Serving the Altar


The Ark’s Procession

I’ve been reading Barbara Gent and Betty Sturges’ handbook for Altar Guilds, published in 1982. The handbook partly deals with the history of the Sacristan and how it’s changed since the Victorian era. Until now, I haven’t pondered the orthodoxy of women serving at the Altar. Instead, I assumed anything that involved folding or cleaning linen was ‘servile’ or ‘housekeeping’– thus, no overthrow of male headship. But male headship has its limits, and it does not answer why altar service was first targeted by early feminists. Until I read Gent’s guide, I had no idea how recent an innovative were women-led Altar Guilds. The phenomena of female ordination might be blamed upon the loss of the Altar (or even sanctuary) as a focal point for public worship?

Dearmer’s Altar Gilds:
This question about women keeping the Altar first hit me as the above handbook quoted renowned English catholic ritualist, Rev. Percy Dearmer. Dearmer gave me a glimpse of the Sacristan in the late-nineteenth century. I thought the male supervisory role of the Sacristan curious:

“the early Church of England altar care was also the task of lesser clerics such as the sacristan and verger in the cathedral an the clerk in the parish. Years later laymen became the sacristans and eventually women were included in this ministry. Percy Dearmer’s words about the duties of the sacristan ‘who had much better be a layman’, written about 1900, tell the altar guild story for both England and the United States at that time.

[Dearmer says] ‘The sacristan’s position is a most important one, and he must be devout, sensible, and even-tempered… he need not do a very great deal himself, but he must see that everything is done, which means that he must be kind and pleasant in manner as well as careful… He will see that a list of servers is posted on the wall for every service in the week…He will see that everything is ready in five minutes before service begins on Sunday– the vestments laid out, the candles lit by a taperer, and the charcoal heated by the thurifer. He will gently superintend the band of helpers who are needed if everything is to be kept as things pertaining to God’s worship ought to be kept. For many duties women are best, only they need to have their realms well-defined and protected, and unless they are responsible to the sacristan there may sometimes be trouble… If there are several [lady] helpers, each responsible for his or her own piece of work, and all responsible to the Sacristan, and through him to the Parson, the most perfect cleanliness and order can be secured…’ ” p. 1-2

Though Dearmer notes “everything is to be kept as pertaining to Divine Worship”, Dearmer (and Gent & Sturges) main point seems to be that, first, the role of women serving the altar is ‘practical’, and, second, the Sacristan is better conceived in supervisory terms. Otherwise, the normal functions of the Sacristan are divided between men (who are now managers), allowing female helpers to clean vessels and fold or dust linens. In this relaxing of duty, there is something akin to Stott’s principle of headship, “and through him [sic. the Sacristan]…the most perfect cleanliness and order can be secured”.  But, the real distinction is not between genders (i.e., menial vs. supervisory work). Dearmer comes closer when he juxtaposes “cleanliness” with “order”. Our emphasis should be on “order” rather than practicalities of “cleaning”. Here, I believe Percy mixes the two.

Order should first be conceived as a service rendered in relation to a sacred focal point– for some it might be the pulpit, but for catholics it’s the Altar. If gender has any bearing, it must be secondary to the significance of God’s Presence. The ‘dusty’, ‘repetitive’, or ‘boring’ nature of the work is not really relevant since it’s the ‘relation’ or ‘dedication’ of the utensil to the ‘sacred’ or ‘consecrated center’. Once that’s determined, gender may then reasoned outward. This follows the logic of the OT where a Holy of Holies existed that Levites served. Curiously, the Levites’ office were given only to healthy, Aaronic males.   

