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.

40 comments:

  1. HM. I think your line of thought is convincing, but at the same time, is it plausible to make the argument that at one time, it would have “looked right” (as in, when women deacons were not only a reality in monasteries, but at, say, the Hagia Sophia)?

    1. Sorry to be dense; I don’t quite get your point. Would you please rephrase? Regarding the creation of an order of “deaconess” today: the order of “deaconess” proposed by some bears little resemblance to the order of “woman deacon”/ deaconess as existed in Chrysostom’s day–a fact often glossed over by those pushing for its “revival” of “female deacons”.

  2. Father Lawrence, thank you very much for this! A few brief comments in response:

    (a) I am not familiar with Deacon Nicholas Denysenko, so this is not meant as a comment about his views, but it would be naive to assume that Orthodox scholars or theologians who propose “altar girls” do *not* intend at some point to propose women in major orders.

    (b) Regarding the comment above and your reply, it might be helpful to reiterate the differences between a woman deacon and a deaconess that you highlighted in your book. It would also be important to emphasize that the order of deaconess was never universal in the Church, and that our era is certainly not the appropriate time to reintroduce it, for any number of reasons.

    (c) You might address more specifically the practice of having girls serve *outside* the altar, holding candles in processions and such, and even wearing quasi-vestments to do so. (You allude to this with the communion cloth.) I think this practice could possibly make the girls feel even worse, since they’re being asked to do the same things as boys, but they’re told they may only do it outside the altar. So the distinction becomes not one of *role* but of *location,* and that carries it with more of the flavor of ritual impurity, I think.

    (d) Your last point, about the devaluing of the status of layman is important. However I wonder if here you are not applying your own criterion from above: what does it *look* like to most parishioners? Yes, an immersion in scriptural and patristic theology would help the average layman to understand and know the dignity of his rank, the average laygirl to know the dignity of *her* rank – to realize that it’s not just the men who wear vestments and stand about the altar who are important, but every communicant. However, the *appearance* of things in most churches is that being a layman really is quite a casual, come-and-go affair. Entering the nave of the Church is treated with far less reverence than entering the sanctuary; receiving Holy Communion is not preceded by careful preparation, etc. I’m not sure what the answer is (it definitely is not altar girls), but we need to think about this.

    1. Dear Fr. Deacon: Thank you for your kind and thoughtful reply. In response may I say:
      a) I do not know Deacon Denysenko either, and also do not assume that he would not welcome women in Holy Orders. My own experience tells me that when someone says they are “open” to such a possibility and “searching” it really means their mind is already made up and they are simply being patient (and perhaps a bit disingenuous). Deacon Nicholas, to be fair, does not say he is “open” and “searching”. I would be happy to hear from him that he would not favour women in Holy Orders.
      b) Thank you for the opportunity to plug my book Feminism and Tradition in which I deal with the issue of deaconesses! In Chrysostom’s day, women were ordained at the altar to serve as deaconesses, but the rite and the Scriptural precedents invoked by the prayers were entirely different, since their ministries were entirely different. Deacons ministered the Chalice and served the entire church liturgically; deaconesses did not minister the Chalice at Liturgy and had a pastoral role confined to women only, such as visiting them while sick and standing with them in the waters of baptism (since all candidates were then baptized naked and men obviously could not fulfil this role). In church the deaconesses did not stand with the deacons, but separate from them. Further, deaconesses had to be celibate and could not be ordained until later in life. All of these differences are often glossed over in current discussion. One proponent suggested abandoning the requirement of celibacy and advanced age, but would require theological education. Calling this new Order a “deaconess” and invoking ancient precedent is simply dishonest. It is and is intended to be the thin edge of the wedge leading to women priests. As you point out, deaconesses were never universal in the Church, as were deacons.
      c) I regard the practice of allowing girls to serve liturgically so long as it is outside the altar as an insulting sop offered to them, one which scarcely addresses their real concerns. It would merely serve to underline and emphasis the prohibition, which if not understood would make it even more galling. When they ask, “If I can wear a vestment and hold a candle like my brother does, why can’t I enter the altar like he does?”, we have no snappy reply.
      d) The work of educating the laity regarding their own status is long overdue. I think it involves things like restoring a visible catechumenate (at our own church we pray for the catechumens when they gather at the front of the nave for the Litany and Prayers which I and the deacon take when we stand with them and face them); recovering a Eucharistic praxis free of laxity (which involves coming on time if planning to receive); and stressing the sanctity of the church temple. I believe that saying the prayers aloud, having a more open iconostas, and exchanging the Peace also stress the holiness of the laity, since a situation which excludes them from hearing the prayers, seeing behind the solid iconostas wall and not exchanging the Peace sends a subtle but clear message regarding who is really important in the service. There is lots more involved, and we have scarcely begun to address the issue.

