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Will men have beards in heaven?

16 August 2019

A new book delves into ‘beard theology’. In this extract, its author, who writes as The Church Mouse, relates a Cistercian dispute


Apostle Peter, by Anthony van Dyck c.1617

Apostle Peter, by Anthony van Dyck c.1617

AN INTERESTING point arises in Christian theology when considering the topic of beards. Will men have beards in heaven?

Since the very earliest times, orthodox Christian belief has been that there will be a resurrection of believers. In other words, after their death, believers will rise again and live in the world to come. This resurrection will follow Jesus’s own resurrection, and will be a physical, bodily one. Christ was able to show the wounds in his hands and side to Doubting Thomas as evidence that it really was him, proving that the resurrection was not only physical but would bear some relation to our own current bodies.

The details of this have been much debated, and one question has yet to be resolved: will we have our beards? We alight on this particular theological platform at this precise moment because it became a matter of debate in 1160 in the middle of a heated beard controversy in France.

PUBLIC DOMAINArchbishop William Laud, by Anthony van Dyck, based on a work of 1636

The Cistercians were one of the largest groups of monks in the Middle Ages. Their monasteries had a mantra of “work hard, pray hard”, and they were widely respected across Europe. There were two ranks of brothers in Cistercian monasteries: the monks, and the lay brothers. Lay brothers were basically junior monks. Usually less educated, they were not ordained clerics like the monks. As a result, the lay brothers were often looked down on, and they were given the menial jobs in the monastery to do, and not the Holy Offices. While some would think that the Cistercians might see the most menial tasks as the highest calling, nevertheless, tensions between lay brothers and monks could arise.

It was easy to tell the difference between a monk and a lay brother, both because the monks had robes of a slightly lighter shade, and because the monks shaved while the lay brothers did not. In 1160, a run-in between Abbot Burchard of Bellevaux and the lay brothers in his monastery led to the world’s first book on beards: Apologia de Barbis, an explanation of beards.

Accusations of impropriety and bad behaviour by the lay brothers of Bellevaux’s sister monastery, Rosière, had reached the ears of Abbot Burchard. So he wrote to them to put them straight. Burchard referenced the prophet Isaiah’s comment that a garment mixed with blood would become fuel for the fire. Since the lay brothers were accused of fighting, he warned them that their beards may become fuel for the fire.

If this was an attempt at medieval banter, it did not go down well. The lay brothers heard this as a threat to burn off their beards if they misbehaved again. As a result, the tension rose, and Abbot Burchard decided to write a treatise on the topic of the beard as a final word on the matter.

Apologia de Barbis is masterful. It is absurd in its claims and wildly ambitious in its prose. Burchard attempts to praise the beards of the lay brothers and extols their virtues at length. He draws on the natural philosophy of the Early Church Fathers, setting out that the beard was a symbol of the virtue of man: “A beard is appropriate to a man as a sign of his comeliness, as a sign of his strength, as a sign of his wisdom, as a sign of his maturity, and as a sign of his piety.

CREATIVE COMMONSLord Williams of Oystermouth

“And when these things are equally present in a man, he can justly be called full-bearded, since his beard shows him to be not a half-man or womanly man, but a complete man, with a beard that is plentiful on his chin and along his jaw and under his chin.”

At this point, however, Burchard backs himself into a philosophical corner. If beards are so great, how come the monks shaved them off? The answer was that they grew inner beards. It was what was inside that mattered more than outward appearances. Just as it was more important to have faith than merely to go through the motions; so it was more important to have the virtues that the beard represented than to have the beard itself. Bishop Bruno had made the same argument a few years earlier:

“Men who are strong are superior to those who only wish to seem so. Therefore, let our interior beard grow, just as the exterior is shaved; for the former grows without impediment, while the latter, unless it is shaved, creates many inconveniences and is only nurtured and made beautiful by men who are truly idle and vain.”

Burchard argued that, while the beard was a symbol of virtue, it was also a source of temptation to vanity. So a monk in pursuit of the highest calling might shave off the beard and embrace the outwardly embarrassing appearance in order to avoid the temptation to vanity, and thereby cultivate the inner beard of goodness.

He advised the lay brothers to let their beards grow unkempt and be “neglected in rustic lack of fashion”. In the culmination of his great work, Burchard considered beards in the afterlife. He concluded that men will stop shaving in the world to come and all will be bearded. When we rise to be with the Lord, the temptation to vanity will fall away and the inner beard of virtue will be complete. We will have both inner and outer beards in heaven.

It is hard to tell if this calmed the lay brothers down. But it has left the world with a masterpiece of medieval theology on the topic of beards. And the answer to our opening question: men will be bearded in heaven.

This is an extract from Beard Theology, by The Church Mouse, with illustrations by Dave Walker, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).

The Church Mouse is the pseudonym used by an Anglican blogger.


This is the priest all shaven and shorn — and this this is the one who isn’t. They make their case

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie, Assistant Curate of Liverpool Parish Church

AS SOMEONE who fits somewhat awkwardly into the High Church tradition, I am acutely aware that an oft-levelled criticism is that we focus a little too much on outward appearance. This having been said, I have rarely thought theologically about beards. Perhaps this is party bias coming through again: compare the thick face-carpets of Evangelical heroes such as Ridley to the neat, nearly unnoticeable goatee of Laud.

I wonder, however, whether this is not a question more of generational than of ecclesiological identity. At 27, I have scarcely known a non-bearded world. The clean-shaven barbarism of Blair’s Britain is but a distant memory for one who came of age amid the luxuriantly lathered locks that adorned the faces of Cameroonian hipsters.

I may have allowed ecclesial identity to triumph generational: I wander the streets with a heavy stubble at most — a very Anglican middle ground between Reformed thicket and Roman clean cheeks. It’s partly owing to laziness, partly to convince people that I am old enough to be in Holy Orders, and partly to provide some semblance of structure to my otherwise blancmange-like face.

We conduct somewhere in the region of 30 weddings a year at Liverpool Parish Church, and, now that I think of it, the grooms are more often bearded than not. If the children brought for Christening were, too, I might take notice. But while baptising bearded babies might bamboozle me, I have to agree with The Church Mouse’s conclusion that, to God, it matters not a whisker.


The Revd Adam Atkinson, Missional Director of Development for the Two Cities Area, London

Adam AtkinsonMY EAST-London parish-barber-shop-planting friend Steve was trying to persuade me to have a tattoo: “Come on, you’re a Vicar. How about a nice big cross on your back?” So this beard is a compromise; it is a missional contextual beard. “I become all things to all people” — or at least, by not shaving, to some people — “that by all possible means I might save some”. Reaching the poor, the cool, and the Muslim in Tower Hamlets doesn’t require a beard, but it opens up doors to conversation, even if we don’t get beyond what “product” I use (again, I’m local-brand loyal).

Having been a parish priest in the Stepney Area, I was a mere minnow among bearded sea bass. Some colleagues are far more hirsute, of even Edward Lear-esque proportions. In a new post, happily described as a “church bureaucrat” by an Area Dean with whom I now work in central London, the facial hair that I see around me is less numerous and more carefully curated. In every case, the clergy beard has a story, often connected by a commitment to contextual mission.

This beard doesn’t have to stay; but, for now, it is here to do some work. In concluding his Letter the Colossians, St Paul writes: “Over all these virtues put on love.” I don’t want to be too kind to my face, but the beard is here less for family photographs or even to placate Steve. It is in place as part of a strange experiment with choosing to transmit the love of Jesus.

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