To “veil,” in this context, means simply to wear some sort of head-covering, either while in church, during times of prayer, and/or when receiving the Eucharist. It is an ancient custom of the Church, and one with Biblical warrant. In particular, St. Paul’s famous admonition:
“Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels. (Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.) Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God” (I Corinthians 11:4-6, 13-16 RSV).
This was not merely, as some have argued, a continuation of secular and pagan custom; it was a custom and, by Paul’s time, already a tradition of the Church. It may have been rooted in Jewish practice, but was also probably intended, at least in part, to separate the new Christian Church (Ekklesia = Assembly, e.g., of the Faithful) from the secular/pagan world in which it existed, but against many of whose norms Christianity presented what we might call a “counter-cultural” protest.
It can therefore have the same effect for Christians today, who choose to avail themselves of it. The veil can be a sign and a reminder, not only to those women who choose to be veiled, but to Christian men seeing them, that we Christians are called to be “in the world but not of the world,” a perspective it is easy to lose in our contemporary, highly secularized society, with its many distractions – which may themselves be either good or bad – from the faith.*
As the excellent Roman Catholic blog http://www.fisheaters.com unpacks the passage above,
“According to St. Paul, we women veil ourselves as a sign that His glory, not ours, should be the focus at worship, and as a sign of our submission to authority. It is an outward sign of our recognizing headship, both of God and our husbands (or fathers, as the case may be), and a sign of our respecting the presence of the Holy Angels at the Divine Liturgy. In veiling, we reflect the divine invisible order and make it visible. This St. Paul presents clearly as an ordinance, one that is the practice of all the churches…
“Note, too, that Paul is in no way being “misogynist” here. He assures us that, while woman is made for the glory of the man even as man is made for the glory of God, “yet neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, so also is the man by the woman: but all things of God.” Men need women, women need men. But we have different roles, each equal in dignity — and all for the glory of God (and, of course, we are to treat each other absolutely equally in the order of charity!).The veil is a sign of our recognizing these differences in roles.
“The veil, too, is a sign of modesty and chastity. In Old Testament times, uncovering a woman’s head was seen as a way to humiliate a woman or to punish adultresses and those women who transgressed the Law (e.g., Numbers 5:12-18, Isaias 3:16-17, Song of Solomon 5:7). A Hebrew woman wouldn’t have dreamed of entering the Temple (or later, the synagogue) without covering her head. This practice is simply carried on by the Church (as it is also by Orthodox Christians and even by “Orthodox” women of the post-Temple Jewish religion today).”
A “veil” in this sense refers – for us as 21st century Anglican Christians – to any head-covering that’s appropriate for wear in church (ball caps are not necessarily recommended…!); it may or may not be an actual veil. I have known some women who did not veil otherwise who would wear a light scarf to church, and pull it up over their heads specifically when they went forward to receive Communion, or perhaps while praying. The type of the head-covering, and when it is worn, is entirely up to the wearer’s conscience.
Indeed, one must be cautious that the veil does not itself become a matter of spiritual pride: those who veil are not intrinsically spiritually “better” than those who do not, nor should one allow oneself to compare one’s own head-covering with that of another, either for better or for worse. If either of those occurs, especially if it becomes common (human nature being what it is, everyone has occasional moments of either envy or judgment), it may be best to dispense with the veil oneself for a while!
Nor does it particularly matter whether or not we “agree” with St. Paul in every particular; it is certainly arguable whether “nature itself teach[es] that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him,” for instance. But that is not really the point. The point is – and we should be asking ourselves this in many regards, the question of veiling is only one and by no means the most important – are we willing to make commitments and undertake actions that define us specifically as Christians, and distinctive from “the world,” or not?
Please do not misunderstand me! I am not for one moment suggesting that veiling should be a rule for the women of St. Bede’s. That is a matter of conscience, between each woman and God. But I do think it is an interesting intellectual and, yes, spiritual exercise, to at least think about the matter. What, if anything, do you think veiling might provide, in terms of a spiritual benefit to you? And if you see none, what are your reasons for that decision?
Like the Lenten Fast, no spiritual discipline is equally apt for everyone. But one which was enjoined as emphatically as St. Paul asserts in the above passage, and maintained as loyally for as long – by Protestant as well as Catholic, albeit sometimes devolved to “fancy Easter hats” – as being veiled certainly at least deserves thoughtful and prayerful consideration. As the rest of the world becomes more and more secular, and sometimes even hostile to Christianity, we have two basic choices before us: one is to outwardly conform; to “hide in plain sight,” as it were. The problem with that is, the more we appear to be simply a part of secular society, the greater the temptation to be no more than that.
The other is to reassert our Christian-ness, and embrace our distinctives! Not in a prideful way, not to “think of ourselves more highly than we ought” but to stand firm for the Gospel – and, not incidentally, to make a visible witness to our Faith – in the face of an increasingly secularized and often hostile world. As an old Sunday School song of my childhood put it,
“Brightly beams our Father’s mercy, from his lighthouse evermore: But to us he gives the keeping, of the lights along the shore. Let the lower lights be burning, send a gleam across the wave: Some poor struggling, fainting sea-man, you may rescue, you may save!”