    2. My primary interest in these matters is ecclesiological. I am in solidarity with the school of Greek Orthodox theologians whose objective is to present a platform for liturgical rebirth as Orthodoxy emerges from the post-Ottoman and post-Soviet periods. I devote an entire chapter to them in my book on liturgical reform.

      What is the laity? What is the bishop, the presbyter, the deacon, the deaconess? I am very interested in all of these questions. I think it is both possible and legitimate to consider a restoration (or perhaps a recreation as Destivelle says in his book on the Moscow Council) of the order of deaconess. The ministry of that order needs to be discussed, though, in dialogue with the role of deacon – and its recreation – and the role of bishop and presbyter. I am not interested in the recreation of an order of deaconess as an inspiration of antiquarianism or as a gender duplication of the diaconate. We should honor the distinctions given by the Holy Spirit to each order. So, if there is a recreation, it must occur in dialogue with discourse on the ministries of all the other orders.

      The problem with these discussions is the tendency for political Orthodoxy to infect them.

      I hope some of you might consider reading the entirety of my book on Liturgical Reform in Orthodoxy.

      Dn. Nicholas

      1. I do find it amusing that after multiple people saying “I don’t know Dn. Denysenko or what else he thinks”, the real Dn. Denysenko shows up to comment, and nobody replies to a word he says.

        Since nobody else has seen fit to say anything — thank you, Dn. Denysenko. I find the overall topic of your book interesting, and I will seek it out.

        Good strength for the rest of the fast!

        Richard

        1. Richard: His book is indeed a good read, with very little space devoted to the question of women in the Church. I do wish though that in his reply here and on my “Straight from the Heart” blog Fr. Deacon had made clear his opposition to the possibility of women priests, assuming he is opposed. As it is, we are left guessing. I am reluctant to open up a new hot topic, though, since this topic seems to be hot enough already.

          1. Good Day and Happy festal weekend to all,

            What is the purpose of going public with a position for or against the ordination of women to the priesthood? That is indeed a hot-button issue, and I am much more interested in engaging dialogue on principles of liturgical ecclesiology.

            For what it’s worth, I am convinced that any attempt to ordain women to the priesthood – not the diaconate – would result in a tragic schism within Orthodoxy. I also have questions about a critical mass of people within the Church who want to see this happen. I just don’t think we should attempt to prohibit discussion and scholarship on the possibility of women in the priesthood. In our environment, it can be difficult to have civil discourse on such hot-button matters.

            I will go on the record and say publicly that I am in favor of permitting bishops to be married. Of course, this is a different issue, related, but different.

            On all of these issues, I confess the faith of the Orthodox Church and want to be in communion with the Church, even if I struggle with this or that issue.

            I recently presented a lecture to my students on the larger question of women in the Church (I teach Eastern Christian Traditions at LMU as part of my rotation of courses). As you might imagine, many students want to write their research papers on women and Orthodoxy. I make them go to local parishes and talk to laity on the role of women and the Church. The results surprise my students. Some of them conclude that Orthodoxy is misogynous: when they do so (in a rough draft), I instruct them to compare Orthodoxy’s consistent veneration – love! – for the Mother of God with their perceptions of misogyny. The assumptions we make about the universality of our cultural mores need to be challenged.

            I also ask them to consider Orthodoxy’s notion of the fullness of the human being: every baptized and anointed person can receive Communion, even if one cannot yet confess their faith (there should be another discussion on the relationship between cognitive confession of faith and Communion for those with serious disorders or brain injuries). We have something beautiful to offer here that we should share with the world.

            Wishing you all a blessed Holy Week, Pascha, and fifty days of rejoicing –

            Dn Nicholas

          2. Dear Father Deacon: Thank you for your response (gracious and reasonable, as always). To my mind, we must deal head on with the issue of the ordination of women because it lies at the forefront of the dialogue on the principles of liturgical ecclesiology, and of our understanding of the nature of the Church itself. Feminism and related movements are challenging the Church’s traditional understanding of gender and therefore of human nature, and thus of salvation. If Arianism was the dominant challenge in the fourth century, I believe this anthropological issue to be the dominant challenge in our day. And (to continue the analogy) if the homoousios was the line in the sand then, then our stance regarding the ordination of women is the line in the sand now. My intent, as I always stress, is not to shut down discussion, but to articulate the Church’s timeless teaching in a way that resonates day–just as Nicea did not want to shut down discussion of Christ’s divinity, but to vindicate the truth.
            Anyway, thank you again for being a part of these discussions. May your Holy Week and Pascha be a blessed one.

        2. Deacon Nicholas Denysenko says:

          “The problem with these discussions is the tendency for political Orthodoxy to infect them.”

          And then says:

          “”What is the purpose of going public with a position for or against the ordination of women to the priesthood? That is indeed a hot-button issue, and I am much more interested in engaging dialogue on principles of liturgical ecclesiology.”

