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The Cambridge chaplain is right to accept female servers at Tridentine Masses

I agree with Fr Alban McCoy’s decision even though I am not, in fact, in favour of altar girls

By on Monday, 30 May 2011

Altar servers pictured at an Extraordinary Form Mass at the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Altar servers pictured at an Extraordinary Form Mass at the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I am in a quandary which I cannot resolve. I am a woman and I attend the Ordinary Form of the Mass. Yet I very much dislike seeing altar girls serving at Mass. I ought to be pleased both because they are “being given a role to play” and because, as an attendee of the OF Mass, I should presumably have liberal instincts and accept altar girls along with extraordinary ministers, guitars and everything else.

But I don’t like it. Why? Well, when this innovation came in I heard along the ecclesiastical grapevine that the late pope, Blessed John Paul II, had capitulated to it under pressure from liberals in the Vatican. If this is true, it is not a good reason to allow such a large change to the Church’s tradition. And in the eyes of traditionalists it is a further objection to the post-Vatican II Mass over which they already have many objections.

Further, I have subsequently read many persuasive articles arguing that priestly vocations have fallen since the innovation came into practice. Becoming an altar boy was, in the past, a not unusual way for a priestly vocation to be kindled. I am sure there are complex reasons why there is a dearth of vocations in the West, but it seems reasonable that this is one of them. Apparently boy altar servers have tended to drop out with the onward progress of the girls. My final objection is instinctual: it simply looks wrong and slightly pagan to see young women on the altar alongside a priest.

Now my quandary has been further complicated by reading Stuart Reid’s excellent Charterhouse in the Catholic Herald of May 27. He relates that Fr Alban McCoy, the Catholic chaplain at Cambridge, is allowing young women students to act as servers at –wait for it – Tridentine Masses said by him. This, as Blessed John Henry Newman might have said, is “a turn up”. EF Masses are where you go if you don’t believe the Mass of 1962 should ever be changed – and that includes the immemorial tradition of male-only altar servers. The late Mgr Alfred Gilbey, chaplain at Cambridge for 32 years who retired rather fast in 1965 when women (me included) began to attend his chaplaincy Masses, must be turning in his grave at Fr McCoy’s innovation.

Yet when I read Charterhouse I immediately felt that Fr McCoy was right. He says he did not seek out female servers but, according to Stuart Reid, “decided not to refuse the request of two young women to serve in the old form”. Now he has a team of 10 servers: six men and four women for both OF and EF Masses: “One rite of liturgy, one set of servers.” I read the situation thus: if you choose to attend the EF Mass you are a serious believer for whom the liturgy is a sacred celebration that must be performed with due reverence (this might not always be the case among some who attend the OF). Fr Alban also knows these young, committed, Catholic women have no aspiration to become priests themselves and thus no agenda (unlike some feminists who see serving at Mass as a first step in the right direction). In charity and wisdom he chose to accede to their respectful request. I agree with him.

I now seem to have argued myself into the rather weird position of approving of women altar servers only at Tridentine Masses, while strongly disliking their presence at OF Masses. This is entirely inconsistent. As I said, I am in a quandary.

  • Mary

    You need to come out with a better comeback than that answer. 

  • Mary

    I find Charles Martel’s answer to be correct.  Holy Mass is NOT about this world, it is about God.  If you try to make it the way the world is . . .  then that is silly.   You will only be perverting the Truth of God  . . . . 

  • Mary

    Weary Convert – sorry to say this but I cannot believe you wasted your time writing a dumb response as you just did.  Listen to the message Charles is posting, it is not an opinion.  Holy Mass is not about this world,  it is about God.  Why do you think our world is so messed up right now?  We have lost our roles and our ways.   Women have our Blessed Mother as a role model, men have St. Joseph as a role model, Holy Mother Church teaches us the life of Christ, the Sacrafice, the Resurrection and Ascension.  We cannot make it about this world.  It has NOTHING TO DO ABOUT EQUALITY.  We have defined roles and both sexes have strengths and weaknesses  that the other does not have.   How is all this women’s liberation working out for you?  How is it working out for our children?  Take it out of the context of this world and you will understand where Charles is coming from.

  • Mary

    Why wouldn’t the SSPX be counted as Catholics?  Please clarify.

  • Catholic Militant

    Francis, it’s about OBEDIENCE. Look the word up in the dictionary. It’s pretty simple and straightforward.

  • Charles Borromeo

    There were no Catholic servers at the Last supper (probably Jewish) so tradition should dictate….

    While the Church ( hierarchy) seems to like straining gnats while swallowing camels the rest of the Church is more concerned that they bind us to God (religio = bind) . 

    Do the hierarchy have too much time on their hands - no bills to worry about- no children to educate and feed to see if there are still thousands of angels on a pinhead or no females on the altar

    Bishops get real!!!!!! You were told to” feed my lambs” “Feed my sheep.” 

  • Roy Banes

    Ignorance of tradition is bliss to erronious souls such as yourself. 

  • jemp

    then why don’t we all wear what would have ‘actually’ been worn at the Last Supper and speak like that ‘actually’ would have done? It’s not about what ‘actually’ happened, but about respectfully and reverently incouporating it into the ‘ritual’ of the Mass. I don’t see how whether one is male or female could detract from that. This is just prejudice not reason.

  • jemp

    If it is not about this world then it matters even less if your are male or female. We all have eternal souls.

  • finishstrongdoc

    All souls are female to God


  • Daniel Fagnisse

    Jemp, why do you think that a centuries-long tradition in the Catholic Church doesn’t matter? You sound somewhat superficial and contradictory. You believe in eternal souls and you disregard a tradition that goes back to early Christians.

    Charles Martel, Mary, I’m so glad there are people like you who see the Church as coming not from this flawed world, but from the Kingdom of God. I agree with you.

  • Daniel Fagnisse

    DB McGinnity, do you believe that references per se is the ultimate truth? They are not. There is more to this discussion than just references. We are not talking about maths. This discussion is about the Church, a living tradition that has its roots in early Christianity. And the basic idea here is that Christianity should not be accomodated to make “modern” people feel comfortable. It is there to bring the Good News and to help us abandon sin and begin a new life in Christ.

  • An Authentic Feminist

    I like the round necked surplice but am willing to accept the square necked cotta if it means keeping girls off the sanctuary.  Priesthood is essential male, even in the ‘borrowed’ form of altar serving.

  • acrhangel

    I am a man, but I want to have baby, for this reason can I have baby? does reason change truth? can truth be over ran by reason?

  • Nishant Jeyaraj

    The 1917 Code of Canon law provides for girl servers in extraordinary situations. However, at the time, it was stipulated that they do the responses from slightly further away.

  • Nishant Jeyaraj

    A further difference is that there were “minor orders” at the time, which ought to be reserved for boys, this was not so after 1972.

  • Simon Strickland

    Me too. Not sure about the vocations point as my experience from Ampleforth (before the girls) suggest otherwise. Indeed you might ask why is it that this great school has been so spectacularly failing in creating vocations, sorry another topic altogether. Simon Strickland

  • Simon Reilly

    I sometimes wonder if people who spend their life at university ever stop to consider how their ideas and actions would translate into the world outside; well its rather like a researcher in botany releasing that seemingly harmless specimen of Japanese Knot Weed they had been studying into the local gardens around and then wondering why there is an outcry. 

  • kenya catholic