But, another problem with Dearmer is his assignment of Altar duty to the aegis of the ‘Sacristan’. We can only assume Dearmer and Gent mean ‘Clerk’. While the Sacristan might pass by with other names– such as ‘under-clerk’ or even ‘sexton’– historically speaking the Sacristan’s work wasn’t at the Altar. The Altar was reserved to the Clerk who performed the functions more typical of a subdeacon.  These distinctions are noted in John W. Legg’s Clerk’s Book (1903), which says: 

“I have not yet come across  any decisive evidence to show whether the two officers, the clerk and under-clerk, became separated into the two whom we know call sexton and clerk, or whether the clerk and under-clerk had always an inferior officer under them, the sexton…In Henry VIII’s new foundation of Christchurch… there were two clerks and one sexton. In 1506 to the sexton were committed divers menial offices, the keeping clean of the church, the ringing of bells, the lighting of candles, the opening of the church doors; while in London, he had to dig graves” p. xlvii

Compare the Sacristan’s menial work to that of the “clerk”. Legg now outlines the clerk’s duties,

“The Clerk is to take care about the Elements proper to be used in the Holy Sacraments, of the Holy Vestments, that they be decently kept to the Honor of God, and the Reputation of that particular church he hath the honor to serve. In a word, the Parish-Clerk ought to be an exact Pattern of Conformity in all the respective Offices of the Church” lxii

Evidently, the dividing line between sexton and clerk followed the cleansing of the objects, and whether they belonged to the chancel or nave. Generally speaking, the sexton’s duty was to clean the entrance, galleries, and sometimes the outside (graveyards) of the church. The Clerk basically kept the sanctuary, or what is often called ‘spiritualities’ (owned by the rector). Yet, it’s also a bit more than location. It’s relational according to the pattern of worship centered around a consecrated Altar. We might now refer to the classical Anglican treatment of chancel areas.

Caroline Bowing:
Not surprisingly, the starting point for a theology of the Altar begins with the Caroline thought. The canon VII of the 1640 convocation commend bowing as churchmen enter or leave “the said churches, chancels, or chapels” (1)Supposedly, this was the ancient practice which survived into the seventeenth century, no small part to the Knights of Garter. Caroline divines made claims of continuity with Elizabethan high churchmen like Jewel and Andrewes. At least, church discipline was their common concern. Bishop Wren recounts:

“[Bp. Andrewes] who constantly and religiously practised the same [bowing] upon all occasions: who had conversed with most of those holy fathers which lived in this Church at the beginning of the reformation under Queen Elizabeth, it could not be but that he had received the same from their usage and practice… which usage, that it might continue still in the Church of England after the reformation, appears out of Bishop Jewel, who,  in his Reply to Harding, allows it for a commendable gesture and token of devotion” p. 93-94

Though God is always and everywhere present, He’s particularly present where man calls upon in His Holy Name. Since a physical place is necessary for men to conveniently gathera comparison to the OT Tabernacle was made as well as to the Temple(s). The analogy is important. If the Table is like the Ark or Temple, then the priesthood is like the Levi. Comparing the NT church to the OT Tabernacle wasn’t exclusive to Laud but appears in the Elizabethan Second Book of Homilies (1571):

“yet, all this withstanding [of things spiritual], the material church or temple is a place appointed, as well bey the usage and continual examples expressed in the Old Testament as in the New, for the people of God to resort together unto, there to hear God’s holy Word, to call upon his holy Name, to give him thanks for his innumerable and unspeakable benefits bestowed upon us, and duly and truly to celebrate his holy Sacraments; in the unfeigned doing and accomplishing of the which that standeth the true and right worshiping of God aforementioned”, _On the Right Use of the Church

As with earlier Tudor reverencing(2), the 1604 canons left bowing to the personal discretion of churchmen,

“and in the practice or omission of this rite, we desire that the rule of charity prescribed by the apostle may be observed, which is, that they which use this rite, despise not them who use it not; and that they who use it not, condemn not those that use it.”

An obvious objective of the Laudian statutes was to protect church property against Puritanical vandalism or misuse (3). Theoretically, Bishops could apply consecration rites in such a way to enforce canonical uniformity, i.e., withholding the consecration of a church until ornaments or furnishings were properly arranged.  