          Sort of proving his point. However, his desire for a “safe place” – a idealistic “dialogue” where there are “principles of liturgical ecclesiology” that are free from time and place and actual human beings (and perhaps even more importantly, God) is just that, an idealism of the reasoning mind. There simply are no “principles” free and separated from the vicissitudes of this world and persons (both God and man) and their historic/actual circumstances.

          Indeed, the history of doctrine and the struggle against heresy reveals that this is almost always a fundamental mistake – trying to retreat into the philosophical mind and then formulate truth(s) based on philosophical necessities and “principles” which turn out to be separated from the actual God and His Revelation.

          Our historical circumstances (God given no less) are such that the anthropological dimensions of the Faith are the questions of the day and the ones that we are being asked by “the cultural” and amongst ourselves (i.e the faithful). You seem to understand all this when you deal with your students. I say all this to put in to context the following:

          “Scholarship” and “dialogue” on the “possibility” of women in the priesthood do not escape the context of life, and the defense of “free” inquiry and academic (or any other kind) is not an apolitical act of mind – in fact, quite the opposite in that it is yet another political assertion/act. Frankly, you are being manipulative in a political way when you discuss and think about Orthodox anthropology in certain ways, in a “scholarly” way that you want to assert is somehow above the “political” or practical dimensions of life and Faith. You don’t intend this, as you are a true believer in the “safe place” of disembodied philosophical contemplation, but as I said this is in fact a fiction/fantasy of the fallen mind.

          If academia is going to be of any help to the Church and Her mission in the world, we need scholars who grasp the anthropological dimension and implications of the Faith and do not put their hope in the false understanding of “scholarship” and the academy’s self understanding (which is secular and thus delusional) and then proceed from this error…

          1. Mr. Christopher Christopher said:

            “Sort of proving his point. However, his desire for a “safe place” – a idealistic “dialogue” where there are “principles of liturgical ecclesiology” that are free from time and place and actual human beings (and perhaps even more importantly, God) is just that, an idealism of the reasoning mind.”

            Please explain why a discussion about liturgical ecclesiology is is “idealistic,” and free from “time and place and actual human beings?” You also use quotes, but I did not write these words above; please do not attribute them to me.

            Mr. Christopher, I invite you to actually read what I have written about the principles of liturgical ecclesiology. I write extensively about these matters in my previous book on Chrismation, and if you read it, you will find that the entire analysis concerns real human beings and especially God.

            My book on liturgical reform is actually about the genesis of liturgical rebirth. The book was inspired by questions emerging from my previous study of Chrismation (again, about God and real people). My point about liturgical ecclesiology is that we should not compartmentalize a discussion about any particular order of the Church, whether we are discussing the diaconate, presbytery, episcopate, or laity. We can only understand the orders in relation to the whole Church, which happens to be ordered.

            I again invite you to read what I have actually written, which most certainly involved real human beings (including those with surnames) and God.

          2. Deacon Nicholas,

            I am an obsessive “quoter” (though in person I never actually air quote…well, hardly ever… 😉 ) and overuse/misuse it for emphasis – sorry for the confusion. Also, just so you know I don’t normally use my last name on the open internet as I had a career in systems administration (as well as being the victim of identity theft in the past) and I am all too aware of the use and abuse of the inter-web, particularly when it comes to children. While I recognizes this offends some (as it does go against our normal social standards) I am unapologetic about this prudential decision on my part.

            While I have doubts about your approach, which appears to be “the principles of liturgical ecclesiology” first and anthropology second, I don’t actually know that and should read your book (though my “to do” list in that dept is quite long at the moment). I take your unwillingness to show the cards you are holding on anthropology – what you would have to do if you took a stance on women priestesses – to be a bad sign however. The various methodologies and presuppositions of the modern academy leads to some bad consequences when otherwise faithful Orthodox wield these methods within the Faith. I would cite Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and his essay in the 2nd edition of Fr. Hopko’s “Women and the Priesthood” to be a good example. It is wholly destructive/deconstructionist, and he leaves us believing we (i.e. the Church) do not have the theological anthropology to answer the question. It is also instructive to compare his essay in the 1st edition to the 2nd.

            By the way, you say:

            “I am convinced that any attempt to ordain women to the priesthood – not the diaconate – would result in a tragic schism within Orthodoxy “

            I have to disagree, as I think any revival/reconstruction of the female diaconate would also result in schism. For myself, If my church went down this road I would flee with my family to the nearest “jurisdiction” that was not ordaining women in less time than it takes to read this sentence. For the last 20 years (really, even before my chrismation into the Church) I have been an observer of this “movement” and I am convinced that those involved are deeply confused (at best) about what a human being is (created male and female) and are presuming secular/modernist notions of what we are. Indeed, I think for many of them it is worse than that – they KNOW theirs is a modernist anthropology (or sometimes it is some pseudo Platonic twist on “neither male nor female”) and they really intend to “reform” the Church, stuck as it is with Pauline/Roman/Islamist/Victorian/fill-in-the-blank anthropological errors. This schism would of course be more than this – it would be a falling away by some into worldly answers to the question “what is man (anthropos)”.

