Not Saussure

October 26, 2006

Veils and vestments

Filed under: Catholicism, England, history, Islam — notsaussure @ 10:32 pm

A curious article on the Beeb website, purporting to draw parallels between current concern (at least in some quarters) about how Muslim women dress and religious controversy in the C17th:

These may seem like unfamiliar and uncharted waters that British society is moving into – controversy over religious clothing, and fearful tensions between a religious minority and the mainstream. In fact, we’ve been here before, 400 years ago – or somewhere uncannily like it.
In the days of Elizabeth I and James I/VI, the English church was riven by the Puritan controversy. The main issue – at least on the surface – was what ministers should wear: traditional robes or ordinary clothes. The difference is that then it was the establishment that demanded distinctive clothing and the radicals – the Puritans – who insisted on everyday wear.

and it goes on at some length to try to establish this.

I’d have thought there was an historically much more recent and far closer parallel, though; that between Catholics in Victorian England and Muslims today — recent immigrants, practicing a faith that had long been distrusted and seen as the enemy of Protestant England, and one with connections, at least in the English mind, both with hostile or potentially hostile foreign powers, with foreign religious leaders issuing fatwahs (or encyclicals, as we call them) that the faithful may be tempted to follow in preference to British law and custom.   You’ve certainly got the terrorist connections, and there was even controversy about religious dress; I’m not sure when the rule was revoked but certainly the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which is generally thought of as having removed most of the legal disabilities suffered by Catholics, provided

That if any Roman Catholic Ecclesiastic, or any member of any of the orders, communities or societies hereinafter mentioned, shall, after the commencement of this Act, exercise any of the rites or ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion, or wear the habits of his order, save within the usual places of worship of the Roman Catholic religion, or in private houses; such ecclesiastic or other person shall, being thereof convicted by due course of law, forfeit for every such offence the sum of Fifty pounds.

Curiously, though, they left religious women alone;

Provided always, and be it Enacted, That nothing herein contained shall extend or be construed to extend in any manner to affect any religious order, community or establishment consisting of Females bound by religious or monastic vows.

On a slight sidetrack, I’m always a bit bemused by complaints about Muslim women who wear the veil visibly rejecting British norms and mainstream society; I mean, most of us would agree, I’d have thought,  that taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and living a communal life with other, like-minded, folk was rather out of the mainstream and something of a radical rejection of many aspects of contemporary life and culture, but we don’t seem too bothered when monks and nuns do it.   I suppose one difference is  we’re used to seeing them. 

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