However, railing and hallowing practices advanced a sacramentology that lent certain focus to the Eucharistic species. Although this ‘focus’ was suggestive of a local presence, Laudians disliked divorcing eucharist elements from eucharistic institution. Consecration rites were generally cautious, avoiding allusion to ‘intrinsic’ holiness of furnishings (4). Consequently, altar bowing was normally reasoned in relational terms to the means of Grace rather than the altar itself. Andrewes gives an excellent example of the ‘right use’ logic which shaped consecration ceremonies:

“Now you must know, that this Place is become an Anathema, and that in every Anathema there is both a Consecration and an Exercration, a Blessing and a Curse: if you shall use it rightly, and to that purpose only, for which it is Sanctified, it will be an Anathema, a blessing to you and your families; if otherwise, and that you shall prophane it, it will be an Anathema and Curse to you and your posterity.” p. 4

Again, Bishop Wren repeats the ‘right use’ rationale but bringing a qualified justification for the Table:  

“So then God is present everywhere, yet by more special promise and assistance in places dedicated to his holy worship: they are higher than other places, not by any inherent but by relative holinessbecause of the holy use unto which they do refer. In which kind, no doubt, but he is also present at the font and in the pulpit, as well as at the Table; but because the Table bears God’s name [the Lord’s Table, etc.], and particularly suggests the memorial of the hypostatical union of God and man, and of the venerable mystery of Christ’s death and passion (Bp. Jewel, Art. 8, Div. 22).” p. 95-96

How could Holy Use regarding the Table be made without eventually speaking upon the Presence? Carolines generally refrained from speculation upon the mode of presence. Nonetheless, in the last instance, they were  prepared to push sacramental Realism.  Laud himself admits such:

“it is versus altare, towards his altar, as the greatest place of God’s residence upon earth– I say the greatest, yea, greater than the pulpit; for there it is Hoc est Corpus meum, This is my Body; but in the pulpit ’tis at most but Hoc est verbum meum, This is my word. And a greater reverence, no doubt, is due to the Body than to the Word of our Lord; and so, in relation, answerably to the throne, where his Body is usually present, than to the seat whence his word useth to be proclaimed. And God hold it there at his word; for, as too many men use the matter, ’tis Hoc est verbum diaboli, This is the word of the devil, in too many places”

Laudians possibly were skeptical about preaching, especially where it might be politicized or governed by poor learning. Whereas, the Presence was regulated by the liturgy and the related Promise, “This is my Body”, etc.. Nonetheless, it was important to differentiate Anglican from Roman Catholic adoration.

Another Caroline divine, Bishop Morton, went to special lengths to justify bowing according to the Altar’s “use” rather than ‘presence’. Reverences paid to the Altar were owed whether or not Holy Communion was given. Morton later compares Anglican bowing to the King’s Throne which is honored whether the sovereign is there or not. Morton robustly employs the same typology (5) of the Tabernacle (and its ornaments)– established already by Tudor high churchmen:

“The like distinction may be discerned between their manner of reverence in bowing towards the altar, for the adoration of the Eucharist only, and ours in bowing, as well as when there is no Eucharist on the table, to testify the communion of all faithful communicants therewith, even as the people of God did in adoring him before the ark of his footstool“.  (Institutions of the Sacrament, 1635)

Jeremy Taylor provides an excellent exposition on the altar, giving several reasons why it’s reverenced. Like Morton, the Rev. Taylor draws upon numerous  OT examples regarding the consecration of holy places, but the Altar ultimately has special significance given its relation to eucharistic ‘presence’: 

“The next step to the Altar is, that God is there specially to be worshipped, where he is most praesentiall. For although God bee present in all places alike in respect of his essence, yet he exhibits the issues, and effects of his presence more in some then in others. And that thither the addresses of our adoratiots must be where God ie specially present, nature teaches us. We looke merr in the face when we speake to them, and if we may any where pray to God, and adore him because he is every where present and heres us, then by the same reason we must specially adore him where he is specially present, (because his presence is the determination of our addresse) that is in Heaven, and in all Holy places; And therefore the generall addresse of our devotion is towards heaven; so Christ taught us to say, Pater noster … so we doe in lifting up our eyes, and hands for there is his court, and his glorious satellitum of Angells, and his royall throre. But this generall addresse is limited by a more speciall, and that is in Holy places, places consecrate to the service of God by acts of publike, and religious solemnity, in them, and from them to Heaven. Thus it was in Solomon’s Temple; … For Gods seat is in Holy places: his presence is there; his face is there: his feet is there: his throne is there.

Taylor then summons several examples of God’s bodily presence as found in scripture, but of special interest is the showbread of the Tabernacle, denoting something of Jehovah’s face.

