Thursday, 25 August 2011

Restore the (male-only) sanctuary

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at the Catholic Herald by daring to suggest that the permission for girls and women to serve at the altar should be withdrawn.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.


Left-footer said...

"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."

Agreed - equal but different.

Richard Collins said...

Spot on Ben, I wish I had written this post.

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks both of you. Nothing original in what I wrote of course, but then I am a traditionalist...

Part-time Pilgrim said...


I think you have a point when you call for an increased respect for the sanctuary and it is easy to see how the removal of altar rails may have resulted in a lack of reverence for a holy place within a holy place. I have no argument with a call for more reverence on and for the sanctuary.

However the call to keep the sanctuary all-male is dubious. You claim authority from the Old Covenant but in the Old Covenant the Holy of Holies was only accessible to a select few. When Jesus died the veil of the temple which divided the holy of holies from the court of the priests was torn from top to bottom marking the end to this exclusive access and the beginning of the New Covenant. In this New Covenant, all, Greek or Jew, woman or man, slave or free can receive the incarnate God body, blood soul and divinity.

Neither can you argue the idea of a sanctuary can be traced unbroken down to the institution of the New Covenant. It is something that emerged under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as the Church grew. If we accept that God guides the Church are we to beleive that he stopped guiding it so that it could go astray and allow women on the sanctuary? Is it not more likely that this, too, is part of God's guidance?

I don't think you have made your case (and neither did William Oddie - the decline in vocations preceded the introduction of female altar servers)

What I am really interested in, though, is how you explain to Mrs Trovato, Antonia, Bernedette and Dominique how their presence on the sanctuary (without a vacuum cleaner)desecrates it. And assuming you are ever that reckless, how they respond.

Ttony said...

I'm sort of with you (and will steer clear of the CH) but what about female sacristans? There is a long and noble tradition of women sacristans, religious and lay, who were privileged to touch the sacred vessels with their bare hands and who "set up" the altar for Mass.

I understand the point about confusion of roles, but here is one role in the sacristy and sanctuary which is not the priest's (or any old layperson's) which can be male or female.

Ben Trovato said...


You are right and I should write with more precision.

I meant liturgical access to the sanctuary: ie presence and role in the sanctuary during the public worship of the Church.

Ttony said...

Actually, it's even more complicated than that. Apart from the fact that lay male servers are only supposed to serve if there aren't enough clerics apart from ther priest (ie just one more for Low Mass).

Another memory is my mother's: she went to a Benedictine school in the 1930s. When it was a significant anniversary in a nun's professed life, the priest would "forget" to being a server, have the altar set up for aMass without a server, and the nun would be allowed to kneel at the altar for Mass and say the server's responses out loud.

This isn't to disagree with your main thrust, or to agree with PTP's. I don't think girl servers are the cause of a lack of vocations, though they are the cause of a lack of boy servers.

If I remember correctly, Fr Longenecker stopped recruiting girl servers (while allowing those already serving to continue to do so) and set up sacristan squads for the girls.

Ben Trovato said...


You are right: serving was ideally to be done by men in minor orders: lay men serving were already a concession.

Interesting memory of your mother's. I wonder if that was a standard (or even licit) practice? I have certainly never heard of it, but that doesn't mean it isn't...

Incidentally, this discussion with PTP continued over the next few posts (after the Blighter's rocked one).