          3. At the risk of muddying conversational waters by jumping into this dialogue, may I add my agreement that the ordination of women to “the diaconate” in our present North American climate would be a bad thing? Those advocating such a practice seem often to not distinguish between the office of deacon and deaconess, though they were completely different offices in the early church. This change seems to be driven by secular feminist concerns, not by a desire to meet pastoral liturgical needs as it originally was. This is clearer still when some advocating for the change suggest that the canonical requirements for celibacy and advanced age be dropped, and a requirement of theological education be added. The resultant office then looks exactly like that of a deacon.

          4. I wasn’t able to reply in the customary spot. I am in favor of a robust discussion on anthropology, as long as liturgical theology does not become enslaved as a subfield to another theological category, as it often has been. It is legitimate to discuss ordination through the lens of anthropology, but because ordination is a Eucharistic rite with its own unique and local histories, I am convinced that discussing it within the orbit of ecclesiology is appropriate. To detach it from ecclesiology and approach it solely through anthropology is a distinctly Western compartmentalized approach to theology, keeping in mind that Orthodox theologians were some of the most vocal advocates for liturgical theology. I disagree with you, Christopher, though I sympathize with your resolve to guard your identity – very wise to avoid online hacking!

            I have a few essays forthcoming that disclose some of my cards on anthropology, but these concern the matter of the image of God in the human being, not gender. I suspect you may find them to be disappointing because I’m just not very fired up about the question of the ordination of women, since it is not going to happen in the Orthodox Church!

            So I think it is best for me to depart from this forum. In so doing, I wish you well and a blessed Pascha!

          5. Dn. Nicholas,

            If I have in mind some sort of western understanding of anthropology and the “order of theology” (can’t remember the Latin off the top of my head 😉 ) it is unexamined. I do mean to say that certain things come before other things, and some things presuppose a more basic prior “fact(s)” or ontology. Perhaps I don’t understand how you are using the term “ecclesiology” but surely it rests on other more fundamental theology. Anthropology seems obvious to me, as does Revelation/Gospel. This does not mean a strict hierarchy that diminishes or dismisses inter-dependency (perhaps this would be “western”) but just recognizes the basic order of God, creation, man, and Revelation. I also do mean to imply that our sex (avoiding the modernist/nominalist ever fluid “gender”) is a basic fact of our anthropology and thus is part of a proper theological understanding not only of anthropos but of ecclesiology as well.

            I obviously do not subscribe to the neo-platonist/Orgenistic understanding of St. Paul’s “there is neither male nor female” that is a simple fact of our Church of the East’s history and self-understanding – just read St. Gregory’s (Nyssa) “On Virginity” or D.B. Hart’s recent work. In my recent efforts to try to understand the Orthodox universalist movement/understanding, I am coming to the conclusion that there is a strain of Platonic (rooted in the methodology of Origen) theology/metaphysic that is a kind of unchecked Alexandrian school over-emphasis, and this comes out in all sorts of ways (i.e. anthropological, soteriological, etc.). Of course, the 5th ecumenical council left several large holes for Origen to crawl back through and so his ghost haunts us today. Frankly, if I had understood this (a friend actually tried to warn me – he had done his Ph.D under Met. Kallistos at Oxford a few years before) 20 years ago I probably would have never come into the Church of the East.

            I also trust in the Holy Spirit so I can say with confidence along with you that women will not be ordained in the Orthodox Church, however I also believe that there will be many local “churches” that fall away here in the west when they criminalize (technically, this has already been done here in the USA, they just are not sending us to jail yet) “discrimination” and the culture starts to put real pressure on local communities. Not being a prophet I of course could be wrong about this, but I think it is naive to not see that this is the direction the ship is heading currently…

      2. You are making a big mistake. So called ‘liturgical rebirth’ in the end spells death for liturgical tradition. As a former Catholic who was an altar boy in the pre Vatican II Church, I saw the destruction of liturgical life in the Roman Church at close range. I saw tradition being demolished at every level. Remove one major notch, and the chain link fence goes down bit by bit. Deacon, you are dead wrong.

        1. Please, read the actual book and then make a comment like the one above. How inappropriate to tear down an author’s work on the basis of a few blog comments.

  3. Thank you for this Father! It made my day. I have long felt that we have lacked a loving response to the question of why women don’t serve which has led to our current debates. Your blog answers the question beautifully.