“His face is there. This is intimated to us in the shewbread layd upon the table of the proposition in the Tabernacle, which was called amonst the Hebrewes, Facebread; and the so expressly reads it [artous enopious], countenance loaves, bread set there where Gods countenance is present.

We can suppose God’s face (compared to, say, ‘feet’) intimates a special knowledge or proximity to the Lord– hence, the importance of sacramental bread. Taylor, next, elucidates five-points as to why the altar is “a place of greatest sanctity” or “more Holy then the other parts of the Church, I mean by a relative Holiness”.  Among these points– such as the altar having the Eastern portion of the church (6), it being a peculiar place for the liturgy of priests (7), or being the terminus of reconciled penitents– Taylor’s climatic proof is the sacramental presence of Christ. He says,

And lastly, (which contains the reason of the former, and of its holiness) the Altar or Holy Table is sedes Corporis et Sanguinis Christi. S. Chrysost: hom: 21. in Cor: et alibi. And if the Altars, and the Ark and the Temple in the Law of Nature and Moses were Holy, because they were Gods Memorials, as I shewed above, then by the same reason shall the Altar be [hyperagion], highly Holy, because it is Christs Memorial, there we commemorate his Death, and passion in the dreadful, and mysterious way that himself with greatest mysteriousness appointed. [touto poieite eis ten emen anamnesin] doe this for my memoriall. Here are all the Christian Sacrifices presented. We do believe that Christ is there really present in the Sacrament, there is the body and bloud of Christ which are ‘verely and indeed’ taken and received by the faithfull, saith our Church in her Catechisme. Now if places became holy at the presence of an Angel, as it did it with Joshua’s case to whom the captain of the Lords Host appeared, and in Jacobs case at Bethel, and in all the old Law, for God always appeared by Angels, shall not the Christian Altar be most holy where is present the blessed Body and blood of the Son of God? I but, what when the Sacrament is Gone? The relation is there still, and it is but a relative Sanctity we speak of, it is appointed for his Tabernacle, it is consecrate to that end, and the destination of man, the Presence of the Sone of God, the appointing it to a most holy end, the employment in a most sacred work, and the Presence of Angels (which, as S. Peter saith, desire to looke into these mysteryes,) if all this be not enough to make a thing most holy, there is no difference, nor can be any in the world between Sacred and prophane.

And like Jacob’s ladder, or Moses’ burning bush, the Lord’s presence hallows the ground for immemorial unless otherwise desecrated. This ‘Anglican distinctive’ is important because Altar Guilds typically do their work when no apparent worship is had. Nonetheless, the Altar remains a place of dignity and holiness, as much as the OT Tabernacle.  

If the altar is Christ’s ‘Ark’, then the clergy are like Levites. The distinction between Clerk and Sacristan is a Levitical type: serving inside vs. outside the Tabernacle. Legg seems conscious of an Altar-Nave difference when he talks of the clerk’s “higher duties”:

“…no woman can possibly be a parish clerk, for she is incapable of receiving orders. She may in some degree perform part of the menial duties of a parish clerk [sexton] which consist in keeping the church clean, or opening the doors and the like; but the higher duties such as reading in the church, singing, and attending at the altar, cannot be performed by a woman”. Clerk’s Book, xli

The analogy of Levites applied to lay-persons as much as it did Holy Orders. What’s interesting about this correlation is that service is not understood by function but by worship, or more specifically, focal point of worship. A recent ACNA diocesan report entitled, A Theology of the Diaconate, by Val Finnell, somewhat makes this case. What Finnell says about the diaconate could likewise be said of laic service,

“it is disastrous to attempt to define the diaconate in terms of its functional role in the Church. Instead, a proper theology of the diaconate should reflect who deacons are and their fundamental relationship and ordering to the larger Church.” (p. 2)

Ironically, Dearmer skips what might be called by critics a ‘sacerdotal’ interpretation of service . Dearmer’s approach is closer to Stott’s, admitting female presence at the Altar conditioned upon a ‘managerial-oversight’ of men. This misses the point, and it’s a position that could be used for great abuse (e.g., women may be priests and bishops given the archbishop is male). Barbara Gent and Betty Sturges pick up the history where Dearmer leaves off, and we see what it produces:

