whole ethos of Christian evangelism and outreach as to how the Church communicates its message. When the lockdown ends, we could witness many more people coming out to worship, or indeed changing churches or denominations because of the influence of online worship.
The ‘Hat Brigade’ is a reference to those fundamentalists and evangelicals who strictly interpret the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in the Bible’s New Testament, chapter 11, on the role of women at worship with their heads covered.
The key section is from verses five to 15. Here it is as expressed in the King James Version of the Bible:
“5, But every woman that praying or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
“6, For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
“7, For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
“8, For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.
“9, Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
“10, For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
“11, Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
“12, For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
“13, Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
“14, Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?
“15, But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”
Put bluntly, many fundamentalist males have interpreted this passage of Scripture as giving them the authority to order women to wear hats in churches. Others go even further and would ban the ordination of women preachers and clerics.
The bottom line is that for generations, many women have had a raw deal from churches, denominations and mission halls as a result of this passage.
During the 1970s especially, it was not uncommon for certain mission halls to proudly display notices that women coming to worship should wear hats. Some halls even provided scarves for those women who dared to appear at worship without their heads covered!
In this period, I recall two spinster sisters who loved the preaching of two well-known male evangelists and decided to travel many miles to hear them preach. They were dismayed when they were taken aside after the meeting and informed that if they came to another meeting, they must wear hats!
In another incident, I recall the story of a family who had a young daughter who was a gifted Gospel singer. She was based in County Antrim. Her parents got her a booking at a mission hall in County Tyrone and on the Sunday evening in question drove the hour’s journey to the hall for their daughter to sing.
But she was refused permission to sing as the wee girl was not wearing a hat! None of the ladies present at the meeting would lend the girl a hat because that would mean they would be in the meeting without a hat! It was a case of ‘no hat, no hymn’! Then another hour’s car journey back to County Antrim - all that travelling and the cost of petrol, for what?
Fundamentalists would defend their position by stating that the family should have checked the fashion code of the mission hall in the first place.
The key question facing fundamentalists in these cases - does Christ look on what is in someone’s heart, or on the head gear they wear?
When we all stand before God on Judgement Day, will entrance to Heaven be refused to some Christians because they chose not to wear a hat to church?
It makes no mention of head coverings in the key Salvationist text of St John chapter 3, verse 16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (KJV)
Another key question which the fundamentalists, and even some within the evangelical tradition, will have to face is - how many people have turned away from the Christian Gospel because of the strict fashion code on hats?
Even before the virus lockdown, there has been a radical rethinking of the ‘hat rule’ from First Corinthians with a greater emphasis on verse 15 - that a woman’s hair itself is a covering.
However, the fundamentalists will be quick to point out that the verse states ‘long hair’, so will we have male elders, deacons and preachers ruling on how many inches or centimetres a woman’s hair should be before it meets the Biblical criteria of verse 15?
A decade ago (so this must be taken in that context) I had to the opportunity to visit one of the Rev Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian churches, a denomination known for being an integral part of the ‘Hat Brigade’.
Even though I am the son of a mainstream Presbyterian minister and a life-long, card-carrying member of the Ulster Unionist Party, I must stress that I was made most welcome at the church.
There certainly was a fine array of hats among the middle aged and older women that Sunday, but the teens and twenties women also displayed an equally fine array of fascinators! Heads certainly were not covered by what amounted to be nothing more than a twig with a feather! But none of these fascinator-bearing women were being refused entry to worship.
So what’s the policy for the future? The Christian Church as a whole needs to get a grip on itself and stop pandering to the ageing minority to strictly enforce the so-called ‘no hat, no handshake’ interpretation on Scripture.
This refers to the band of fundamentalists who maintain that unless a woman wears a hat to church, she cannot become a member of that church and be extended the ceremony of the Right Hand of Fellowship - the so-called official joining ritual which many fundamentalist and evangelical churches indulge in.
Instead of the ‘Hat Brigade’, let’s have a hallelujah for the up and coming ‘Verse 15 Brigade’!
Certainly, we Christians (and I particularly include myself) of all denominations should take note of the words of the Indian Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, given his fascination with the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself: “If it weren’t for Christians, I’d be a Christian.”
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com