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And Esau was an hairy man

22 January 2016

What do Prince Harry, David Beckham, and Jeremy Corbyn have in common? Richard Chartres traces the theological significance of beards


Role model: David Beckham

Role model: David Beckham

BEARDS are fashionable again, but the subject of facial hair and the clergy stirs strong emotions. The bearded King Edward VII, in enjoining Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang to “stop curates wearing moustaches”, gave voice to the general hostility of the Christian tradition to hair confined to the upper lip; but there the consensus ends.

The discovery that two of the most energetic priests in east London had recently grown beards of an opulence that would not have disgraced a Victorian sage prompted me to look again at the barbate debate throughout Church history. The two priests work in parishes in Tower Hamlets. Most of the residents are Bangladeshi-Sylheti, for whom the wearing of a beard is one of the marks of a holy man. This view is shared among many Eastern cultures, but it was not so for much of the history of the West.

Alexander the Great was clean-shaven, and this was the fashion also in the Roman Republic and early empire, until the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century. Early representations of Christ in Western European art, such as the Hinton St Mary mosaic on display in the British Museum, show the Saviour also clean-shaven, and portrayed as some Classical hero.

In the Christian East, however, the beard was the mark of a philosopher, and images of Christ conformed to this archetype. Euthymius the Great, a fifth-century hermit in Palestine and then founder of a monastery on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, would admit only bearded men to his desert community.

It was, indeed, out of respect for this tradition that I grew my modest beard in the late 1970s, in preparation for a retreat in the Coptic monastery of St Bishoi, in the Wadi Natrun. I felt so much at home there that I have never shaved off the souvenir of the visit.


AFTER the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the West, there was a growing estrangement between the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity, and “to shave or not to shave” become one of the distinguishing marks in an increasingly acrimonious relationship.

The papal bull that excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054 specifically complains that the Easterners “will not receive in communion those who tonsure their hair and shave their beards following the decreed practice of the Roman Church”.

Shaving was a symbol of conformity to the 11th-century reforms of Pope Gregory VII. In detaching the Church of Sardinia from its Byzantine allegiance in 1080, the Pope forced the Archbishop to remove his beard, alleging that “the clergy of the whole Western Church have had the custom of shaving the beard from the very origins of the Christian faith.”

In the West, shaving was one of the marks that distinguished the spiritual from the temporal, priests from laymen. The 12th-century Pope Alexander III ordained that clergy who nourished their hair or their beard were to be shorn by their archdeacon — by force if necessary. Scissors thus became one of the symbols that indicated a medieval archdeacon.

In the following century, Durandus, in his Rationale, offered a spiritual explanation of the practice: “We shave our beards that we may seem purified by innocence and humility, and that we might be like the angels who remain always in the bloom of youth.”


AS WELL as symbolism, secular fashion also had an influence; and, in time, it led to change. An official at the Renaissance papal court, Pierio Valeriano Bolzani, wrote a defence of priestly beards, Pro Sacerdotum Barbis; and his patron, Pope Clement VII, grew his beard as a mark of mourning, after the sack of Rome by the forces of Charles V in 1527.

Cranmer also cited mourning as the reason for growing a beard after the death of Henry VIII. Even a superficial survey of episcopal portraits in the 16th and early 17th centuries reveals, however, that luxuriant beards and the profession of the Reformed faith went hand in hand.

The Reformed beard signalled a repudiation of the secluded, sexless style of the clergy of the late-medieval Church, and a new, positive assessment of the potential holiness of uncloistered ordinary life. Beards carried heavy ideological freight, and were associated with the possibility of marriage for ordained ministers, and even bishops.

Edmund Sandys was the first Bishop of London to be married, despite the disapproval of Queen Elizabeth I, and his somewhat lugubrious portrait is complete with a handsome forked beard.

In the London succession, after the clean-shaven Tunstall and Bonner, patriarchal beards were the rule, beginning with the martyr Nicholas Ridley, until the time of Bishop Montaigne, who, in 1628, gave way to the Van Dyck beard of William Laud ­­— a transition that also marked a change of theological fashion. After the Civil War, Restoration prelates were once again, in the main, clean-shaven.

John Robinson, the last English bishop to hold significant political office as Lord Privy Seal under Queen Anne, also served as Ambassador to Sweden in the 1680s. In his book on the country and its Church, he satirically observes that Swedish bishops adhered to decidedly passé fashions, and were, for instance, heavily bearded.

Such is the whirligig of time that the Swedish episcopate is now clean-shaven, while the Church of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has recovered the hirsute tradition of earlier ages.

Those who choose to wear beards now, of course, have had to contend with a suspicion that has associated beards with weak chins, or, even worse, with disguise and villainy. Among 19th-century Bishops of London, the great Mandell Creighton — fortified by the historic precedents of which he was the master — stands alone in sporting a beard that is worthy of the name.

Most recently, however, fashions have changed. Beards are no longer confined to those excoriated by their opponents as “trendy lefties”, and websites such as coolbeardstyles.com offer a gallery of suggestions for the modern male of all ages. David Beckham is the nearest we have to a popular secular saint, and his flirtation with various styles of beards has stimulated countless imitators.

With the new fashion, however, ideological seriousness has dissolved into stylistic accessory. Archdeacons no longer prowl the Home Counties with their scissors, searching for hirsute clerics. The clergy of Tower Hamlets are safe from episcopal censure, and their desire to reach out to the culture of the majority of their parishioners can only be applauded.


The Rt Revd Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London.

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