Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Altar Girls

Most Orthodox churches of my acquaintance in North America are served by “altar boys”—that is, by boys of pre-pubescent or adolescent age, vested in a sticharion robe and helping the priest by holding a candle, fetching the censer, and otherwise assisting him in the performance of the Divine Liturgy and the other church services.  Sometimes this office is fulfilled by grown men, often of advanced age.  Sometimes such men have been ordained as subdeacons (one can tell if they have by the orarion or long stole which they wear across their torso).  In the early church it appears that such older ordained men were exclusively chosen to serve this function of assistance at the altar, and that the phenomenon of young “altar boys” serving in this capacity is a later one.  The wisdom of such a development will not be debated here.  Here I would like to examine the question of whether or not this youthful function of liturgical assistance in the altar should be extended to girls as well as boys.  We now have altar boys.  Why not altar girls?
            Some voices in the Orthodox Church are calling for precisely this extension.  Thus, for example, Nicholas Denysenko, in his fascinating volume Liturgical Reform After Vatican II:  The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy.  After surveying a number of different Orthodox approaches to the issue of liturgical reform, Deacon Denysenko writes about the desirability of expanding the boundaries of liturgical participation available to women in the Orthodox Church.  For him this includes the creation of an order of deaconesses, and the formal tonsuring of women as readers in the Church.  “But,” he writes, “the integration of women into liturgical ministry should not end here.  Women and girls should also be permitted to serve as acolytes and enter the sanctuary.  Many Orthodox churches prohibit women from entering the sanctuary on account of rules of ritual impurity, a theological problem exacerbated by a limited episcopal directive in the United States that prohibited women from holding the cloth during Holy Communion.  The prohibition of women and girls from serving as acolytes depends on the faulty theology underpinning rules of ritual impurity and the dubious connection between serving as an acolyte and seeking ordination to a major order [such as deacons and priests].”
            What are we to make of all this? 
            First of all, we can agree with him that the rules of ritual impurity which would supposedly bar women from entering the altar sanctuary and holding the Communion Cloth are indeed based a faulty theology.  Concepts such as ritual impurity, either for women or men, are an essential and universal part of all religions, but the Christian Faith is not a religion.  Rather, it is a participation in the powers of the age to come, and therefore transcends such stoichea or elementary rules of the world such as govern religions (see Galatians 4:3-9, Colossians 2:8).  Concepts governing ritual impurity therefore do not apply to us—not because of any feminist rejection of the concepts as archaic, primitive, misogynist, and out-dated, but simply because these concepts have no relevance for Christians who are rooted in the age to come.
            That said, it is simply not true that the “connection between serving as an acolyte and seeking ordination to a major order” is “dubious”.  On the contrary, it is a proven historical fact, and moreover one that has happened in our own day.  When I first entered the Anglican Church, everyone serving at the altar was male—both the clergy and the junior “altar boys” (these latter called “servers”).  It was understood that only men could become members of “a major order”, and all the laity, both women and men, accepted it.  If asked why this was so, they would not have quoted St. John Chrysostom, or the referred to the consensus patrum, or even a verse from the Bible, though these existed in plenty.  Rather, plain and untrained people that they were, they would have simply replied that “it didn’t look right”.  That is, they had never seen a female in a clerical collar or church vestments standing about the altar (choir robes clearly were something else), and it was this emotional unfamiliarity that made them feel that such a thing as women priests “didn’t look right” and so should not be introduced.  Scholars like Denysenko might live in a world where Scripture, history, and liturgical precedent carry the day, and thus see no connection between acolytes and clergy.  It is true that Scripturally and historically, the two roles of acolyte and clergyman were quite distinct, and had little to do with each other.  