It is the custom in the Armenian Church, as well as many other churches throughout the world, for women to cover their heads with a hat or veil during worship services, or at least while receiving Holy Communion. This custom has its roots in ancient social norms that carefully regulated the behavior and interaction between men and women in public places.
Every culture, East and West, has its unwritten rules about what men and women should wear, how they should greet each other, how freely they may interact, how closely they stand from each other during conversation, and other matters. Until very recently in Armenian Churches, for example, families did not sit (or stand) together. Men sat together on one side of the church; and women and children on the other. In many eastern churches, such segregation of men and women continues to this day and is considered harmless and even quite appropriate. Social conventions like these are understood to promote order, propriety and security in public life.
Many assume that in the modern world social norms of this sort have been abolished, but this is not at all true. To give just one example, men— even if they are Armenians — may greet each other by shaking hands or perhaps by a kiss on one or both cheeks, but not by a kiss on the lips.
St. Paul devotes a long passage in his First Letter to the Corinthians to the issue of women covering their heads during Christian worship [1 Corinthians 11:2-16]. In it he writes:
Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. [1 Corinthians 11:4-6]
Although St. Paul’s harsh words might seem to be very clear, scholars have recognized that the full passage is rather more complicated. In it St. Paul shows signs of wrestling with the issue. He prefers that the Corinthian community uphold the traditional societal norms by which women cover their heads in church as a visible way of highlighting the difference between men and women. At the same time, he knows that in Christ, men and women are equal [1 Corinthians 7:17-24, 11:11; Galatians 3:28], so there should be no harm if women lay aside their head coverings.
We must also remember that one of the most revolutionary and counter-cultural features of Christianity was that women were invited to participate in worship actively and visibly alongside men. In other pre- Christian religions of the Middle East, women were largely excluded, if not exploited. This may explain in part why St. Paul preferred that women continue to cover their heads in church. Maintaining the old custom may have smoothed over the potential awkwardness caused by the new and provocative Christian assembly, where, in prayer, men and women shared an intimacy unparalleled in any other public place of the time.
What does this mean for us today? Most people who insist that women should cover their heads in Armenian churches usually do so for one of two reasons: either they have an emotional attachment to church customs and practices from the old days or “the old country;” or they are liturgical fundamentalists, who vastly oversimplify and misinterpret St. Paul’s words about women covering their heads.
Today gender and societal boundaries are not what they were in first- century Corinth. In Armenian Church parishes in North America today, nothing is more natural than seeing families worshipping together, men and women seated together, even exchanging the Kiss of Peace. Nor do we live in a culture where a woman without a veil or a man with long hair is considered “disgraceful” or “degrading” [1 Corinthians 11:6, 14]. If we want to prevent disgrace we would surely do better to turn our attention to other breaches of Christian propriety: women and men who come to church dressed for the beach or the night club; men and women who blithely stroll into church late; not to mention men and women who have no interest in the church at all. In the face of such modern-day perversions I believe St. Paul would have nothing more to say about women not wearing head veils.
Still, old customs are resilient. In some of our parishes, women are expected to cover their heads during the Divine Liturgy or at least when receiving Communion. In other parishes, the custom has fallen completely out of use. In dealing with conflicting practices, we must above all show love and tolerance, which are at the heart of the Badarak. To create a scene in church by either forcing one to cover her head; or by refusing to take a veil, and in the process to become angry and hurt or hurtful, is to allow an incidental trifle to become the cause of sin and scandal. And if anything, that is disgraceful.
Source: Frequently Asked Questions on the Badarak, The Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church by Michael Daniel Findikyan.