“Sometimes in the nineteenth century, women became assistants to sacristans, at least in the Anglican part of the Church. By the turn of the twentieth century they were beginning to organize into ‘altar guilds’, and in most places in the United States they assumed the sacristan’s duties themselvesunder the guidance of their priests. Throughout this century women have predominated in altar guild membership. Until the 1970’s this channel was the only one through which they could serve God at the altar.” p. 2   1982  The Altar Guild Book

By this point, the sacramental relation of laics to the Altar is pretty much lost. As with Dearmer, the focus has shifted from the role of the Altar to people to a relation between people (or justice). Another way to look at it, is the latter is essentially a view of worship that is ad populum while the former is ad orientum.  Perhaps if North End/Side was kept against the preference for ‘people facing’, the Altar as a symbolic center of atonement might have survived?

Interestingly, Stott’s headship principle is adopted by Betty Sturge as the answer to the so-called Sacristan or Clerk question, “they assumed the sacristan’s duties themselves under the guidance of their priests“. Consequently, so long as “a man” is supervising it’s ‘orthodox’. This is plain error, and it reveals a weakness (or even political correctness) with some arguments that seem to be based on a loose concept of ‘headship’.

Dr. Will Witt, of the ACNA-Diocese of Pittsgburgh, describes troubles with complimentarian apologies for male headship. Witt pointedly notices the similarity of many conservatives with liberals who avoid arguments about natural inequality between men and women in favor of a functional or complimentarian definitions:

“As I argued in a previous post, historic opposition to women’s ordination was rooted in a notion of ontological inequality – that women could not exercise positions of leadership because they were less intelligent, emotionally unstable, and more subject to temptation. In contrast to this earlier position, complementarians insist that they affirm the essentially equality of women and men, which is all to the good. At the same time, insofar as they depart from the earlier rationale, the logic of opposition to women’s roles of leadership is the more difficult to justify. If women are not inferior to men in terms of intelligence, emotionally stability, or susceptibility to temptation, what is that essential difference that makes men capable of exercising leadership and authority, but not women? The claim of a distinction between roles also makes less sense when it is noted that the distinction works only one way. Within the church, men are inherently capable of exercising roles that are reserved exclusively to men, but also to exercise all roles that women can fulfill. Within the church, it is only women who have exclusive roles, and specifically the role of being excluded from any position of public speaking, teaching, or exercising authority over men. In addition, there are some odd exceptions. Women may not teach the Bible publicly to men in the church, but they may write books or commentaries on the Bible, which men certainly might read. They cannot exercise ministry or preach in a church, but they can preach or teach the Bible to non-Christians in a missionary setting… Women cannot teach theology or the Bible in a seminary, but they may do so in a secular university setting.”

Again, functional definitions avoid the ontological argument behind Levitical service. Witt also points out shortcomings with modern catholic or sacramental arguments (in persona) since they tend to reduce liturgical service to ordained ministries, thus giving free-pass to other forms of altar service:

“Accordingly, defenders of Catholic opposition to women’s ordination are nonetheless emphatic that recognition of the equality of women implies that women can fulfill precisely the kinds of roles that complementarians would deny them. Butler notes the differences between the 1917 and the 1983 Code of Catholic Canon Law. In 1917, Catholic married women were considered to be “subject” to their husbands. Women were to be seated separately at liturgical services, excluded from the choir, and various church societies. Women “religious” were required to travel in pairs. Women were not allowed to participate in such activities as diocesan synods. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, “women now have essentially the same juridical status as men in the Catholic Church.” Non-ordained women may now participate in diocesan synods, be members of parish councils, serve as diocesan chancellors, teach theology, philosophy, and canon law in seminaries. They can, if necessary, fulfill numerous tasks traditionally done by the ordained: they can preach, baptize, officiate at weddings, assist in parish care.”

So, even the modern anglo-catholic defense of the priesthood as ‘sacrament’ or in persona basically repeats the functionalist mindset. As Bishop Jones shows with Sydney Anglicanism, even among GAFCON ‘conservatives’ the functional definition has become dominant as female church roles expand. Of the functional approach, the recently installed Archbishop of Sydney stated, 

“We’ve somehow had an ontological distinction between who a priest is and a lay person or a deacon… the Anglican Church doesn’t hold to that view, I certainly do not hold to that view … it’s not an ontological, it’s a functional distinction. The functional distinction is that you are given an office of responsibility with regard to that.'”

