What is a hat? Is it merely an accessory to wardrobe, an article to be donned or removed without any interior meaning? Is it a statement of personality and identity – the removal of which means the denial of one’s own story and self-understanding? Is it a tool for head-covering, governed by cultural, social, and religious rules that dictate when it should be worn, and when it should be removed?Whether we see hats as pertaining to one or all of these things, one thing is certain: hats are certainly complex items.
This issue came up again for me this past Sunday. As this is week is Stampede week here in Calgary, my church, like many others, held our version of the renowned Pancake Breakfast. Parishioner and guests enjoyed pancakes, beans, sausages, and coffee prior to our morning service. As the time for the service approached, people naturally began to file into the church. The men dutifully removed their hats. Young boys, who would have loved to sport their new cowboy hat in church, were told by parents and grandparents that it was not polite, and so they begrudgingly removed their hats as well.
The women did not, nor did the young girls. Throughout the congregation, a number of hats could be seen atop the heads of the female parishioners. These hats were not any different than their male counterparts. They were not bejeweled or feathered in any way. They were not bought in womens clothing stores. They did not glow in pink hue. Apart from size, nothing about the hat spoke of it being specifically made for a woman. In fact, in many cases the women’s hats were the exact same design as those donned by the men in the congregation.
Maybe it’s because I am of a younger generation, or maybe it is because I have seen a member of my family denied communion for wearing a hat in church, but I have a problem with how hats in church are often dealt with. My discomfort stems from a perception of rooted inequality in how we approach this topic. Frankly, woman and men are treated differently. Men remove hats in church, women do not. Yet if we truly believe that ‘in Christ there is neither male nor female’, should we really have differing rules for the sexes? After all, we no longer hold to the old standard that woman should wear only dresses. We do not believe that it is only the women who should teach Sunday school, and personally, I have never seen any woman ‘curtsey’ before a man. As for the men, I have been in churches where the men have held positions on the altar guild, and have even attended the “women’s” group of the church.
In every other avenue of church structure and theology, the church has striven, and continues to strive, to uphold the fundamental equality between the sexes. Should it really be the case then that a 7 year old boy is made to take off his hat merely because he is a boy, while a 7 year old girl bounces down the aisle beside him without any comment or concern? And when he expresses feelings about it being ‘unfair’ that she gets to wear a hat and not him, does the response ‘but she’s a girl’ really suffice?
Now, some may criticize and say that I have completely blown this issue out of water. “A hat is merely a hat,” they may say. Is it really? It seems to me that hats are more profoundly symbols and statements of self identity. Not only are they statements of whom we see ourselves to be, but they also convey what we believe about the notions of privilege, class, respect, traditions and equality. Hats are deeply personal and complex.
Yet to plunge a bit deeper, one has to question if the hat is really the issue. Is all of this really about a hat, or is it about how we treat each other as equal brothers and sisters in Christ? Making a visitor remove their hat in church could very well convey the message ‘we do not accept you as you are.’ What is more, making men remove their hats while women retain them could easily convey the message that the church believes women to be the ‘weaker and fairer sex’ and thus not bound to the same responsibilities as the men.
Rightly or wrongly, we live in a time where the traditional rules that used to govern how and when people wore hats have long gone, as has the distinction between a woman’s hat and a man’s hat. For the younger generations, many hats exit as a unisex item, without any distinction between male and female. So if there is no distinction between types of hat, then why still maintain the distinction between appropriate female and male action?
How has your church struggled with the issue of hats in church? What have been the deeper issues that you have observed?