Two years ago a letter from Ecclesia Dei said female servers in the EF was allowable, if not recommended

Having probably caused Fr Alban McCoy, the Catholic chaplain at Cambridge, some unwanted publicity last week by blogging about his use of female altar servers at Tridentine Masses, I feel I must make amends. Traditionalists responding to my blog, to Fr Zuhlsdorf’s blog on the same subject and to the latest “clarification” from the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, have all severely condemned Fr McCoy’s initiative. Some of them go so far as to assume he is engaging in a conspiracy to undermine the Extraordinary Form by deliberate Trojan horse tactics or that he is secretly in favour of women priests.

None of this is true. Apparently two years ago, after the publication of Summorum Pontificum, a letter from the PCED reached Fr Alban, stating: “When permission has been granted by the Ordinary of the Diocese for female altar servers, theoretically they could also serve the Mass in the Extraordinary Form, but we cannot recommend this practice at the moment because it would be psychologically unacceptable to the great majority who attend these Masses.” The letter, Protocol 410/9, is dated May 14 2009 and signed by Mgr Camille Perl, vice-president of the PCED.

If I were the Cambridge chaplain reading this letter, I would interpret it as meaning that female altar servers are not forbidden outright at an EF Mass; indeed, that in the uncommon setting of a college chapel or chaplaincy, which would not be attended by the general public, I could use my discretion. If the “great majority” who attended such a Mass were not “psychologically disturbed” in my judgment as a priest of long experience in chaplaincy life and liturgy, then I could respond in good faith (as indeed Fr McCoy did) to the request of a couple of devout female students. No scandal or disobedience is involved here.

Now it seems that there is another letter from the PCED, a “clarification”, signed by a different monsignor and sent to a former worshipper at the chaplaincy, which declares that the 1994 ruling of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, giving permission for female altar servers at OF Masses, definitely does not apply in the case of Masses in the Extraordinary Form. Protocol 410/9 has been overruled. There is no point speculating why this has happened. What matters is that Fr McCoy’s good name is not tarnished.

According to Stuart Reid, who returns to the subject in this week’s Charterhouse, Fr McCoy will comply with this latest protocol if he or his bishop receives it direct, rather than at second-hand, through a disaffected former member of his Cambridge congregation. Given the muddle Rome has got into, this would only be courteous.

If I had been the person designated to dish out these protocols at the PCED, I would have suggested a “via media” in the first instance, rather than raise the question of psychology (which seems to call in question the mindset of traditionalists): just as intercommunion is only permitted in rare cases, I would have suggested that female altar servers at EF Masses would only be permissible at particular occasions and in non-public settings.

Someone also commented to me that standing for Communion and reception in the hand is a lot less reverent than the use of female altar servers. I agree.