But your average Anglican layperson did not inhabit that world.  They just went to their local parish and saw what they saw.  Both the short boy in a vestment and the taller man in a vestment stood about the altar and did liturgical stuff.  Often the short boys grew up and became clergymen themselves.  Indeed, if one served faithfully within the sanctuary as an altar boy it was almost taken for granted that one would eventually pursue Holy Orders—or at least that’s how many clergy felt, and often asked the faithful altar boy if he ever considered becoming a priest when he grew up.  For those living in the parish and not the towers of Academia, the connection between acolyte and major order was the most natural thing in the world.
           That was Anglicanism, of course.  But are Orthodox parishes so very different?  Is your average Orthodox layperson fully formed and immersed in Scripture, Patristics, and Lituriology?  (If it comes to that, is every Orthodox priest fully formed and immersed in Scripture, Patristics, and Lituriology?)  Can one realistically expect your average Orthodox layperson to give more weight to scholarly studies of the history of Holy Orders than to what they see each Sunday with their own eyes?
            Anyway, the Anglican Church of my experience began to expand the liturgical boundaries and allow girls to function as “servers” (referred to by one wag as “serviettes”).  The faithful laity therefore came to see vested girls in the altar sanctuary as normal.  Note well please:  this was before the first female was ordained to a major order.  Those justifying the female servers were adamant that this new development was okay:  the connection between serving as an acolyte and seeking ordination to a major order was dubious. 
            Except that it wasn’t.  Within a few years, the feminist push to obliterate the boundaries set by Holy Tradition succeeded in having women ordained as deacons (including declaring that women previously ordained as deaconesses were now deacons, whether they liked it or not.  Some did not.)  But deacons only, of course.  No one ever said that women could be priests.  That was a completely different Order.  The connection between serving as a deacon and serving as a priest was dubious.  Except that this wasn’t any more dubious than the connection between acolyte and major order, and soon enough a woman was ordained as a priest.  But a priest only, of course.  Not a bishop.  No one ever said that women could be bishops.  The connection between serving as a priest and serving as a bishop was dubious.  Then, of course, came women bishops.  Scholars might now cry out all they like that all these connections were dubious, and had no historical validity.  That is correct.  It is also irrelevant, as recent history has shown.  Developments in the Church occur and the laity acquiesce, not on the basis of sound scholarship, but on the basis of more humble and fundamental things—things like visual familiarity.  That is why our liturgical decisions must take account of how things actually function in the parishes.
            The drive to allow girls in the altar is misplaced, and is a symptom of a greater and more fundamental malaise.  It is easy to see what motivates good people like Deacon Denysenko—they see how girls feel left out and they want to do something to compensate.  The girls cannot grow up to become deacons or priests, but surely we can find something important for them to do so that they will not feel left out?  A girl sees her little brother serving in the sanctuary and looking important and is disappointed that she cannot do the same thing.  Perhaps she can hold the Communion cloth?  Or maybe let’s say that only girls can hold the Communion cloth?  Either way, we must find some way of (as the phrase goes) “involving them in the service”.
            Here, I submit, is the real problem—a devaluation of the role of the laity as laity, a problem which grows from the hidden root of clericalism.  This view of liturgy presupposes that the really important stuff that is done involves having a title and a vestment and a visually prominent role.  Merely being a communicant—i.e. someone who has become a child of God and has crossed over from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, and who dares to stand before the heavenly God with open face and boldly call Him “Our Father” and who receives the Body and Blood of His Son, after serving with those at the altar to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice with them—this is nothing.  It is does not have a title.  It does not stand out and call attention to itself.  Though it feeds the soul, it does not nourish the ego.