    1. Thank you for your comments and for the link to Fr. Stephen’s article. Like everything he writes, it is well worth reading.
      I quite agree with all that he says in his article. I would only add that the Scripture teaches that in baptism/ chrismation, everyone does receive a gift (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4f, 1 Peter 4:10-11). St. Paul says that “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7), but this does not necessarily involve something flashy or even visible. He mentions “giving” and “showing mercy” as gifts of the Spirit–i.e. giving money to the church and giving alms to the poor, things which are best accomplished invisibly. The gift might involve counselling (either formally or informally), baking prosphora, making the coffee, or cleaning the church temple. Some would disparage roles these as lesser, but Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 12 is that all such functions are important, just as all the members of the body are needed. What matters is the common good.

  4. Thank you, Father, for this cogent – and correct – analysis. As an Eastern Catholic, my parish shares the Orthodox practice of males only in the minor and major Orders, but those in the Latin Church, for whom your reasoning is still very valid, really need to read this article, especially when it comes to the “slippery slope” of “altar girls.” (And I will make sure that some of them do.)

  5. Father Lawrence,

    Thank you for your article. I have just two questions/comments:

    1) I have often heard from some people that one reason (among many) that girls/women don’t enter the sanctuary is that there is a canon that strictly forbids this. Is this so, and, if it is, which canon from which Council is it? I know that, in some parishes, there are women who have taken on the ministry of caring for the flowers that are in the church building at various times in the year, and that they also enter the area of the sanctuary to water the flowers that are there (this is *not* during the liturgical services). If there is such a canon, then even this non-liturgical ministry would be off-limits in the sanctuary to women (I, personally, do not see a problem with women fulfilling this caring-for-the-flowers ministry anywhere in the church building).

    2) Even more importantly: What can we do to educate many of our *clergy* regarding the inappropriate attitude and perspective of the clericalism you mentioned, which is clearly a mutation of our ecclesiology? I, myself, have suffered with this for years. I am a twice-graduate of St Vladimir’s Seminary, and am a tonsured reader/chanter. But, because I am not a member of what is colloquially known as the “major clergy,” I often get an attitude in discussions that fairly screams out to me, “Well, what do *you* know? You don’t have a collar on!!” I find this to be not only very sad, but also of the devil, since, being the one who causes division in the Church, he (the devil) loves to drive wedges of division that separate us, such as old vs. young, men vs. women, clergy vs. laity, etc. In fact, the new bishop of the Diocese of the South says we should stop referring to our parish pastors as “priests” since we are *all* priests by virtue of our Baptism and Chrismation, but should more accurately refer to them as “presbyters” because they *preside* at the liturgical services. Again, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions on how to best help our brothers who are ordained to the higher orders to overcome and heal this clericalism that is sadly rampant in our midst.

    May you have a blessed Holy Week and a joyous Pascha!

    In Christ,

    David Barrett.

    1. Dear David: Thank you for your comments. By way of response, may I say:
      1) Canon 44 of the local Council of Laodicea (4th century) states: “Women may not go to the altar”. The brevity of the canon makes its context and intent difficult to grasp. Sometimes women could enter the altar, since deaconesses were ordained there, and obviously women helped serve the priest at the altar during the Liturgy in female monasteries, so the prohibition cannot have been total. It looks as if this Canon was intended to stop women (probably bossy rich women) from entering the altar as a mark and assertion of their importance. We note that Canon 69 of the Quinisext Council (692) prohibits any lay person from entering the altar, probably for the same reason (an exception is made for “the Imperial power and authority”). The general principle should be that no one, including clergy, enter the altar unless there is a reason to do so–which would include caring for flowers there, in my opinion.

      2) I have seen enough clerical arrogance and strutting to last me a lifetime. You would almost imagine that Christ never uttered a word that the first must be the slave of all (Mark 10;44) or that His disciples must wash one another’s feet, for without this humility they could have no part with Him (John 13:14, 8). I wish I knew how to counter such things. I suspect that we do not sufficiently test our ordination candidates for their maturity and humility, but allow men to be ordained and use their position to compensate for their insecurity and inflate their sense of self-importance. How easily we forget our Lord’s censure of those who love to walk about in long robes and receive respectful greetings (Luke 20:46). I suspect that bishops are so happy to find men willing to fill their pastoral vacancies that candidates are not scrutinized as closely as they might otherwise be. But, as I am kept far from the levers of power, this is only a guess. I am convinced, however, that we should concentrate on the candidate’s character at least as much as on his education–which is where St. Paul also placed his emphasis in the Pastoral Epistles.

