Thoughts that came from a dear friend.

Yesterday a dear online friend, a covering sister, sent me a message – here’s an extract:

"I see you are still uncertain about covering  . . . we dress as modest women and cover not out of simple modesty or because it suits us. It is about obedience. It is also about making a Christian witness in a world where so few have that witness. It is not about beauty and femininity; it is about following Christ. The Plain dress and simple kapp are like the setting for a beautiful gemstone, and that gemstone is the life of the Holy Spirit.
I do not like the hats on thee. It looks as if thee is in costume, or wearing someone else's clothes. I would suggest that thee place thy concern about thy appearance and "fitting in" as an Anglican in the worry bin that thee gives to thy Lord."

That was the gist – I should add that she was careful to explain that this was not meant as a criticism, and that our friendship did not depend on whether we chose the same path with regard to head-covering, but that she felt this concern on her heart and that it felt right to share it despite natural trepidation lest I be hurt or offended (I wasn’t).

Yesterday was a bit manic so I just waved back and said ‘got your note’, promising to answer more fully later.  As this is an issue we’ve thought about here together, I thought I’d share my reflections and reasons with all of you who journey along with me here.

My reasons for covering are fairly straightforward to describe – my reasons for stopping may take a bit longer!  Maybe you’d like to make yourself a cup of tea . . .

Since I was a teenager I’ve felt drawn to dress not only modestly but kind of medieval modest if you see what I mean – simple loose clothes in natural fabrics.  I’ve had patches of my life wearing jeans and being Trinny-and-Susanna-ed, but I generally return at some point to this kind of look . . . 
 . . . so that’s been a norm for me.

A few years ago I had a few months of dressing Amish-style Plain, and though I loved it intrinsically, it was so weird and drew so many uncomprehending stares everywhere I went that I gave it up; which I later regretted and went back to it again last year.  My basic wardrobe now is made up of dresses and jumpers from The Kings Daughters, and under the jumpers Landsend long-sleeved crew-necked T-shirtsLandsend polo-necked fleeces in cold weather. 

I felt drawn to this as an expression of the spirit that’s in me – as a badge of simplicity, freedom from the dictates of fashion, a natural, humble, womanly way to be.  On this trail I also read lots about the Amish – whose style, like the Bruderhof style, I really love.  Because I love their style, I became very interested in headcovering, which is such an important part of their apparel.

The reason I emphasis style here, is because there are two aspects of a spiritual path – its culture and aesthetic, and its core beliefs.  What I love in the Bruderhof and the Amish is their culture and aesthetic.  I love their emphasis on family, simplicity, communal living, community singing, closeness to the land, respect for the earth, anti-materialistic lifestyle, natural medicines, peace testimony, humility, Gelassenheit, faith in God.  But I do not share their ideology in other respects.  I believe in inclusive church and respect for the other’s point of view – I am emphatically not in favour of shunning.  I am in my own faith path part of the charismatic renewal movement, and I would not be willing to renege on that and, as I believe, quench the Holy Spirit.  I have a deep reverence for the Holy Scripture, but my own understanding of Scriptural teaching is in some aspects significantly different from theirs – we both believe in ‘rightly dividing the word’ – but having rightly divided it, we don’t end up in the same place.  I do not share their views on a number of other important matters which I will not go into here.   But I love and respect and admire them: I think their way and their witness is beautiful – disagreeing with them does not disturb me; I don’t expect to agree with everyone, and I don’t make agreement a pre-requisite for loving.

So the Amish/Mennonite/Bruderhof style suited me, and expressed things from so deep in my own soul that this kind of style feels like what amounts to a calling; but I do not share all their beliefs.

The head-covering, as I’ve explained here before, was in my case not an obedience to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 – because I respect but disagree with an interpretation that he intended what he said to apply to all women in all times and places.  He speaks of headcovering as being the custom in all the churches of God, and commends it on that basis.  Therefore I understand him to mean that what he is advocating is a humble, submissive (to God not to people), reverent, teachable spirit, expressed in outward form in our dress and demeanour appropriate to our culture.   I don’t mind if others read the text differently; that’s how I read it is all.

So in adopting headcovering I did not understand myself to be entering an obedience to a scriptural teaching applicable to all women for all time. 

What was happening was that I felt viscerally drawn to explore and follow the way of covering – led, called, impelled, whatever one should say.  And when I wore a headcovering I felt an extraordinary peace, like my life slipped into its right socket.  I cannot explain this, because I do not understand it at all.

