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.