This Sunday I have the opportunity to preach at the UCC congregation in Decorah, where the summer sermon series is based on the theme "Body-Loving Worship: God's Body & Our Own." I'm grateful for the chance to do more reflection on a text I've contended with before, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. My key learning from the text is that, from the very beginning of the church, there were women and gender non-conforming people preaching, prophesying and leading worship. And from the very beginning, people were worried about their hair.
So, this worry is definitely not new, and it's definitely not gone, and it's definitely not confined to the church. Sometimes it takes the form of rules against wearing hijabs or other head coverings--rules aimed at Muslim women in the US and Europe. Sometimes it takes the form of rules against dreadlocks or natural black hair at schools or in workplaces. High school dress codes are notorious, and rightfully being challenged along with their underlying assumptions about clothes that make women and girls "distracting."
This week I was listening to live radio and got to hear an episode of The Takeaway that connected to this topic: "Not All Female Athletes Play to the Male Gaze." The podcast segment and interview is based on an opinion piece for The New York Times by Britni de la Cretaz, "Androgyny Is Now Fashionable in the W.N.B.A.: Women’s basketball is expanding ideas of what female athletes are allowed to look like." Listening to the podcast, I found some profound parallels between the experience of being a woman pastor and being a woman basketball player (parallels I might not have thought about, otherwise.) One point that stood out in both the podcast and the article: "As recently as 2016, the W.N.B.A. had fashion, hair and makeup classes for its rookie players. In 2008, nearly a third of the league’s two-day rookie orientation was dedicated to makeup and fashion tips."
I graduated from Yale Divinity School in 2008. While there, I got some make up and fashion tips, too, and I hadn't been expecting them. The way that advice was given--by one of the professors I most admire--has been something I've carried with me, contended and wrestled with.
What makes the 1 Corinthians text so interesting to me is the way it reflects this very real problem we have with seeing the image of God in each other. The text says, "For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man." This just isn't true, but we act like it's true. We act like there are some people who reflect God more clearly, more directly, than others. We act like there's a best way to look like a woman when you're leading worship, a way that might minimize the distraction and be tasteful and professional and fit some idealized archetype of what a woman church leader should look like. We act like there's a best way to look if you're a woman basketball player, too. That archetype reflects the pressure we put on ourselves and others to conform to norms and expectations and guidelines (which are not-so-subtle ways of enforcing racism, heteronormativity, and other forms of oppression, too.)
Listening to this podcast gives opportunity for reflection on incarnation theology and embodiment, bearing the image of God, being the Body of Christ, and the ways bias and other limits on human imagination can be overcome by Spirit-filled curiosity, holy imagination, and the courage of leaders who model a different way of being themselves--beloved children of God--and embodying their roles as leaders, as well.