Recently Public Orthodoxy hosted a conversation between Dr. Katherine Kelaidis and Dr. Nadieszda Kizenko on the wearing of headscarves by Orthodox women and girls in church. The initial article by Kelaidis can be read here, the response by Kizenko here.
Two things struck me most about Kelaidis’ piece: first, the decision (whether editorial or authorial, I do not know) to illustrate it with a folksy painting from 19th-century Ukraine or Russia rather than a photograph from 21st-century Ukraine or Russia; and second, the unusual assertion that American Orthodox women who cover their head in church somehow disrespect Kelaidis’ grandmother. Kizenko addresses the latter point, as well as the rest of Kelaidis’ article, with tact and nuance.
The question of headscarves was raised by the younger women in the Romanian-Canadian parishes where I served as a priest from 1990 to 1992, and again in a mission parish in the same area—on the border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan—from 1992 to 1995. To repeat, the women raised the question, not I, and this because of the continuing preponderance of headscarves among the older women.
I replied that I found headscarves for women and girls in church to be a tradition worth preserving; that I did not require them to cover their head in church; that women who covered their head in church should neither pressure the others to conform nor feel superior to those who did not; and that an elaborate, fashionable hat would seem to contravene the spirit of the headscarf as a traditionally feminine form of modesty in church.
Each woman in the parish responded freely as she chose. Some younger women adopted the headscarf while others did not. A middle-aged woman who wore a bright red, canoe-sized hat stopped wearing it, but did not replace it with a headscarf. Older women who had experienced some sort of “modern pressure” to abandon the headscarf welcomed the encouragement of a young, educated priest to return to the tradition with which they felt most at home. My wife chose not to cover her head. Each woman seemed content with her own decision, and accepted the decisions of her sisters. The issue never generated any conflict.
From December 2012 to May 2016 I attended Holy Trinity Cathedral in Toronto, an enormous, vibrant parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia consisting mainly of immigrants of all ages. Even many of the children speak English with a Russian accent; some of the youngsters haven’t learnt English at all yet.
The overwhelming majority of women and girls there—even very young girls—wear a headscarf to church. My granddaughter, 6 to 9 years of age during that period, wore one when she occasionally attended with me.
In the small cloakroom adjacent to the narthex there are two boxes, one containing headscarves, and the other, wrap-around skirts. When I started attending Holy Trinity, one of the older women would offer a headscarf to women who came without one, and a wrap-around to women who came in slacks. I never saw the headscarf or wrap-around offered arrogantly, nor the offer refused, nor the receiver of the offer offended. However, the practice of offering them ceased for reasons unknown to me, while the headscarves and wrap-arounds remained available in the cloakroom.
I loved the more traditional—dare I say more spiritual—ambiance created by the near universal use of the headscarf by the women and girls at Holy Trinity. I never sensed on their part any feelings of being “oppressed” or “unmodern,” any obsequiousness or lack of self-confidence in their dealings with their husbands and the other men of the parish; nor did I detect any sign of arrogance or condescension toward the women on the part of the men.
Nor did I sense that the few women who chose not to cover their head—including the choir director’s wife—were made to feel any less welcome.
There is also this: at the same time that I attended Holy Trinity I also attended two Greek parishes when their weekday Liturgies did not conflict with those at the Russian church—a frequent occurrence, given that the two follow different calendars. Not only were small numbers of young Greek-Canadian women covering their head in church, but some of them, both young and old—whom I knew by sight if not always by name—came to the Russian church from time to time for a more spiritual experience of the divine services than they found in their home parishes. (They told me this.) This included dressing more traditionally for church—a longer skirt and a headscarf. The fact that the Russian parish does not utter one syllable of English liturgically, and that it uses polyphonic melodies that do not resemble Byzantine chant at all, did not deter these Greeks from coming.
Finally we come to the crux of my thoughts: namely, the perpetually unresolved and ultimately irresolvable question of Orthodoxy and culture. In our facile dismissal of small-t traditions over against capital-T Tradition—with “small-t traditions”meaning everything that we individually happen to dislike about Orthodoxy—we too often forget that Tradition can only ever be embodied, conveyed, and expressed through the medium of traditions. Were we to strip away from the Faith all the supposed “non-essentials” (a reductionist term foreign to Orthodoxy anyway), we would find that very little, if anything, remained.
The gradual but inexorable baptism of culture by the Orthodox Church wherever she puts down roots entails two simultaneous, complementary, and indivisible dynamics: first, the transmission of a great many external forms from cultures immersed in Orthodoxy long before ours; and second, the incorporation of appropriate new forms into the Church’s life from the culture newly introduced to the Faith.
In this context it seems no less natural that some 21st-century women converts will feel drawn to wear a headscarf to church than that some men converts will grow a beard. We need not dismiss these as shallow, silly attempts at “exoticization”—even when motivated partly by nostalgia for a simpler, if mythical, past. Which Christian tradition is better poised than Orthodoxy to offer a profound sense of continuity with the past on multiple levels, and not just the doctrinal and liturgical? This becomes problematic only if and to the extent that it degenerates into a mode of escapism and of living in the past.
Clearly there is much more that can and must be said. I offer these thoughts as a small contribution to the conversation.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He was a priest of the Orthodox Church in America from 1988 to 2002.