Friday, August 14, 2015

Stump the Priest: Altar Girls?

Question: "Is it proper for a parish to have altar girls?"

This is clearly contrary to the Tradition of the Church, and is an unfortunate example of creeping modernism that it is tolerated in parishes anywhere -- but thankfully it is still fairly rare.

It is certainly true that there is not an absolute prohibition against women entering the altar when there is a need for it, and in convents, it is common to have nuns serve in the altar, because obviously in a convent there are not a lot of males available for serving in the altar. However, this is done because it is necessary, not because it is "fair" or to give the nuns "something to do" during the services.

See: The Churching of Boys vs. the Churching of Girls for more on that subject.

Why is this the Tradition? We are not always given a list of justifications along with the Traditions that the Church has handed down to us, and so in this case, one cannot point to the official reasons for it, so far as I am aware. However, where the Tradition is clear, we should simply follow it out of obedience. As St. John Chrysostom put it: "Is it Tradition?  Seek no further" [Homilies on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians 4:2].

However, here is what I think explains this Tradition:

Traditionally, clergy are generally drawn from those who first served as altar servers. Altar servers were once classified as minor clergy, and it is still the case that before one is tonsured a reader (which is called "the first degree in the Priesthood" in that service), the individual being tonsured is first made a "taper-bearer" (or "candle-bearer," i.e. an acolyte). Readers, subdeacons, deacons, priests, and bishops have always been men, and so it makes no sense to have "altar girls" entering into a path that they could not follow.

Of course those who oppose this Tradition would at this point ask, "What about deaconesses?" The office of deaconess was never a female equivalent of deacon. It was a ministry that existed for women, and the primary liturgical function they had was to perform the baptisms of adult women at a time when adults of both sexes were baptized naked. Because adults were baptized naked, women and men were not baptized together, and when women were baptized, the deaconesses performed all the functions a priest would otherwise perform, and a priest would say the prayers behind a screen. When Christianity succeeded in gaining at least nominal adherence from most of the people in the countries in which it existed, adult baptism became rare, because most people were baptized as infants, and so the office of the deaconess ceased to have a need to fulfill, and gradually disappeared. Though in our time, adult baptisms are very common, the practice is no longer to baptize adults naked.

See: Voices from St. Vladimir: Deaconesses, which is a conversation between Fr. Chad Hatfield and Fr. Lawrence Farley on this subject. You may also want to read Fr. Lawrence Farley's book on the subject: Feminism and Tradition: Quiet Reflections on Ordination and Communion.

The next question that one may ask is why only men can be ordained as clergy. Again, we first must simply say that this is the Tradition of the Church. Furthermore, the notion that this is based on cultural prejudices of the time of the Apostles, and that perhaps it never occurred to Christ or the Apostles that women might be ordained is belied by the fact that pagan priestesses existed not only during the time of the Apostles, but also throughout the history of Israel. So clearly Christ and the Apostles made a conscious decision that clergy would be males only. This is not because women are not smart, or capable -- because obviously they are -- but because they have other roles to fill.

Being a priest is a fatherly role... which is why priests are called "Father". There are also motherly roles in the Church, and women fulfill them. Then there are roles that are open to "whosoever will," and women fulfill those roles too. And we as families and as a Church need to encourage men to fulfill those roles which are in fact fatherly. Women tend to be more pious than men, speaking generally. Often at lesser attended weekday services, I am reminded of the women at the Cross of Christ, because when I look out at the congregation, I might see the occasional "John", but the women almost always outnumber the men by rather large margins. Men need to be encouraged, especially by women, to take up their responsibilities as spiritual leaders in the home and in the parish. Of course many in our politically correct culture will immediately react to any suggestion that there is a need for male spiritual leadership, but there is empirical data that demonstrates that this is simply a fact of human nature, as God created it.

There was  a Swiss study that showed that if both the father and mother attend Church regularly, 33 percent of their children will be regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will attend irregularly, and 25 percent of their children will cease practicing their faith altogether. If the father attends Church irregularly but the mother is regular, only 3 percent of the children will attend Church regularly, 59 percent will attend irregularly, and 38 percent will cease practicing their faith. If the father is non-practicing and mother attends Church regularly, only 2 percent of children will attend Church regularly, 37 percent will attend irregularly, and over 60 percent of will cease practicing their faith. However, if the father attend Church regularly but the mother attends irregularly or is non-practicing, the percentage of children who grow up to be attend Church regularly goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother, and to 44 percent with the non-practicing mother. Clearly this shows that the spiritual leadership of the father, or the lack thereof, plays a crucial role... and that is just the way it is, whether one likes it or not (See: Touchstone Magazine: The Truth About Men & Church, by Robbie Low, you can also listen to a sermon on this topic: Christian Leadership in the Home).

