Beard Theology Rules!
Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40 (NIV)
Wider reading from:
Recently we enjoyed a family break for a week in North Elmham, North Norfolk, to some extent at least trying to follow the messages from Government, encouraging “staycations”. As with any first time visit there were things we were close to but did not quite make it to see: the cell of Julian of Norwich, the gardens at Walsingham Abbey and so a return some time should be on the cards.
I did venture on my own towards the end of the week to the top of the village with the aim of seeing the newly-appointed village sign (very impressive, by the way!) and happened by accident upon the remains of a Norman Chapel which is now looked after by English Heritage. The chapel is on the site of an earlier Anglo Saxon timber cathedral which housed the episcopal throne of the bishops of Elmham from around 672 until the episcopal see was moved to Thetford in 1071. A mid 9th-century copper-alloy hanging censer was discovered at North Elmham in 1786. The earthworks and ruins at North Elmham stewarded by English Heritage are thought to be the remains of Bishop Herbert de Losinga‘s late 11th-century episcopal church and the late 14th-century double-moated castle built on this by Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich. Henry came from a powerful family who had strong links with the House of Plantagenet and the notorious ‘favourites’ of King Edward II.
We did however make an extraordinary pilgrimage towards the end of the week to the adopted home of “Captain Fawcett”. Arriving at an industrial estate on the outskirts of King’s Lynn, things did not look too promising and I thought it might go down as yet another of my disastrous forays into the unknown. How wrong can you be? What awaited us was a veritable cornucopia: The Marvellous Barbershop Museum located on the mezzanine floor of Captain Fawcett’s Emporium, curated by Richie Finney, the Captain’s Right-Hand Man, one with a background in the British Film Industry and with the eye of a set designer. We were treated to a tour round the museum, which boasts a phenomenal collection of barbering tools, objects and items of curiosity from the world of tonsorial art, followed by a visit of the production area, the packing and warehousing department, the board room and finally chatting over coffee with the Right-Hand Man himself, Richie Finney. In the 10 years since its establishment and from small beginnings in Richie’s kitchen where he mixed oils and created his range of moustache waxes, the business has won numerous awards and now exports to 42 different countries.
Captain Peabody Fawcett RN, so the story goes, continued his expeditions in retirement, but disappeared during an attempt to reach the source of the Ubungi River in the Congo. Though no trace of him was ever found, a suitcase was discovered and its contents revealed a vast array of potions which ultimately spawned the range of first-class grooming requisites which now bear his name. All hail the hirsute! The legend lives on!
I have long been a devotee of the beard and have worn one since the tender age of 21, never having fully shaved it off for any occasion. The subject is one of fascination to me and in lockdown there has been the opportunity to perhaps push the boundaries a little! The re-emergence of variety in facial hairstyles harks back to the days in the 19th century when men sported all sorts of amazing creations, assisted no-doubt by copious amounts of wax! At Woodhouse Grove we have a time-line going back to 9th January 1812, when the school was first opened for a group of 12 boys, all the sons of Methodist Ministers. One of the most fascinating features is the series of photographs, almost all men of course and with a plethora of hirsute exhibits! I am in awe and aspire to many great beards, especially those of Wild Bill Hicock, the members of the band ZZ Top, the Hairy Biker Si King and those of Mel Gibson and Sean Penn in the 2019 film, “The Professor and the Madman”, the story of the birth of the Oxford English Dictionary. There were some pretty good ones in the Netflix series “The Vikings” too, which I mentioned in a piece not too long ago!
Men have been exercising the right to wear beards since time immemorial. In fact, very often throughout history it has rather been less of a right and more of an obligation: until 1916, all soldiers in the British Army had to wear a moustache, whilst their chins were to be clean-shaven! Going back to the time of Jesus, men were pretty much obliged to maintain their beards, in the fullest sense of the word maintain … and keep them long. What possibly began as a ruling to aid general cleanliness amongst men, quickly became fashion and the mark of a man – it was now a matter of pride to have a large bushy beard. Leviticus 1:30 goes into great detail on what should be done about an infection in the beard.
The earliest representations of Jesus show him clean-shaven, though wearing a tunic of some sort and so it is clear that these images were idealized and from a Roman point of view. From the fourth century Jesus was more often than not portrayed with a beard. So this was part of his culture and born of practicality, less of a choice and more of an obligation. The rules were tight, not to say draconian. Nor do they relate solely to beards. There are rules on everything from clean and unclean food, to purification after child-birth and to mildew, to mention but a few. Interestingly, they deal in great detail with infectious diseases and the need for quarantine and how the people can be ultimately declared to be clean. It all sounds very familiar. You can read about this for yourselves in Leviticus from chapter 11 onwards.
If you do choose to delve back into this stuff, I hereby give you this warning: it is very graphic in places. Those wishing to enter the priesthood would do well to read this first and also Deuteronomy 23:1, for it will make any man’s eye water! (My dear brother Richard, turning 70 last month and due to be ordained Priest in the Manchester Diocese of the Church of England this very weekend has already seen it, I hope!
Much of my information comes from a book written by the Church Mouse as recently as 2019: “Beard Theology” and I recommend it to you as a fascinating read, if you have even the faintest of passing interests in “beardmania”!
I consider that most of us do not mind rules and in fact that we find them re-assuring and almost comforting. That is if they are clear, understandable and understood, appropriate, considered, measured, enforceable and enforced … and indeed that those who transgress are punished accordingly and appropriately. It seems that far too often recently these caveats have not been observed and so those who have been following the rules religiously have been let down by others who have set them up!
We, as Christians, have a simple set of rules to follow: the 10 commandments. Easy to understand though sometimes difficult to live up to.
The Greatest Commandment
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:34-40 (NIV)
According to God’s rules, let us do the right thing, by God and by our neighbour!
Peter Lambert – October 2020