YOUR QUESTIONS: Should women cover their heads when they enter the church? If not, then why do most older women in the villages of Western Ukraine wear scarves on their heads when going to church?
This is a wonderful question and its answer helps us understand a great deal about the complex relationship between cultural practices and our life as a faith community.
The quick answer to your first question is NO. There is no obligation for women to cover their heads when entering the church.
So, good question, why in many areas of the world (not just in Ukraine) is this the practice of many women? The answer lies in a long history of cultural norms imposing themselves on religious practice. There is no question that for too long (centuries in fact) women have been treated as second class citizens by the male dominated societies—this is not limited to Christian cultures. When a cultural norm is accepted by a religious community, in this instance, Christian, the community tries to validate its practice through a religious authority. In the case of women’s roles and, specifically, the need for women to cover their heads, men found an authority in one solitary passage in the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 11:4. There, most translations (remember our Ukrainian and English texts are translations from ancient Greek) speak of the need for women to cover their heads, or some translations say “not have their heads uncovered”. But this is the only instance in the New Testament when this is mentioned as something Christian women should do. So is St. Paul telling all Christian women to have head coverings when they go to church? Not likely. Why? In the early Church various Church leaders (Paul being the first) wrote many letters to the Christians of Corinth, so we know quite a bit about that community. This community was perpetually arguing. Most of the letters we have, and we have two written by St. Paul, try to explain to the Corinthian church the need for unity in diversity. This is the main theme of Paul’s first letter. He wants the Corinthians to learn to be respectful and united as they come together to celebrate the Eucharist. He addresses their specific context: their local practices and customs. At the time, Romans (the dominant group from which the Corinthian Christians came) were very concerned with, among other things, how people wore their hair and what it meant. For example, long, elaborately decorated hair of a woman was a sign of her high social standing because only such a person could have slaves who would style her hair. A woman with long loose hair or a shaved head was regarded as a woman of loose morals. Similarly, a man with long hair or a hairdo was seen in the same way.
Very simply, covered hair was Paul’s attempt to equalize class prejudice, so all could be treated with equal dignity and respect. Paul’s appeal for women to have their head covered was a means to facilitate respect for all women in the assembly. But as often happens the practice which continued under the cultural pressures of the middle ages, which gave women an inferior role, came to be an unquestioned tradition. Today, over 2 millenia after Christ’s actions and words (treating women, Samaritans, lepers, etc. as equals) first undermined the cultural categories and traditions of His day, our societies still struggle with the inequalities that sexism (and other practices of oppression) demand.
Here we come to Paul’s overall and consistent message in this letter: so although men and women are different: “in the Lord, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. Although woman came from man, so does every man come from a woman, and all things come from God.” (11:11-12) We live in mutual relationship, like the Holy Trinity. This echoes the foundational Pauline statement: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free man, there is no longer male or female. For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)