Wednesday, May 08, 2013

My Head Is Not Square

When Martin Bucer, busy reforming England, was asked why he did not wear the square cap conventional among the clergy, predecessor to the modern biretta, he answered "Because [my] head is not square."

In fact, that cap was the subject of much contention in the long sweep of Anglican history.  George Smith Tyack, in his amusing little Historic Dress of the Clergy, quotes a Papist teasing an Anglican bisop by saying, "Do not some among [your clergy] wear square caps, some round caps, some button caps, some only hats[?]"  Queen Elizabeth demanded that priests wear the square cap, and a long list of bishops issued strict orders on the subject, precisely because some among the clergy refused -- consistently and for generations -- to conform.  Tyack adds:
[I]n fact, an absurd amount of trouble seems to have been taken to enforce the use, and an unaccountable amount of heat shown in opposition to it, when we consider the general carelessness with which points of ritual of far greater moment were abandoned, or  allowed to lapse into disuse.
Just so.

The cap, we suspect, was a marker of identity, a badge used to show that one's position on other matters (episcopacy, royalty, whatever) conformed to or varied from the official position.  Perhaps the variations, circular or button or "only hat," served to mark out minute personal variations.  Very likely, for some people, it was also a matter of which was cheapest.

This is pretty close to the way clerical shirts are used today; when the pastor of the neighboring parish shows up wearing a shirt in that shade of purple, he may not be lying when he tells you that he got it at a great discount, but we all know that he is also telling you what he thinks of bishops and their funny hats.  (Unless, of course, she is making a point about purple as the color of either gay rights or womanist theology.)  The guy who arrives in the denim shirt is trying to send a message of Sixties-style hipness or even solidarity with the working class, even though he paid an extra ten bucks for the privilege.

But Tyack's real point is the one that matters:  who really cares about hats, when your liturgy is a shambles, and when churchgoers walking in the door have no idea what new abuse or aberration to expect this week?  In Anglicanism, that meant, to start with, the spoliation of the churches, as their stone altars were ripped out and replaced with wooden tables, their silks sold to Spain, their frescoes whitewashed.  Then came the west-facing position, the endless moving-about of the communion table, the gradual replacement of historic vestments with quasi-academic ones.  More deeply still, the rise of Mattins to a place of liturgical supremacy, and the corresponding removal of the Eucharist from its centrality.  Not to mention a century or two without any hymns.  And then, as each of these abuses was gradually undone, the undoing came to be seen as an innovation, a marker of some new and threatening identity.

We don't mean to pick on Anglicans.  Other churches have their own variations on this history -- not just other Protestants, but Roman Catholics as well.  Each wave of liturgical "reform" exists, principally, to fix the things broken by the last wave.  This guarantees that it will never end, and that nobody will ever be happy.

Just the other day, we heard tell of a Lutheran church in which the "service of the word" consisted, in its entirety, of a brief reading from The Message, followed by whatever the hell the pastor felt like.  What is most remarkable is that he person who told us the story says, rightly or wrongly, that the pastor leading the service claimed for all this the authority of one of our own teachers, a liturgical scholar of the first rank -- and, incidentally, a man who would not put up with this sort of shambolic, presider-centered, tradition-busting worship.  In the same way, we imagine, Karlstadt claimed Luther's authority for his own bad ideas, and the Puritans routinely claimed God's.

We say all this to be clear about something important.  We at the Egg spend a lot of our time exploring liturgical minutiae -- birettas and maniples and how to use the Athanasian Creed.  Some guys build ships in bottles, others work on their car, we excavate obscure traditions.  But lest there be any confusion, let us say clearly that we don't care much about any of these things.  They are square caps.

What we do care about is that churches not worship badly or foolishly, chasing after fads, serving meals of junk food to people who come looking for spiritual nourishment.  Give us the Word and the Sacrament, in forms that can be recognized and trusted, and we don't care about your hat.


Mark C. Christianson said...

I would suspect that the regulation of hats for the clergy is but one aspect of England's sumptuary laws of the era, designed to maintain distinctions of rank and position. They lasted into the 17th century in one form or another, with the Tudor era seeing numerous calls for them to be more strictly enforced. Apparently not being able to tell the difference between a lord and a butcher was deemed a problem. It would make sense that it would extend to the clergy. The British tradition of the wool flat cap also dates to a 16th century law that required every male over 6, except nobility and those with degree, to ware a wool cap on Sundays and holidays. This was certainly mostly to stimulate the wool industry, but I note the exceptions with interest.

Father Anonymous said...

Pretty much. The main "Elizabethan sumptuary statutes" I was able to check online don't have much to do with the clergy, but the general idea is the same. She inherited and approved the medieval idea that you should be able to tell somebody's rank at a glance.

What interests me most is the difficulty of enforcement, which seems to have been a problem even before the Reformation. Then as now, some people clearly couldn't stand this idea, while others seem to have liked it.