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When Lydia Calviness died two years ago at the age of 93, she bequeathed her church hats to her grandniece Monica Moss. Genealogically speaking, Ms. Moss did not qualify as the closest female relative. Ms. Calviness had arranged the inheritance because Ms. Moss, like her, was what the lexicon of black Christianity calls a “first lady” — the pastor’s wife.

Touched as she was by the gesture, Ms. Moss fretted about what to do with those dozen hats. Felt and wool and straw, pink and green and gold, adorned with bands and flowers, they typified the kind of grand headwear known in the black church as a “crown.” More than any article of female attire, such a hat served simultaneously as fashion statement, religious obligation and emblem of self-worth.

The quandary for Ms. Moss was that, while she hallowed the tradition, she did not personally adhere to it, at least not on a regular basis. A half-century younger than her great-aunt, Ms. Moss stood on the opposite shore of a generational divide among black churchwomen, part of a younger cohort that considers the crown optional or even irrelevant to its worship experience.

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