Returning to our history of Altar service, Brian Marsh’s manuscript, Saints and Buccaneers, describes how women priests emerged from the conquest of lesser roles until the ECUSA’s 1976 Minneapolis Convention finally triumphed. He recollects,

 “While the liturgical battles were being waged, the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood was, for the first time, given serious consideration. The conventions of 1964-76 gradually opened the door to greater female participation. In 1964, for example, deaconesses were permitted to conduct marriages; in 1967, women were permitted to serve as lay readers and as deputies to the General Convention. The state was set, by the early 1970’s, for a move to ordain women to the priesthood.” p. 9. Saints and Buccaneers. 2001

A sardonic question arises: why fumigate about Minneapolis when the practice for women priests was already paved with female lay readers ten-years prior? Another continuing cleric, Fr. Louis Tarsitano, was less pleased with female altar guilds, yet he does not seem to catch the problem of ontology, defining the relation in terms of the Bishop rather than the Altar. Regarding women acolytes, Tarsitano said

“We saw, in the previous article, that the offices of reader and acolyte were once separate ‘orders’ in preparation for the parish ministry. These offices have been restored to their place in the ministry of deacons, priests, and bishops. Today, a reader, usually called a ‘lay reader’, is appointed by the bishop on the advice of the parish priest, after training and examination. Acolytes are appointed and trained by the priests or bishop as they assist at the altar.

“But it should be clear that only customs have been changed, and not the purpose or the nature of these ministries. Readers and acolytes remain under the authority of pastors. These offices are a delegation of the pastors’ authority to those who serve in them, to engage in recognized ministries in the Church. And even though this authority is delegated, it is authority nevertheless, and women may not exercise spiritual authority over men in the Church (see 1 Tim. 2:11-15).

The same Scriptural reasons that prevent a woman from serving as a pastor apply to these appointed ministries. The argument that “these offices aren’t that important, so why make a fuss over them?” isn’t a very good one, because it demeans appointed service in the Church and teaches office holders to underestimate the value of the gift they have received from God through his Church.” p. 112

Though Tarsitano’s conclusion is fine, the reasoning doesn’t match Anglican views of the Altar. The Reverend Carroll  Simcox (a leader of concerned churchmen at the 1977 St. Louis Congress  as well as an architect of Deerfield Beach in 1991) made the case for male-only ministers by the example of Levitical institution. Again, this was the older hermeneutic for both male orders and altar bowing, as discussed above. Simcox stresses continuity in ministry between Old and New Testaments:

The Christian Church from the beginning sees itself as a continuation– as we might say today, a sublimation– of the older Israel, God’s holy nation, a kingdom of priests. The first Christians remembered God’s promise to Israel spoken through Moses: ‘If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). These words are echoed in the New Testament (1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6, 5:10, and 20:6) in such a way as to leave no doubt that the Church regarded itself as the latter-day heir of God’s promise.

This means that the Body of Christ as a whole and in each of its human parts has a priestly character. A priest is one who has been set apart and ordained by God to offer holy sacrifices to Him. The individual Christian is in truth ordained into this priestly ministry at his Baptism, and the whole business of his life henceforth is to offer to God his soul and body, ‘to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice’ unto Him (BCP, 81). The Jewish layman in the old Israel had seen himself in the same light. Yet he accepted the fact that certain men of the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron were set apart for specialized priestly functions in the sanctuary. Their special priesthood did not replace his own, but was rather its liturgical organ. The early Christian layman regarded in the same way the specially ordained ministers of the Church. Their ministry was the expression and extension of his own. He accepted an hierarchical ordering of the Church as proper, healthy, and necessary, since it was a living body; and in any body, as St. Paul put it, ‘all members have not the same office’ (Rom. 12:4). Simcox, p. 83

The 91st canon of 1604 metnions the office of clerk. Notice the pronoun”his”as well as the stipulation for an age of twenty years, impinging against the use of children so common today. We might consider the age of accountability (sic. twenty-years) a requirement. The canon says,

