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Will Vicars Growing a Beard Impress Muslims?

26/01/2016 10:25 GMT | Updated 25/01/2017 10:12 GMT

The Bishop of London, the Right Rev Richard Chartres, has taken the extraordinary step of praising two of the vicars in his diocese not for their piety or self-sacrifice, but for growing their beards.

This, he says, is laudable as a means of connecting with the significant percentage of Muslims who live in their parish, Tower Hamlets in East London. It is certainly true that many Muslims regard having a beard as a sign of religious authenticity - dating from the time that Mohammed instructed his followers to allow their beards to grow.

But this raises some awkward religious issues. For a start, where does that leave female vicars? Does the lack of a beard mean they lack authenticity, or is the very idea of a female minister so unacceptable in Muslim eyes anyway, that a hairless chin makes no difference to their credibility?

There is also a coded religious history to beards that has often been used as a way of showing your identity, and particularly as a way of differentiating yourself from those with whom you disagree.

Thus whereas the ancient Egyptians saw hairlessness as a sign of divinity, there are many biblical references to the Israelites sporting a beard. This in turn led the Catholic clergy to be clean-shaven so as to distinguish themselves from the people of the Old Testament whose covenant with God they reckoned had now been superseded by the Church.

When Protestantism arose, many of its clergy returned to being bearded so as to separate themselves from the Catholic priesthood, which had become associated with hypocrisy and corruption. The Greek Orthodox priests did likewise, though they have maintained their beards to this day and not let them lapse, as have most Anglicans done.

In the popular mind, too, beards give variable signals. They are a sign of masculinity, as well as marking the arrival of adulthood, with the purchase of one's first razor almost being a rite of passage. Yet beards can have negative connotations too: it is associated with brutality, with the term 'Barbarians' having the image of bearded hordes. Certainly Peter the Great felt they were uncivilized, ordering his nobles to cut of their beards and imposing a beard tax in St Pertersburg for everyone else, as part of his attempt to give a modern make-over to his empire.

For some, beards are a sign of laziness and those applying for job interviews were, until recently, advised to go clean-shaven. The thinking was: how can you trust someone to work hard in your office when they cannot be bothered to shave in the morning? The hippy adoption of beards as part of their identity was a deliberate protest against such regimented thinking.

It seems that modern politicians also worried that a beard might make the public doubt their suitability for the job, for Jeremy Corbyn is a rare party leader with a beard, and one has to go back to the mid 19th century and Benjamin Disraeli to think of another prominent one.

But if popular icons have a message, it is that most of us are ambivalent about beards: would Father Christmas or Colonel Sanders look so avuncular without one, or Captain Hook and Blackbeard be as villainous? Perhaps the answer is in the type of beard: well-groomed or straggly, cultivated or neglected.

What is not in doubt is the time element involved in not having facial hair. Allan Peterkin (beard connoisseur and author of 'One Thousand Beards'), has estimated that an eighty year old man will have spent 2,965 hours of his life shaving. Maybe those two vicars are cleverer than we think.