No, the lumbersexual trend has not reached the seminary. While their facial fuzz might make them welcome in Bushwick dive bars, the reason British priests are now growing beards is an effort to reach out to the Muslim community.
The Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, recently commended two priests—Rev. Adam Atkinson and Rev. Chris Rogers—for sporting bushy beards. Their motivation, Chartres said, was to telegraph their holiness to their broader community.
Writing in the Church Times, Chartres said that the priests work in parishes where “most of the residents are Bangladeshi-Sylheti, for whom the wearing of a beard is one of the marks of a holy man.” Rev. Atkinson further said that he was motivated by the fact that 85% of the members of his parish are Muslim.
In other places in the world the similarities between Christian and Muslim dress are much more pronounced. In the Middle East, for example, Christian women not only wear long dresses and thick coverings to attend mass, but also wear this attire in their daily lives. Head coverings have a storied history in Christianity; in the Roman Catholic Church they were mandated for women until the mid-1960s and are prescribed by the Apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians. The fact that these clothes appear to be similar to those worn by Muslim women has more to do with geography than religious accommodation. Unlike Chartres hipster priests, they aren’t trying to emulate or placate members of other religious groups.
When the standards of contemporary society are rejected it is almost exclusively in favor of more aesthetic, simple, and conservative attire. The majority of Mormons, both men and women, wear temple garments (the famous “Mormon underwear”—a white T-shirt and shorts) underneath their clothes, and insist on high necklines, covered shoulders, and long skirts for women. Modest is hottest, they say, and many other Christian groups agree. Historically speaking, the emphasis has often been not on concealing the flesh, but rather on downplaying wealth and status. 1 Peter 3:3 condemns women for wearing fancy braided hairstyles and gold jewelry. In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Jerome, the theologian who translated the Bible into Latin, advised virgins against drawing attention to themselves either by dressing as paupers or advertising their wealth. All of these perspectives on Christian dress take their rise from the Bible. There aren’t a lot of Christian nudists, but even they see themselves as emulating pre-fig-leaf Adam in the Garden of Eden.
In advocating for the growing of beards, the Bishop of London appealed to historical precedent to make his case. And he is certainly correct that throughout history, and in Eastern Orthodox traditions especially, the beard has been a mandatory part of the clerical wardrobe. For example, Euthymius the Great, a fifth-century hermit, would admit men to his desert community only if they wore beards. But one has to wonder the Rt. Rev. Chartres has thought deeply about the rationale that underlies the ancient preference for beards.
For many, beards were promoted because they said something about the masculinity of the wearer. The turn-of-the-third-century Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria, in his Paedagogus (an ethical instructional manual of sorts for Christians), argues that men should grow their beards. Not only does the presence of a beard “grant solemnity to the face and instill terror,” he says, but it also prevents a man from appearing “womanish.”
The connection between male body hair and masculinity runs deep for Clement. Men have beards and body hair like lions, whereas women (ahem) grow hair only from their heads like horses. It is not only manly to sport a beard, it is what nature intended. The philosopher Epictetus agreed, remarking that given the fact that there is nothing “less useful” than chin-hair its purpose must be to distinguish between the sexes. “For this reason,” he writes, “we ought to preserve the signs which God has given.”
It’s difficult to unshackle the authors promoting beard-wearing from the views of gender that underpin their arguments. Beards my be good for men, but promoting traditional “manly” dress for men is a tacit endorsement of ancient standards of gender. When the Bishop of Chartres appeals to the history of Christian dress, he may be unaware of the kind of gender dynamics and norms he is promoting. Or, given the Church of England’s recent position on same-sex marriage, this might be part of a larger statement about the proper relationship of the male and female sexes to one another.
Cultivating interreligious dialogue and respect in the community is a good thing, no doubt, and shows a refreshing sensitivity to Muslims in a country that is predominantly Christian. But arguably accommodating one’s appearance in a manner explicitly linked (in both Muslim and Christian history) with male dominance and power does as much harm as good. At the end of the day, this strategy might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.