  6. A father of a young girl in the parish, so I was told, commented that his little girl couldn’t participate like the boys who serve in the altar. The comment comes from a poor understanbding of participation as “action” and wearing a robe and carrying some liturgical item. So, in response I wrote a brief article about this issue. I wonder if you’d be so kind as to comment on my remarks, which are apropos your excellent article. Here’s the article:

    • PARTICiPATION AT THE LITURGY:
    How do we define participation in the Divine Liturgy? Who is participating the most? Is it those carrying candles, those swinging the censer, or wearing robes? Is it the singers, the altar servers—must all boys be Altar servers; if yes, then what about girls? What about infants? They hear, see, smell and taste that which is ineffable and incomprehensible—like the rest of us. Do they not participate? Some people love to sing with the choir. Do those who refrain from singing not participate? The majority of men, women and children at the Divine Liturgy—and this has been true for all centuries and times—do not seem to do anything during the Liturgy. The singers, the servers, and yes, even the clergy, do what they do to enable the congregation to do what they are there to do, which is to pray—pray standing, kneeling, sitting, singing or silent. Many of us have it backwards on this topic of participation. Those who pray are those who have been given the blessed opportunity of not having to do anything but pray. Very few members of the parish—again, this has always been true—function in some “hands-on” capacity during the Service, and that’s how it is structured to be. The participants who find the most benefit at Liturgy are those who allow the hymns to enter their hearts and who strive to make the words of the hymns their very own: some sing with their voice, some sing in their hearts. Both are excellent. Additionally, Services in the Church are not a time for private prayers, but for sharing in the common worship, which is what the word “Liturgy” implies. It’s about worship of God; and it is corporate worship, involving all those assembled in the Church. Orthodox piety is rich in actions which enable the whole person to worship, to follow the Service with one’s body as well as one’s mind and soul (infants hear with the soul rather than the rational mind). When our attention wanders, we have icons, incense, singing and processions to bring it back. The Liturgy is also a time when parents have the chance to teach their children how to pray, to direct their attention, to teach them inner discipline and church etiquette, and yes, when necessary, to take them outside for a little break. We will all get more out of the services if we pray actively rather than passively attend them.


    1. Dear Father: Thank you for your comments and for sharing your excellent article. I especially appreciate where you underscore that the main task for everyone in the Liturgy is prayer–i.e. not one’s private prayers, but one’s share in the common offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. That Sacrifice/ Eucharist is not offered by the priest for the people, but by all of the people, led by the priest. Everyone, clergy and laity alike, are there as part of the royal priesthood, whose task and privilege it is to offer the Eucharist for their salvation and for the peace of the whole world. Often we import the radical individualism that afflicts our culture into our understanding of the Eucharist, and are misled into asking, “What do I get to do as an individual?” The answer: “Nothing–like everyone else there, including the clergy, you are there as members of the Body of Christ.”

  7. I think you are missing the point about why women feel left out. It is not about whether a woman can be part of the laity. It is about the sacred identity of the female. If men and women have equal dignity in the eyes of the creator, and have been equally redeemed, in what way is the unique dignity of the female expressed in the liturgy? IN many western Orthodox churches the old rule of men and women in separate places in the church has been scrapped. This meansmen retain a special place but women don’t. How do you tell a woman in the service that God loves her equally to men and that she is equally worthy being treated with reverence, based on her female dignity? At the moment, the service does not make clear that she is sacred. Like you, I question if ‘clercicalising’ women is the answer, but an answer is urgent.

    1. Petra, thank you for your comment. By way of reply I would say that I would question the assumption that the purpose of the Liturgy is to express anyone’s unique dignity or to affirm that anyone is sacred apart from Christ. Feminism may be all about affirming the sacred identity of the female, but this concern has little to do with the historic Christian Faith, just as the sacred identity of the male (whatever that may be) has little to do with it. Men are called to be priests because priests are called to be fathers to the community, and fatherhood requires men, not women. But the task of fatherhood or priesthood is not intended to express the sacred identity of the male, but simply to serve the Church in a specific way. Neither the unique identity of the male or female finds expression in the Liturgy. I suggest that if anyone feels “left out” or unaffirmed, they have substituted ego for service, and a Christocentric model for an anthropocentric one. The issue is not “how can I be affirmed?”, but “what is Christ calling me to do?” And if one is doing what Christ has called one to do, where is there room for feeling left out?

      1. “I suggest that if anyone feels “left out” or unaffirmed, they have substituted ego for service, and a Christocentric model for an anthropocentric one. “…

        Thank you Fr for such wise words. As an Anglican trying to educate my fellow layman congregants about this issue, I often find myself lacking the right words to defend an all-male clergy.

  8. Hi Father,

    I am confused about whether this is really an issue for Orthodoxy (altar girls and female chanters). I live in the Middle East and attend a Greek Orthodox Church (under the Antioch jurisdiction). In our Parish we have both altar girls and a female chanter. They were present and participating even with the bishop attending.

    I am Greek American and born and raised in the USA and Orthodox from birth. I moved here nearly 10 years ago and been blessed to find and participate in this Parish.

    This is a proper Orthodox church and not some renegade offshoot. If it is accepted here does that mean the issue of altar girls and female chanters is more a local issue then one of Orthodoxy in general?