“NO Parish-Clerk upon any vacation shall be chosen, within the city of London, or elsewhere within the province of Canterbury, but by the Parson or Vicar; or, where there is no Parson or Vicar, by the Minister of that place for the time being: which choice shall be signified by the said Minister, Vicar, or Parson, to the Parishioners the next Sunday following, in the time of Divine Service. And the said Clerk shall be of twenty years of age at the least, and known to the said Parson, Vicar, or Minister, to be of honest conversation, and sufficient for his reading, writing, and also for his competent skill in singing, if it may be. And the said Clerks so chosen shall have and receive their ancient wages without fraud or diminution, either at the hands of the Churchwardens, at such times as hath been accustomed, or by their own collection, according to the most ancient custom of every parish.”

The St. Louis Affirmation didn’t draw the line as strict as either Tarsitano or Simcox knew. Meanwhile, Tarsitano’s critique says nothing of the Levites and is closer to medieval opinion– asking the Clerk to keep a character of ministry similar to that of other major Orders. What’s left is some confusion about why women cannot be ‘sacristans’ after worship hours. It’s not a problem of ‘orders’ but the OT significance of the Altar, and its relation to the example of Levites.

Anthropological author, Alice Linsley, gives excellent insight as to why Carolinian divinity might judge the Altar significant in determining ‘right’ service, showing how the gender of men, ordained or not, had a specific connection to atoning death or sacrifice. If we understand the sacristan in light of the Altar’s symbolism rather than deficient categories of “headship” or “ordination”, then the maleness of clerks makes more sense.

“The Bible does not say that women can be priests because the very notion would have been unthinkable to the ancients. They held to the binary distinctions that reveal “woman priest” as an ontological impossibility. The idea of women sacrificing animals in the Temple would have been a great affront to the Creator. He created women to bring forth life, not to take it.

This idea that men and women have distinct blood work is a foreign concept to moderns. Today women fight in combat, hunt and abort their unborn. However, in the ancient world men and women had distinct roles when it came to blood work. These roles were not to be confused. Nor was it proper for the blood shed by males and females to be present in the same place. That is why women were not permitted at the altar of blood sacrifice and men were not permitted inside birthing chambers.

Abraham’s Horite people made a distinction also between the blood work of men in killing and the blood work of women in birthing. The two bloods represent the binary opposites of life and death. The blood shed in war, hunting and animal sacrifice fell to warriors, hunters and priests. The blood shed in first intercourse, the monthly cycle and in childbirth fell to wives and midwives. The two bloods were never to mix or even to be present in the same space. Women did not participate in war, the hunt, and in ritual sacrifices, and they were isolated during menses. Likewise, men were not present at the circumcision of females (Pharaonic circumcision, not female genital mutilation) or in the birthing hut.

The distinction between the blood work of females and the blood work of males is ultimately about the distinction between life and death. This is why the Habiru (Hebrew) were commanded never to boil a baby goat it its mother’s milk. The mother’s milk symbolizes life. Killing the new life in the substance of life blurs the distinction between life and death.

Historically, after childbirth women and their newborn infants were received into the church with great solemnity and joy. This was the Church’s way to recognize the woman and welcome the child. This liturgical moment, called “churching,” affirmed the blood work of child bearing. This practice was observed in the Church for centuries, but began to disappear as feminist influences increased in the Church. “

This excerpt also gives us an idea of why female deacons were used to baptized women initiates. It just wasn’t a question of modesty with nudity but predicated upon gender and blood. What ‘headship’ and ‘ordination’ arguments both miss is the ontological significance men (in general) have with atoning blood, conveniently pictured by the Levitical priesthood which has historical connections, according to Linsley, to the older Horite one. It also tells why the Carolines were insistent in pushing the notion of a ‘bloodless sacrifice’ rather than a mere symbolic memorial by their eucharistic treatises.

Unfortunately, what has prevailed since the late 19th century is not exactly an understanding of the Altar as a Levitical type but the politicization of ‘work’. Thus, the Clerk’s office (and later Holy Orders) were redefined in terms of justice or what ought to be “fair work” rather than sticking to a Levitical order centered around the Altar as a place revealing the ‘everlasting’ atonement. This left a gap that neo-marxists filled with demands for ‘equal treatment’. The marxist implications of ‘fair work’ that often accompany functionalistic definitions should be more clear.