Exploring headcovering also brought me to reflect deeply on the teaching about marriage in the pastoral epistles of the New Testament. This article on The Prayer Cap and this article on The Pauline Marriage by Francis Clare Fischer I found immensely helpful, and her words allowed me to make peace with an area of scriptural teaching I had always struggled with.   I would say that I now adopt that approach in my mind and my marriage.

I used to be a Methodist minister, and came out of that ordained role for a number of reasons.  One contributing factor to the decision was that I had come to feel for myself in my own life a desire to submit to the admonition that a woman should not be a leader in the church.  I am so headstrong and decisive, so much a leader and teacher, I wanted to learn the way of yieldedness and humility, the way of Gelassenheit.  But that was not my only reason for stepping out of the ministry; there were other things, some more pressing.  I have no objection to taking my place in the church under the ministry of a lady pastor, but I would not now choose that for myself.

So I took on, somewhat like entering a religious order, the Plain apparel.  I found it beautiful, peaceful; it created order and calm in my spirit.

But I do not live my life in isolation.  I do not belong a Mennonite congregation, or an Amish church or a Bruderhof community – nor do I wish to, because my faith and theirs part company in some matters.  This does not mean, though, that I belong to no community.  I, too, have a community.  I belong to a church, a neighbourhood, a national culture, and a family.  And I am a married woman.  And it seems to me that Gelassenheit, humility, yieldedness, implies not drawing attention to myself in the context of my community.  In that context and according to that culture I am to be modest, humble, quiet, gentle, of a servant heart, teachable, building the Peaceable Kingdom with Jesus here on earth.

I am very invisible as a person.  People pass me in the street who’ve known me for years and do not recognise me.  It’s important for my work as a novelist because it favours the essential occupation of people-watching.  People typically do not see me, notice me or remember me.   And I like it that way.   A very big part of ministry for me has been travelling with other people on their path – accompanying children, the old, the sick and disabled, the dying and the bereaved; understanding and loving them, accepting and hearing and beholding them, articulating their point of view in my writing, and reassuring them that they are loved and understood – they are not alone or forgotten.   

Somewhat to my surprise, though modest/Plain dress does not interfere with that, headcovering does.  In a headcovering I drew attention to myself, became The Woman In The Weird Hat.  Instead of slipping along unseen I was noticed and watched, created puzzlement and wariness.  The signals I gave out became about me instead of about the other person.  I lost my invisibility – and that meant I damaged my ministry too.

But I persevered, because I felt so deeply about what headcovering symbolised to me – a humble, quiet spirit, a way of holiness.

Then my mother moved to live near us.  How can I describe my mother?  Control and conformity are very important to her – both in others and in herself.  She is a brave, compassionate, wise, and interesting woman.  She’s also quite narcissistic, and she is a depressive.  She has always been extraordinarily beautiful – she was the absolute image of Greer Garson when she was young – and had the charm and poise that goes with that.  She grew up in a small Yorkshire village, the daughter of a man who started life in serious poverty but by sheer determined slog and iron self-discipline became very prosperous indeed.  Her mother (my grandmother) was astonishingly beautiful, the darling daughter of a creative, talented,  capable, energetic woman.  My great-grandmother, one of five sisters, had the most eagerly enquiring mind of anyone I’ve ever known.

My mother is 83.  My father died last year.  After fifty years of living in the same area, my mother has come to live near us, accepting that the time is coming when she will need us.  She has macular degeneration and her eyesight is significantly deteriorating.  All her life vigorous and strong, a real country person, she has now a degree of heart failure that makes hills and stairs hard for her.  But she’s a Yorkshire woman, and giving in or giving up is meaningless to her.

I wonder if you can imagine the deep dread that must be engendered in a person’s soul as they enter the narrow straits my mother is now coming into – the beginning of the Great Journey, really.  Her brother died last year, one of her two sisters twelve years ago.   The implication of her move to live near us is that she is expecting to become increasingly vulnerable and dependent (both abhorrent to her), and that she will not get well from this but finally relinquish life iself.

My mother is a woman of profound spiritual instincts, but her churchmanship is traditional Church of England, and she sees that that expression of faith is slowly dying along with all her contemporaries.  The churches that thrive now are what she describes as ‘happy-clappy’, and she hates them with a passion – can’t bear them.   She would not wish to describe herself as ‘born again’, and the charismatic renewal is anathema to her.  But don’t make the mistake of thinking her faith is shallow.  I cannot in this public place describe the things she has gone through with our family, but suffice it to say that her moral courage, perseverance, self-discipline and sense of duty have been admirable.