Male participation in the Orthodox Church is generally better than most, but we need to work harder to encourage men to step up to the plate and take on their responsibilities as pious laymen, husbands, and fathers (See: Why Orthodox Men Love: Many men may not love church, but Orthodox men do, by Khouriah Frederica Matthews-Green).

What then should girls and women do during the services? The same thing that men who are not serving in the altar or singing in the choir should be doing -- praying, and worshiping God. That is the first and most important task that we come to Church to perform. And it is not such a small task that one should need something else to do. But some parishes do have some roles they assign to young girls, such as tending the candle stands, or serving the zapivka after the faithful receive Holy Communion. They can also sing in the choir -- and in fact the choir serves a more crucial role than the altar servers, because while a priest can serve without an altar server, if he must, he cannot serve without at least one chanter.

If ever there was a human being (aside from Christ Himself) that was more worthy of any honor the Church could bestow, it would be the Virgin Mary, and yet she was never ordained to serve a priestly role in the services of the Church. However, while she did not preside over the celebration of the Mystery of the Eucharist -- she played a rather crucial part in the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, which made the Eucharist possible. Motherhood (both natural and spiritual) is a great honor and a thing of incredible power, beauty, and worth. Fatherhood (both natural and spiritual) is not a better thing, it is simply different. As most of us have noticed, men and women are different, and our roles are different, but they are complementary. Neither is possible without the other, and both depend on the strength and support of the other. And so we should not allow ourselves to be talked into blurring the lines between the two by a culture that is on a self destructive trajectory, and which has only managed to rob both men and women of the virtues of their sexes.

See also: Stump the Priest: The Priesthood.

Update: On Facebook I was asked why a women cannot fulfill a clerical role?

I responded:

"When there are no men who know how to read the Epistle at a service it often happens that a women does read it. I would imagine in a convent, if a bishop came to serve, you might also have some of the nuns doing some of the functions of a subdeacon. It is certainly not that women could not perform the tasks in any in terms of their ability. But if you have a normal size parish, the percentage of people serving in the altar are a small fraction of the total. I think these functions are reserved for males, because men need to be encourage to step up to the plate of spiritual leadership, as I mentioned in the article. I have seen Protestant Churches were there are almost no men that attend. It is only women and children, and the Pastor... and in some cases the Pastor is a woman too. Men need women to encourage them to fulfill active, and positive roles, or else men will shirk responsibility and engage in only negative and destructive behavior."

The person commented that it was sad to see such negative expectations of men expressed, and so I responded:

"In my secular job, I am a Child Support Officer, and so I see this phenomenon on display on a much wider scale than in the context of the Church. I have also seen comments from the fathers that confirm the generalization that women tend to be more pious than men. That does not mean that men cannot be pious or that women always are. But if you take a look at the article I linked to on the Swiss study, it is just a fact that male spiritual leadership is needed. Women often fill the role of spiritual leader in a family because the father is not there, but they also do so in many cases because the father will not step up the plate. They need to expect men to fulfill that role, and encourage them to do it. This should begin with their mothers, and should continue with their wives."

In response to this, Rhonda Dodson told a telling story:

"I am so glad to hear a man say that, Fr. John! I've said that myself & received considerable flack.

I was once in a parish where a few women did everything except serve in the altar. I once saw the priest ask 3 men to help him serve in different aspects...just small & short tasks one of which was to hold the communion cloth. All 3 refused stating that we women could do it. One commented that women should be allowed to serve in the altar if the men did not want to & since the priest was not willing to allow us to do that, then the priest obviously did not really need the help. Another even stated that as far as he was concerned, his "duty" to the Church was done when he dropped his check into the offering box. The third stated that he came to Church to relax, not to "work".

Ironically, a 7-yr old boy who had never served volunteered immediately showing himself to be the real man of the group. Overall, the whole day was extremely sad."