    Thanks

    1. George: I distinguish between altar girls (which I regard as problematic), and female chanters (which are not). I don’t think that because a practice is accepted in a proper church it must therefore necessarily be healthy. Even proper churches can make unfortunate decisions. I’m glad you have found a good parish there. May God bless you and keep you safe!

  9. Father, Bless!

    I hope you don’t mind me looking at this issue from another perspective. I would, myself, call this a totally non-theological, totally worldly, totally societal point of view. I agree with your article, but from this sinner’s perspective I think there is another dimension to why girls/women feel “left out” in the church.

    It’s a sad truth that in society women are the “stars”. It’s the fashion, it’s the make-up, it’s the next “must have –or else!”. So (and here I agree fervently with you) constantly seeing men & boys decked out in shimmery, sparkly, (dare I say gawdy) ‘special’ clothes that only they are allowed to wear, is totally contradictory to real life. At a prom, at a wedding, at a graduation–which gender gets to dress up in shimmery, sparkly special clothes? Girls and women! Their male counterparts get a tux (if they’re lucky). Not much sparkle there. Girls get the attention in their outfits, whilst boys are their background props.

    At church, all of this is reversed. Now the males hold all the power and the attention. It’s really hard to swallow, for some, given that women had to fight for the right to be called “persons” and to be allowed to vote. With more equality given to women, more is expected to be granted, no matter what or where it occurs. “Equal pay for equal work” I support. Being told (by men) that my role in church is to ‘water the flowers–that’s something that women can do’ makes my blood boil (and not just because I have a black thumb). The expectation that it’s only the women who will prepare the meals and clean up (that’s how they serve the church) is nonsense. This is misogynistic, akin to “a woman’s place is in the home”.

    I do think that what girls and women are seeking is a recognition of what you state so well:

    “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.”

    Men and Women who stand and pray outside the altar are most certainly NOT “mere laypeople” (to quote a now-retired Metropolitan). The perception of power that ‘the guys in dresses’ is given comes from a) their own attitudes towards it (not all are humble or remain humble once the vestments are on-or taken off), and b) the way societal perceptions influence our thoughts.

    How can we emphasize and visually demonstrate the sacredness of the laity? (I, at one time, thought that everyone wearing cassocks of some sort would be a great equalizer in so many ways. Visually, we would all be the same. In our world the visual triumphs. Perception is nine-tenths of the truth, right?)

    Praying for you and your parish,
    I am the sinner
    Laurie

    1. Laurie: Thank you for your excellent comments (and for your prayers). I quite agree. I don’t see putting everyone in a cassock is the way to go, but (at the risk of opening yet another can of blogging worms) I have wondered if eliminating special vestments for those serving might not have advantages. In the early days, the clergy/ officiants did not wear any special clothing when they served. I realize that vestments are here to stay and so will go bang my head against other walls than that one, but I am also aware of their “down side”. The vestments clergy wear, in and out of services, do not help the fight against clericalism.

  10. It is interesting to hear the various perspectives expressed in this thread.

    Personally, I find it rather humorous when I hear some (not those here) speak of how females are not honored because they cannot serve as clergy or altar servers. Any priest or deacon (and even most Altar servers – especially if they show up on time) know that what they do is just that: They SERVE. From the ‘outside’ it may appear to be honor and glory, but in reality it is simply hard work – a service both to God and to His people.

    As a layman I can, if I choose, be late to services for even the silliest of reasons. They cannot, for they must be there at least an hour or more earlier than the “Blessed is the Kingdom…” I can, if I am weary, sit for a while; they cannot. I can allow my mind to wander; they cannot. I can make a ‘liturgical mistake’ virtually unnoticed; they cannot. I must be especially careful only as I approach the Chalice. They must exercise the most extreme care throughout the entire Liturgy. I can, if the need arises, slip out before it is proper to do so; they are not excused from serving until the very end – after the Gifts are consumed and long after most of the laity is off to coffee hour. I can wear what I choose (within reason); their clothing is always prescribed for them even on the hottest of days…and I could go on.

    It is neither my practice nor my desire to serve in the altar (although I have done so on occasion when a special need to do so has arisen). Nor am I any different than my wife or my granddaughter in that I, too, am forbidden entrance without a blessing or a specific reason of service to be there. Even priests enter only with the blessing of the bishop and for a specific REASON. And that reason is to SERVE.

    I suspect that the clergy or altar servers who read this can testify to the fact that, although it is indeed a great honor to serve the Lord God and His people in these capacities, they don’t view their service as being particularly glorious in terms of being honored ABOVE others among the people of God. Doubtless some clericalism (pride of office) does exist, but no more so (and surely far less) than the equally prideful attitudes among some of the laity who feel it their duty to criticize those consecrated to serve them.

    We – together – are the people of God. Each of us has his or her service to God and to His people. All of these ministries have their unique dignities, joys, sorrows, and labors. As my wife or my granddaughter cannot serve in some capacities, neither can I serve in theirs. I will, for example, never have the dignity of motherhood in which my wife has shared – and this in the image of her who is honored above all creation.