Appearance is of immense importance to my mother – both apparel and environment.  Her home and garden have always looked like The Ideal Home Exhibition set in The Chelsea Flower Show.  Her appearance is always chic, sophisticated and immaculate.  Impeccable.  Where my sister’s appearance is a consolation and a pleasure to her, mine is sadly not.  It is almost a pain to my mother to rest her eyes on what she finds ugly or visually unpleasing – and my mode of dress is distressing to her in the extreme.

When she moved to live near us, she was sooooo miserable.  She hated the village she’d come to and everything in it, and mourned deeply the loss of the places she had loved – most of all THE SHOPS!  Shopping has been the means by which she soothed her soul.  And gardening.  Here, she has a lovely view, but only a balcony for growing flowers.

She was so depressed and negative she sent my soul right out of kilter.  I picked it up.  I was near to finishing a book, and suddenly couldn’t write any more. At all.  I could hardly drive.

I knew she needed me to travel alongside her, do this journey with her; but even the sight of me in my clothes and headcovering itched and aggravated her soul.

A couple of months back I felt a longing to go to worship at the Crowhurst Home of Healing, and there I received the laying on of hands for healing.  I felt prompted to go five times for healing, and over a number of weeks, I did.  The effect was remarkable.  I felt like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon into the sunlight.  I didn’t realise how much  had been struggling, or how depressed I had become.

I made some changes in the way I was dressing:  a little discreet make-up and equally discreet earrings.  Some skirts and tops of more conventional cut – though still modest in colour and shape (and I still have and wear my lovely Kings Daughters things).  And I stopped wearing my headcovering.

Several things changed.  I think I became less severe and disapproving (which I hadn’t realised I had been – I’m going by how people relaxed around me), my mother instantly found my company more congenial – which is important because she’s felt so down and alone; and my husband loved it.  

At the same time I stopped going to Quaker meeting which suited me very well, in favour of going to church with my husband – it’s a lovely church, and one where the rest of my family also feels comfortable attending when they want to come to church, where Quaker meeting is too extreme for them. 
In the church where I go now, they respond to me much more comfortably now I’m not wearing my headcovering, and I’ve made the small adjustments so that I fit in.  They seem to find me more approachable.

I felt – feel – that these changes express the spirit of Ephesian 5 and 1 Corinthians 11 more truly than wearing a prayer cap.  I’ve kept my prayer caps, tucked away in a bag behind my clothes rail.  If I put on a prayer cap, I still feel that sense of peace, of life slipping into its socket.  But life’s not all about me, is it? 

Philippians 2:5-8 says:
5Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
 6Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
 7But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
 8And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

The incarnation was about donning the same form as we wear – being found in our likeness, being alongside us, the same as us.   I feel that incarnational faith, the way of Jesus, involves (for me, I mean, not necessarily for you), walking the way of life alongside others in such a way that they feel understood and loved and brought to peace – so that they do not notice me, their attention is not drawn to me – just they feel better after they have spent time in my company. 

I have the profoundest respect for the prayer cap as a witness; but I think that for me it was not functioning as a witness at all.  It drew attention to me, and made others feel threatened, bewildered and alienated.  And so I have taken it off.

One last thing I'd like to say about my friend's concerns is the part of her note that says:
 It is not about beauty and femininity; it is about following Christ. 

I'd like to humbly offer the suggestion that these two things are not antagonistic or mutually exclusive.  To many - most - women, making the best of oneself, looking pretty and feminine, beautiful, is part of being a woman.  Whether that be saris or salwar kameez, cape dresses or gored skirts and blouses - a woman is usually miserable if she doesn't think her clothes make her look pretty.  I think that is part of the way God made her, and I would point to the book of Esther and the Song of Songs as an indication that may be so.  Of course a woman should not prioritise her personal appearance above her walk of faith.  Obsession about appearance is usually a sign that a person is lacking in confidence at a deeper level.  The loveliest woman is the woman who loves and is loved.  But I do not believe a touch of blusher and a pair of modestly priced earrings are offensive to God or a hindrance to discipleship.

I might change my mind about all of this, and I might be completely wrong.  But that's why.

Another friend was laughing at me recently for being so open about all this on my blog.  She pointed out that I was making changes in 'the noisiest possible way' when I could have quietly and without comment made changes and no-one would have been any the wiser.  I hope you understand why I didn't do that.  We are sharing this journey, aren't we?  And it's not the clothes or the headscarf or the earrings that this is about - it's about the deepening understanding, and exploration of faith and scripture, learning from each other and travelling together and drawing closer to truth as truth is in Jesus.  I hope.