Altar Boys

altar boyIn a previous blog I examined the issue of whether or not the Orthodox Church should introduce (or in some cases, continue the new practice) of having girls serve the altar as the female equivalent of altar boys. As may be recalled, I answered negatively, citing the practical and non-theological reason that the introduction of the practice, at least in North America, would lead eventually and inevitably to the ordination of women to the diaconate and the presbyterate.   Here I would like to examine the question of service at the altar from a more historical and theological perspective.

In looking to the canonical material, one cannot find altar boys at all. Instead one finds adult men called “subdeacons”, classed with other clergy, and therefore subject to canonical regulation. Thus for example the fourth century Council of Laodicea, canon 24: “No one of the priesthood, from presbyters to deacons, and so on in the ecclesiastical order to subdeacons, readers, singers, exorcists, door-keepers, or any of the class of the ascetics, ought to enter a tavern.” The taverns in those days were not of course like the nice taverns and family pubs of today, but were more like brothels, at least in terms of reputation. (The prohibition of clergy entering taverns is found also in “Apostolic Canon” 54, also dating from about the fourth century: “If any of the clergy be found eating in a tavern, let him be excommunicated, unless he has been constrained by necessity, on a journey, to lodge in an inn.”) Here the Laodicean canon 24 throws the canonical net pretty widely, and says that no one in any way visibly representing the Church should go into such a tavern. The use of the term “priesthood” at the beginning of the canon is used generally, including as it does both presbyters and deacons; others such as subdeacons are referred to as those “in the ecclesiastical order”—i.e. those visibly connected with service in the church.

The same Council of Laodicea prescribes for subdeacons again in canon 21: “The subdeacons have no right to a place in the diaconicum, nor to touch the Lord’s Vessels.” The “Lord’s Vessels” were the Eucharistic vessels used at the Liturgy, stored in the sacristy, and it appears that the “diaconicum” was the sacristy itself (and not, as some may have thought, the place where the deacons stood during the Liturgy). In other words, some subdeacons were acting like deacons, entering the sacristy to get the Eucharistic Vessels and carrying them in the procession, and this canon wants to put an end to this subdiaconal usurpation of the deacon’s function. We note the same subdiaconal uppity-ness rebuked in canon 25: “A subdeacon must not give the Bread, nor bless the Cup”—i.e. administer the Eucharist to the people during the services as presbyters and deacons did.

We find other mentions of subdeacons in the canons. The Council of Antioch in canon 10 allowed chorepiscopi (“country-bishops”, or bishops who served as assistants to their diocesan bishop) to ordain “ordain readers, subdeacons and exorcists”, but not presbyters or deacons, whose latter ordination was reserved to the diocesan bishop (canon 10).   The Quinisext Council in canon 13 allowed that men ordained as subdeacons, deacons, or presbyters, who were married at the time of their ordination, be allowed to continue to live with their wives even after ordination—unlike the western practice which insisted that such newly-ordained men cease from their wives after ordination. The same canon did however stipulate that “they who assist at the divine altar should be absolutely continent when they are handling holy things”—i.e. abstain from sex prior to serving Liturgy. The canon ends with a threat: “If anyone shall have dared to deprive any of those who are in holy orders, presbyter or deacon or subdeacon, of cohabitation and intercourse with his lawful wife, let him be deposed.”

The common thread in all these canons is that subdeacons were part of the clergy, whether they were ordained with the same rite and solemnity as priests or deacons were, or merely blessed to perform their function with a ritual other than the laying on of hands at the altar. Laodicea canon 24 cites them as belonging to “the ecclesiastical order”; Antioch canon 10 classes them along with readers and exorcists; Quinisext canon 13 classes them with deacons and presbyters, inasmuch as they all “assist at the divine altar” and therefore “are in holy orders”. These subdeacons seem to be roughly equivalent to the “acolytes” of the western church, who were also one of the “minor orders”. Regardless of the form of classification for them (“A minor order or not? Set apart by ordination or mere blessing?”), subdeacons were clergy.