    If we simply realize that he (or she) who is greatest among you shall be as one who serves we will not only lay our silly egalitarian ideas to rest, we will discover the beauty of our truest selves and the glorious dignity for which we are ALL created. If we cannot imagine Gabriel or Michael envying the dignity of the Cherubim or of the Seraphim…if we cannot imagine any of the angels (except Lucifer himself) envying the dignity of the Mother of God or of any human to whom they are “sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation,” how is it that we can ever imagine being in any way envious of – or seeking a supposed “equality” with – those whose ministry is by nature likewise one of humble service?

  11. A male priesthood does indeed represent the unseen orders as patriarchal, as well it should. The reason for the patriarchal replication of liturgical worship is that it protects God’s manner of creation (including man) as wholly unique; as something that cannot be replicated with the creation. A male priesthood (and by extension the inclusion of females in liturgical roles) also serves as a barrier against slippage back into the darkness of paganism which the incarnation enabled man to escape. (Read the Akathist Hymn, particularly Fr. Seraphim Dede’s new translation to comprehend this in poetic — which is to say literary — terms. Literature contextualizes theology in human struggle. Poetry can reveal the landscape and meaning of the unseen orders deeply — particularly the poetry of the Tradition.)

    In theological terms we can express this way: The new life offered in Christ is the partaking of His body and blood (enabled by baptism); partaking of His life. This new life of body and blood takes place in a created way too. Within the creation the life of man that comes from woman. In other words, the body and blood of every person comes from his mother — male and female alike.

    If the priesthood is not sex-specific, if a woman were a priest just like a man, deep symbolic confusion results. God’s manner of creation becomes confused with the woman’s manner of creation. Put another way, when a woman holds up the chalice at the beginning of communion, what body and blood is presented? What creativity, what life is expressed? The natural creative prowess and energy of the female or the natural creative energy of God — a new life not of this world?

    A male priesthood prevents this confusion because no new life can come from a male. Males don’t give birth. The only thing a male contributes to the creation of new life is one-half of the genetic code. In fact, even the sperm cell that manages to penetrate the cell wall of the female egg dies after that code is transferred. There is absolutely no possibility that when a male priest raises the chalice that the body and blood offered through it can be confused with the natural creative prowess of the male body.

    Lest anyone think this conclusion is too stark ask yourself why the slippery slope is dangerous. It is dangerous because it leads to exactly this kind of symbolic confusion. And when this confusion enters the church, the confusion about sexuality follows right behind it. (A neo-pagan anthropology enters the church; an understanding of male and female where the passions define personhood. That’s how the Anglican Church was deconstructed to become the ‘Christian’ mouthpiece for homosexual activism.)

    One of the arguments we hear that girls might be hurt because they feel excluded if only males serve the altar. The fact is that they are excluded but for reasons that women throughout the centuries understood intuitively and accepted without complaint. Most women in the Church still understand and accept a male priesthood for this reason: they are more in touch with their femininity that many feminists who ostensibly speak for them. The church does not base is worship on feelings or perceived slights and rebuffs. Liturgical worship is the action through which God acts, and God is Father. We are charged with protecting that deposit of faith.

    1. Dear Father: Thank you for your excellent thoughts.
      Not that I’ve taken a poll, but I don’t know of anyone in our little mission (mostly converts from Evangelicalism) who favour women priests; the ones I have spoken to are appalled at the idea. I think the dividing line is between those who accept the historic Faith as the ultimate standard and judge our secular society according to it and those who accept the canons of secular society as ultimate and judge the Church according to those standards. Our own little mission consists mostly (if not entirely) of the former. I think in the latter case that it is not simply a matter of the famous “slippery slope” (with altar girls leading inevitably down the slope to women priests), but that if one feels that the Church may be judged and changed according to whatever views happen to prevail in one’s own time, one will eventually come to conform to those views as they change.
      God bless you and grant you a wonderful Holy Week and Pascha.

  12. Are there any other themes and analyses in Father Deacon’s present text on liturgical reform that raise the kinds of serious reflections that are being demonstrated here?

    Mary

    1. The whole book is quite wonderful. And to clarify: my intent was not to criticize the book, but to engage a point of view which promotes the introduction of altar girls. I only used the quote from Father Deacon’s book because it only seemed fair to let those who would promote the practice speak for themselves, and Father Deacon’s book provided me with just such a quote.

  13. Dear Brothers and Sisters ,
    I am a struggling convert. Struggling because after nearly 6 decades as a non-practicing Protestant it is hard to let go of unconscious scholastic underpinnings. I am far too old to be an alter girl but I would truly love hold a candle outside the alter.
    I think Father Lawrence has a point that the laity needs to be more aware of the importance of their calling. Still for me I would really like to do that.
    I think it would be interesting to hear what women and girls think.

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