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Hallo again to all.

Biretta on iceIn recent months, our thoughts have been full of matters covenantal and archiepiscopal, historical and bibliophilic, missionary and antiphonal. By our lights, some aspect of each of these topics has been either sublime or ridiculous, and we are assured by your letters to the editors that you also find them sublime and ridiculous.

This week, we're exercised by a question about that most sublime and ridiculous of matters, ecclesiastical haberdashery, and what may be meant by the vague toponym 'Biretta Belt'.

For the churchly geographers and cartographers Alec Vidler called 'sophisticated churchmen', the Biretta Belt was 'an area in the Middle West' of the United States characterised by 'dioceses of one ecclesiastical colour'. We've also seen and heard the term applied to a cluster of Anglo-Catholic churches in and around Birmingham, to the regional Australian ritualism of the Diocese of Bunbury, to the tradition of catholic-flavoured Anglicanism practised in the New Guinea Mission throughout the twentieth century, and to a collection of churches near Cardiff. With the exception of Vidler's use of the term in 1948, it is always used in the past tense as a description of how things ecclesiastical once were in an undefined place.

Don Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum are slightly more definite in their dictionary definition of an indefinite term:

"Biretta Belt." Slang expression for dioceses in the vicinity of the Great Lakes that were once considered to be characterized by Anglo-catholic practices. The term is derived from the traditional fondness of some Anglo-catholic clergy for wearing birettas. Use of this hat was considered by some to be an emblem of Anglo-catholicism. The term is dated and imprecise because few dioceses in this region are now characterized by distinctive Anglo-catholic practice. It is also misleading because Anglo-catholicism cannot be equated with the use of a biretta. (An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, 2005)

We're convinced that Biretta Belt came to be used in wry homage to what H.L. Mencken called 'the Bible and Lynching Belt' in a 1926 essay on conservative religion and racial violence in the American South. We're also increasingly convinced that the Biretta Belt may never have existed as an identifiable, tangible, mappable, trappable place except in the minds of those who used this term, whether in America, England, Wales, Australia, or Papua. As far as we have been able to discern, no one sent postcards that said 'Greetings from the Biretta Belt. Wish you were here. Home soon!' or compiled extant directories of churchmanship (outside of Great Britain) that would give us concrete statistics about who did what where.* The best approximations we have are a kind of Potter Stewart doctrine of church belief and practice—subjective in the extreme, and always shifting.

Like Six Points, Full Catholic Privileges, Ultramarine, TARPing, and similar church controversial terms of the last two centuries, Biretta Belt is an example of groupspeak—meaningful to those who used and use it to describe something they know, and excluding understanding by those outside the intended audience. It's a language for initiates that, no matter how fun it may be to use, does something in the end to hinder the free course of the Gospel. With such labels, we speak in a shorthand that makes it hard for new people to learn the language of our faith; we do a disservice to the richness of our tradition by having an impaired and impairing system of naming others today.

We're confident that a century and two from now all the intended hues of meaning involved in today's churchscape—conservative, orthodox, liberal, catholic, Covenant compliant, traditionalist, institutionalist, revisionist, open, evangelical, scriptural, affirming, modern—will be quite as slippery in retrospect as the Biretta Belt is today, and quite as evanescent in the end, too.

We'll pick other labels to describe our siblings, parents, and children in the church militant, labels whose meaning is new every morning like the love our waking and uprising prove: faithful, brave and true.

See you next week. God helping, we'll be here, too.

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Last updated: 27 February 2011
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* Blagdon-Gamlen's fascinating and useful Church Travellers Directory: Giving the Names of Anglican Churches in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where may be found a Daily Celebration of the Holy Communion, a Sung Eucharist on all Sundays, Fixed Times when Confessions may be heard, and continuous Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament seems at first an exception to this statement. But it dates from 1973, when church journalists already used Biretta Belt in the past tense.

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