When did the function of ordained men, old enough for the canonical legislation to have assumed that they were married, get routinely transferred to young pre-pubescent boys? I cannot find much material on the question; (scholars, feel free to weigh in). But I note that when I recently attended Liturgy in a Coptic church the young altar boys vested and holding candles were referred to as “deacons”, and my Chalcedonian eyes could not see any adult obviously fulfilling a role similar to that of deacon in my own church. Unless I was misinformed about the Coptic terminology, it would seem that we are witnessing an historical tendency for adult offices, having fallen into at least partial abeyance, to be informally filled by young boys. If this is so, it would explain how young boys in the Orthodox church ended up fulfilling roles once performed by ordained adult men.

Whatever the historical path from subdeacon to altar boy, one sees that the latter’s theological role is historically rooted in the subdiaconate, and that those fulfilling this role should be considered (to quote the Quinisext Council) as “assisting at the divine altar”. Our understanding of the role of an altar boy must be governed the historical understanding of a subdeacon.   (I here leave unexamined the wisdom of the practice of allowing altar boys to serve as subdeacons.) Obviously altar boys are not subject to the same canonical strictures as subdeacons once were, such as those pertaining to marriage. But their liturgical role remains the same as theirs.

This all has relevance to the question of whether or not girls may fill that role. It is not surprising, since the ministries of presbyter and deacon were restricted to men, to find that the early church also restricted the office of subdeacon to men in the way too. There were deaconesses is some places, women who fulfilled a pastoral role, but never subdeaconesses, the liturgical female equivalent of subdeacons.   Subdeacons were always men, since the early church restricted the ministry of “assisting at the divine altar” to men.

I suggest that theologically this same restriction should apply to altar boys, so that if the ministry of subdeacon required men, then the ministry of young altar acolytes requires boys. Otherwise we should acknowledge that the function of altar boy/ acolyte has nothing to do with the historic function of subdeacon/ acolyte, but is an entirely novel creation. We can always invent new liturgical offices, if we like, but honesty would require us to at least acknowledge the novelty of what we are doing.



  1. It seems from your article though that even having boys, rather than adult men, is a novelty, no?

    Perhaps we should aim for a restoration of the fill appreciation for the office of acolyte, which certainly won’t happen of we think of it as a role for kids.

    1. I would love to know more of the history than I do. I have read one opinion that the practice arose in the 12th century, from the need for servers during the weekdays, when the adults were working and unavailable, but of course I cannot verify this. I think that at least one should let the boys serving know that they are filling an important adult role.

    1. Thank you, Father! I appreciate the correction. Do we know much about them and their function? Were they like the consecrated women recently revived in the Coptic Church? A book Contemporary Coptic Nuns by P. van Doorn-Harder mentions Pope Shenouda’s intention of developing a system for dedicated women with three steps of consecration: 1. a consecrated woman; 2. consecration as subdeaconess; 3. consecration as a deaconess. These women function as nuns, and it looks as if the subdeaconess functions here as a kind of monastic novice. The author says that their function was to “work with women, the elderly, and children” and that they were “not allowed to perform any tasks pertaining to the holy sacraments”. I would love to know more. Is this new development a restoration of the older practice to which you refer?

      1. Hi Father Lawrence,

        The Syriac Orthodox Church currently has deaconesses. They do not serve on the altar but are typically chanters, are ‘ordained’ (hair cut symbolically) though their ‘ordination’ is not the same as the male deacon. Serverus of Antioch and other Syriac Fathers detail the role of the deaconess in the Syriac Church. It is definitely worth looking into.

        1. Thank you for this! To my mind serving at the altar is the only problematic function for women, not pastoral ministry (the historic function of deaconesses) or chanting. In all our discussion it is important to make sure that we understand what is the actual function of the ministries we are discussing and to what the titles actually refer.

  2. Hi Father Lawrence,

    Thought I’d shed some light on the Coptic Church since I’m Coptic Orthodox myself!

    While the vested young men and older men are almost always collectively called just “deacons”, they are technically only sub-deacons, with maybe one deacon amongst them.

    This picture I found online shows how the two ranks wear the red piece of garment (sorry, not sure of the name in English):

    The one on the left is a deacon while the one on the right is a subdeacon. Deacons are definitely older, ordained men and never young men. Only the deacons can touch the Eucharistic vessels and sometimes they assist the priest in administering the sacraments.

    1. Thank you for your comment and clarification! My own experiences in the Liturgy of the Coptic church were happy ones, but of course un-narrated. Thank you for the narration.

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