Ralph Adams Cram on “Clerical Barbering” (1907)

To the Editor of The Living Church:

THE letter of a correspondent in your issue of August 24th, dealing with the position of the clergy in the matter of facial adornment, calls attention to a question which is certainly delicate and personal, and as certainly a minor, and, at first thought, unimportant detail. On the other hand, we are fast coming to realize that “it is the little things that count,” and that it is precisely details of this kind that affect, subtly but efficiently, the welfare and the progress of the Church.

The matter of what has recently been called the “tonsorial ineptitudes” of the clergy is one of extreme interest from a psychological standpoint. Why do so many priests, yes, and even Bishops, bedeck themselves with the heavy and glowering moustache of the barkeeper or the metropolitan policeman, with the unearthly combination of moustache and side-whiskers of the epoch of the war between the states, with the bushy bunches beside the ears that once marked the Anglican ecclesiastic, or with that consummation of all ineptitudes, the Wesleyan chin-beard with the shaven upper lip?

There seem to be but three explanations: first, the procedure is a matter of principle; second, it is the result of vanity; third, it may be attributed to carelessness, indifference, or thoughtlessness.

Tradition and custom have imposed two courses on the clergy, and these held from the beginning until the seventeenth century: a priest may shave his beard completely or he may not shave at all: the reasons are perfectly obvious, one of the principal ones being that he is supposed to be above fantasticism, vanity, and excessive individualism. If a priest or Bishop depart from this custom of sixteen hundred years he must do so for one of the reasons named above.

It would seem to be fitting that an official, be he of a secular or a spiritual organization, should show through every detail of his appearance and his conduct, the principles and the power for which he stands. We are told that there are in this Church, priests who deny their priesthood, and it is easy to see why such, if indeed they exist, should proclaim this fact by their method of shaving, as well as by their costume and conversation. When, therefore, a priest wears a fine moustache or manifests some curious combination of hirsuit and hairless areas on his face, we assume at once that he does this for the purpose of proclaiming to the world that he is precisely as other men, that the Sacrament of Orders is no sacrament, and that he is not a priest at all but only such a licensed leader and teacher as his brothers of the Protestant denominations. Now this is logical, and so far as the act itself is concerned, unexceptionable; but the fact remains that we all know scores of priests who are loyal and true to the Catholic faith, and even Bishops who are above suspicion, who yet do shave themselves fantastically, and so misrepresent themselves before the world.

Why is this? In some cases it may be simply carelessness, indifference, thoughtlessness as to the significance of small things; vanity it cannot be; at all events we are averse to attributing so unworthy a motive to worthy men. My own impression is that in the great majority of cases it is due to principle, as in the instance of those who deny Catholic faith and order, but here the action is, I think, the result of a radical mistake. A somewhat careful examination of the facts convinces me that the moustache, except when it indicates disloyalty, is found on those who are most earnest and ardent in their work amongst men of the middle and lower classes, and I believe it indicates a belief on the part of its wearer, that what these same men want of the priesthood is a minimizing of differences, an ignoring of sacerdotal character, a “meeting them on their own ground” of appearance, costume, conversation, and manners, a “hail fellow well met” spirit that supposedly breaks down prejudice and wins respect and confidence.

Now this is a praiseworthy thing, and if the contention were sound there would be no Catholic of us all who would not accept “Piccadilly weepers,” “sou’westers,” or “galaway sluggers”—if only they did their work. The point is that they would not do it, nor does the treasured moustache. A visit to a Roman church of a Sunday, or attendance at a Roman mission for men, demonstrates at once that Rome does not find moustaches or side-whiskers necessary to the winning of masculine confidence. The simple truth is that there are no people in the world who are more impressed by law and order in costume, conversation, and barbering than are these same men of the middle and lower classes. If a gentleman is to address the latter at a public meeting they distrust him if he appears in flannel shirt and overalls. They accept him if he comes in a frock coat and top-hat in the day-time, or in dress clothes in the evening. And nine times out of ten this is their attitude towards the cleric. If I had the task of evangelizing the East Side of New York, the stockyards of Chicago, or a mining town in Pennsylvania, I would send in, not moustached clergy in business suits, but tonsured religious in cassock and scapular and cowl, and I believe they would gain a hearing and command confidence where the secularizers would fail.

Not to refer again to Rome, consider St. Peter’s, London Docks, and St. Alban’s, Holborn, the fathers of the S. S. J. E., and other aggressively Catholic manifestations in England and America. They get men, and the moustache and the “sack suit” are not conspicuously evident amongst them.

So far then as the loyal Bishops and clergy are concerned, it seems to be all a mistake, based on a misunderstanding of the prejudices and predilections of men. Of course there is another element in the case, and that is the curious lack of artistic sense and of the feeling for what may be called “aesthetic composition” that marks the Church to-day. Law holds Rome from technical error though it does not preserve her from essential offense in all the arts, but with us law is inoperative. The sight of a heavily moustached priest in a chasuble, or of a Bishop with the same hirsuit “adornment” in cope and mitre, would be so curious that it would appeal even to our purblind esthetic sense; but we are so used to diversely barbered choristers in cassock and cotta that our risibilities are not affected when a priest presents the same appearance, while the contemporary costume of a Bishop is so unspeakably awful in itself that it harmonizes perfectly with facial landscape-gardening, however complicated it may be.

Still, the times are changing; law and order and the sense of beauty and propriety are winning slow acceptance; the chin-beard with the shaven lip has gone the way of all flesh; and while the lonely but emphatic moustache has taken its place, this also will pass as soon as its disloyal connotation is recognized, and earnest men come to see that it hinders rather than helps the evangelization of men.

R. A. Cram.

[The discussion of this subject is now at an end.—Editor L. C]

The Living Church, September 28, 1907, pp. 747-748.

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