The truth is that the very title “layman” in our culture has become synonymous with “outsider”, “untrained”.  If I say, “I am a layman in these matters”, this means that I don’t really know what I am talking about.  In fact a member of the laity is the insider, the initiate, a member of the holy laos and people of God, an exalted member of the royal priesthood.  Compared with this, who needs a title or a vestment or a special job?  We have equated the clerical state with power, and therefore have declared the laity to be those without power, gift, or ministry.  This is wrong, and in fact demonic.  Our first task must be the recovery of the dignity of the laity, and a recognition that each baptized Christian has a spiritual gift to be used in the building up of the local Church, in service to the Christian community—a gift which may or may not come with a title or a vestment.  Creating a new category of “altar girl” or finding things for them to do so that they will “feel special and valued” (as I have heard it phrased) is exactly the wrong thing to do.  For our value does not depend upon jobs that are special, but upon our common membership in the holy Body of Christ.

19 comments:

  1. Sure. If you really hold this, I challenge you to reverse the gender polarity utterly, except as regards the sacraments: keep a minimal role for men, and let the women lead, speak, and define the boundaries. You cannot; that is because you are committed to 'what looks good'.

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    1. Indeed I cannot, because I am committed to fidelity to the Scriptures.

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    2. It is not so much the choices you make for the girls, but the caricature about their feelings, a reductive move. You do not feel special, I trust, nor wish to. But you have this status, and it only arise to your sight when someone else doesn't.

      It's not that you choose this or that for a female role - it's that you are choosing female roles at all. That you are weighing the value of lay women. I trust there is a value to your gift, too, and you should not be set aside. Let there be different roles. That is Scripture. But let the child's rule of honest division be used: 'You divide, and I'll choose.'

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    3. I am not sure I am so much caricaturing as reporting what I have experienced. But the maxim "You divide and I'll choose" is of limited application. Not everyone can choose everything, and the Church is tasked with the responsibility to declare what roles are available to certain people. Thus the role of priest is not available to women, or to divorced men, and the role of bishop is not open to married men. In declaring that these roles are not open to certain people, the Church does not thereby weigh their value, but acts in fidelity to what she has received. The issue is not my freedom to choose, but my obedience to what Christ has called me to.

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  2. I must say, Father, that I have rarely come upon bona fide bigotry advanced with such sincerety. "It doesn't look right" is an argument most people would be embarrassed to make.

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    1. Yet that is what the laypeople said. I am not sure it was bigotry so much as them lacking the tools to make any other response. Even the uneducated have a right to speak, although their arguments might lack sophistication.

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    2. As you well know, the same reaction has been advanced in response to seeing interracial couples (to name just one thing; the list can go on). Yet you readily agree that this is a legitimate proposition to put forth as an argument against women serving.

      However, I would like to translate this topic into the realm of theology. If women are allowed to take into their body the Body and Blood of Christ, what is the theological basis of any of the prohibitions? A woman can commune with the Savior in the most intimate way possible, but she cannot serve His table?

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  3. I think you misunderstand me; I did not mean that the response "It doesn't look right" was an adequate response, simply that those expressing this opinion were in fact correct despite the unsophistication and inadequacy of their response. In answer to your theological question, may I refer you to the book I have written on that very question, "Feminism and Tradition", published by SVS Press. The question is too large to be dealt with in the comments section to a blog.

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  4. "Those expressing this opinion were in fact correct" from which perspective? Isn't that advancing a subjective reaction (let's leave its foundation aside for the moment) to the level of theological truth?

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    1. If you are asking, "Do you think you are correct in your theological assertion", I answer, "Yes, of course I think I am correct--just as everyone, including you, think they are correct when they state an opinion." Opinions are "subjective" by definition--and so must be proven by objective arguments.

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  5. I would also like to ask how you explain the practice of girl altar servers in the Antiochian Patriarchate (if you wish I will provide a link to photos of Met. Khodr serving with girl altar servers), in monasteries in various countries, in the Armenian Church, etc. A mother of my good friend grew up in the Holy Land, where she often served as an acolyte and even as a sub-deacon when a bishop served, holding the dikiri or trikiri. ROCOR, more than 50 years ago. If this indeed was a slippery slope to the "horror" of women priests, I would say we would be far ahead of the Anglicans in this regard.

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    1. I don't see there is much to explain. Not everything done in churches, even by bishops such as Met. Kodr, is wise.

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    2. I am sometimes amused, but mostly aghast at the absolute assurance of some of the converts, especially suffering from the Post-Episcopalian Traumatic Syndrome, that they are more Orthodox than the Orthodox, and that they are called to "save the Church" from us. I will leave it at that since this conversation doesn't stand a chance to be constructive.

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    3. You are correct, a conversation which includes ad hominem attacks is not likely to be constructive. God bless you and grant you a wonderful Pascha. Thank you for taking the time to write.

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  6. Hello, Fr. Lawrence,

    I hope you are well. We have never met in person, so I am going to keep my comments short, though I may elaborate further elsewhere.

    I want to make two points here. First, I think we should be very careful about distinguishing between those who "live in the parish" and those who dwell in the "towers of academia.' Many of us reside in a space intersecting these worlds, and Orthodox parishes have produced many academics who devote the entirety of their work to giving blood to the Church (here I am paraphrasing Fr. Meyendorff of blessed memory, as told to me in person by Fr. Hopko, also of blessed memory). The history we produce is aimed at giving us a sense of where we have been and whom we have become. I produced my book with this principle in mind. I was a toddler playing Church on the staircase of my grandfather's rectory, an altar server, a choir director, and a deacon before I was ever an academic. The Church and academy are neither mutually exclusive, nor are they at odds with one another.

