January 14, 2010
I was talking about beards with a friend recently and shared that I had one for most of my allegedly adult life until 1993. I told him that I had always sworn that I would shave it off when I was old enough to be taken seriously without it. Without missing a beat, he told me that I had better hurry and grow it back. To go bearded or not is of no real consequence today but Diarmaid MacCulloch in his encyclopedic biography of Thomas Cranmer (Yale, 1996) shares that clerical beards were areal statement during the English Reformation. Early portraits of Cranmer show him clean-shaven in what some saw as the ‘traditional’ style. With the death of Henry VIII, Cranmer began to grow his beard and grow it long in the style of the evangelicals or the reformers. Later Bishop Hooper would make it a condition of his accepting the See of Gloucester that he not have to shave off his long beard. It was a party statement rather as a Roman collar is for some clerics today, or a blue cassock in days gone by.
As I think about it I suppose there is still some sense in which a beard might suggest something of the ‘counter–culture’ about the man who sports one. What the work of Eamon Duffy makes clear in his recasting of the way in which we tell the story of the English Reformation is that there is no really straight line from Rome to Reform and that much of what we know has the ‘spin’ of history along with it rather in the way in which Kings and Chronicles cover much the same ground from differing perspectives or the Deuteronomist differs with traditional views about the establishment of the Monarchy for Israel. Some of our current Anglican conflicts are a continuing consequence of English willingness to ‘muddle through’ rather than determine decisively whether to be Catholic or Reformed. Much of the battle in North America about who are the true bearers of the Anglican ‘brand’ is being fought as a public relations issue with theology as the excuse. I wonder which side should be sporting the beards.