William Oddie has stirred up a hornet’s nest at the Catholic Herald by daring to suggest that the permission for girls and women to serve at the altar should be withdrawn.
I am, of course, with him on this, and indeed would go a lot further: I would make the sanctuary (remember when we used to have them?) a male-only area.
The hounds are already baying for Dr Oddie’s blood (mysoginistic, wanting to relegate women to serving the teas, aren’t we all equal in God’s eyes etc etc ad nauseam). So my notions will doubtless be interpreted as even more of a male assertion of the second-class status of women.
However, that is not my belief at all. If anything, I am inclined to believe that women are superior to men. One of the Fathers of the Church (possibly Augustine?) apparently pointed out that any artist creates the maquette first, the study, and then the finished work. Thus man was the rough draft and woman the masterpiece. Likewise, there is nobody, apart from Our Lord Himself, whom we esteem more highly than Our Lady. Moreover, I think there is a strong case to be made for the idea that Our Lord condescended to enter humanity at the lowest point possible: impoverished, un-homed, an unborn child, then a baby, and a male...
And for his apostles he chose the lowest: the fishermen, the tax collector, the men...
So it is not in any sense of male triumphalism that I assert the male-only sanctuary, but rather in deference to the wisdom of our God, who formed the people of the Old Testament, and then guided the development of the Church.
In the Old Testament we find that the Holy of Holies is approached through several courtyards: the Court of the Gentiles, which any may enter; the Court of the Women, which all Jews, male or female might enter; the Court of the men, and then the court of the priests. The male priesthood was also a central part of their formation as a holy people, despite both being a very matriarchal society and being surrounded by tribes that had women priests.
Likewise in the New Covenant, we find the all-male priesthood, and the tradition of a sanctuary, a space set apart for sacred rites and entered only by males. It was only very recently that this notion was abolished, the altar rails demolished, and the admittance of women into the sanctuary.
The truth, of course, is that women and men are different, and have different roles to play in the service of God and in attaining their own sanctity. Modern ideas of equality (when used to mean lack of any differentiation) and rights, and discrimination are not the right mental tools to use to analyse the practice of the Church.
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