    Allow me to quote your article to illustrate my second point: "Merely being a communicant—i.e. someone who has become a child of God and has crossed over from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, and who dares to stand before the heavenly God with open face and boldly call Him “Our Father” and who receives the Body and Blood of His Son, after serving with those at the altar to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice with them—this is nothing." Communion is a gift we all receive, from the highest patriarch to the youngest baptized and anointed infant. In your sentence, you paraphrased Nicholas Afanasiev's thesis that the laity is the liturgy's concelebrant, which is a major theme of my own book. My modest section on women in the Church is a potential fruit is the restoration of a primary theological principle. Another way of looking at the matter is to consider the practical reality: women already read in Church, they teach, they conduct choir - all of these are priestly ministries, though not liturgical presidency. if they're already exercising the ministries, why not allow the ritual to be formed by the theology?

    I realize that it is tempting and somewhat easy to resort to tokenism or political manipulation of Church life. My students just submitted papers that called on them to go to Orthodox parishes and talk to real people about the role of women in the church. Some people would like to see women do more; some remarked that women never did things they do now (e.g., lead choir, teach); others think we shouldn't change anything. I do not think there is a consensus on these matters in North American Orthodoxy. I do think that Christ has granted us the freedom to speak about these things and to do things for the glory of God without fear (boldly, as you paraphrase our liturgies). Women have exercised many priestly ministries that needed to be done. there is no need to uphold inconsistent prohibitions of these and other related ministries don't for the glory of God - we are all "anointed," and we are all "christbearers."

    I want your readers to know that my book has 401 pages of text; exactly 3.75 of those pages are devoted to women.

    Wishing you all the best, in Christ,

    Dn Nicholas

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    1. Apologies: at the end I meant to say, "there is no need to uphold inconsistent prohibitions of these and other related ministries that are offered for the glory of God - we are all "anointed," and we are all "christbearers."

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    2. Dear Fr. Deacon: Thank you for your comments and for writing your book. It is indeed 401 pages, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page. (I also look forward to reading your work on the Great Blessing of Waters.) Please forgive me if I gave the impression of personal attack. My aim was to deal with the practice itself and the justifications advanced for it, and so needed a representative quote, lest someone suggest I was not allowing the proponents of the practice to speak for themselves. I still believe that much writing comes from those in ivory towers; and will happily believe also, since you tell me, that you are not among them.
      Also, I quite agree that there currently exists no consensus about the proper role of women in church, and that sustained debate is needed. My blog piece is offered as one voice in that ongoing debate, as of course were your words in your book. I am happy to hear your voice, and to have the opportunity to respond (and to have you respond to my response, and respond to your response, etc. etc.) The fact that "the role of women" is so complex, varied and (I imagine) properly different in many parts of the world--what works in the Middle East might not be wisely transplanted to North America--makes the ongoing debate all the more important. We have scarcely begun to have the discussion, and need to keep at it.
      Thank you again for your kind and reasoned response. And please allow me to wish you a glorious Pascha.

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  7. It doesn’t look right? Laughable, where did you get your degree? I assume when there is no theological reason we make stuff up. News flash, Altar boys did not exist in the Church, they are man made.

    There are currently Altar girls serving in some Orthodox Churches and to state that they cannot, is a sin.

    Lets not forget that Christ chose a women to be the first to preach that he has risen. A woman was chosen for the most important moment in Christianity, without that moment, there would be no Christianity. I think we can safely state that Christ chose a woman to be first to preach for a reason.

    Alas, as women become more educated they stop attending right winged Orthodox Churches that portray them as second class citizens. The Koolaid is drying up, your religious bubble is about to burst. Some advice, maybe you should write a little more about our faith versus preaching man made rules or traditions that we all know are nonsense with no theological background.

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  8. Christ is risen! Христос воскресе! Fr Lawrence, thank you for the thoughtful post! I am quite surprised by the comments. I didn't know that there are people who want to destroy Orthodoxy from inside out. Lord, save us and have mercy on them.

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