There is another implication regarding the modern indignity of Altar use. If clergy spray, cense, and bless every inanimate object in sight, they fail make distinction between a sacred center, like an altar or chancel, versus the mundane, such as cars or bicycles. The theological consequence seems to be all things have democratic rights to be ‘sacred’. The other extreme might be a total removal of creation from sacred power. But, whatever happened to degrees or ranks of sacred? A consequence of sacred hierarchy might be greater vigilance about who or what is consecrated… 

This further implicates temporal and spiritual relations, which for the length of Christendom, have received overlapping honors and cross-dignities. If we keep ranks of ‘sacred’, then wouldn’t the older liturgical tension between nave-chancel be illuminating? In some cases, this might call for a return to bodily postures like ad orientum, or a half-way position like “north end”. In other cases the furnishings might be ranked– not grossly but modestly by their location in relation to God’s presence by such acknowledgements regarding their decking, height from the floor, etc.. While I do not want to go too far with vain ritualism, it illustrates the notion that a theology of rank awaits, implicit with furnishings that are consecrated, kissed, blessed, etc., versus what is not. Indeed, we may want to reign in what we promiscuously consecrate today. This has bearing upon restoring an ‘anglican iconograhy’ and its related architectural form. Minimally, let’s agree that if folks bow toward the Altar upon their entrance or departure (as the 1640 canons suggested), they should also keep their Table ministries “Levitical”– i.e., male-only, including their altar guilds.

More specifically, should the duty of Altar Guilds be given back to the Clerk? The sacristan and clerk (or nave and altar) need renewed clarification, especially after fifty years of liturgical confusion. The Nave aspects of the Guild could be retained or given to the Junior Warden who typically oversees the church grounds in the same happy manner as the old Sexton. I’m not sure if an Altar Guild would be pleased with being reassigned to exclusive kitchen or garden duty. In very small congregations, an altar guild probably makes no sense, anyway, since a rector can do everything. And, as continuing churches shrink, many Altar Guilds might simply disappear. The sexton and clerk might make more sense joined together into something like a ‘subdeacon’. These unfortunate events (created by poor financial and population circumstances) might produce a positive outcome– making the Altar more masculine, maybe removing weekly flowers and such. 

I don’t think clergy will enjoy these suggestions. In my mind, the care of vestments and eucharistic elements are related since the Christian Altar and the Levitical caste have correlation, giving a ready interpretative framework to think about other lay offices rather than through the limited concept of ‘headship’ or ‘ordination’. I think it also gives some bearing why we call the prayers of the minister a “collect”, since it is the minister (both lay and ordained type) who offer the sacrificial prayers of the people. As with the case of John Stott, ‘headship’ can be twisted into a kind of managerial strategy that regulates “Christian feminism” under the veneer of a disengaged maleness. “Ordination” arguments likewise avoid the significance of the Altar and the Levitical typology. “In persona Christi” comes close, but it misses lay ministries within the sanctuary which end up falling to the same deficiencies as ‘headship’ .

The point is to think about lay offices in terms of the Chrisitan sacrifice rather than functionally, which too often becomes a debate about distributive justice or ‘fair work’. Under this sort of pressure, the tension between spiritual and temporal gives way to pragmatic concerns, making room for women at the altar.

Q. The Anglican Church in America (ACA) has restored the office of Subdeacon, aka. clerk. Can anyone share the ACA liturgy for making ‘subdeacons’ in ACA?

tudor rose panel

1. The Seventh Canon from the 1640 Convocation said: “Whereas the church is the house of God, dedicated to his holy worship, and therefore ought to mind us both of the greatness and goodness of his Divine Majesty; certain it is that the acknowledgement thereof, not only inwardly in our hearts, but also outwardly with our bodies, must needs be pious in itself, profitable unto us, and edifying unto others; We therefore thikn it very meet and behoveful, and heartily commend it to all good and well-affected people, members of this Church, that they be ready to tender unto the Lord the said acknowledgement, by doing reverence and obeisance, both at their coming in and going out of the said churches, chancels, or chapels, according to the most ancient custom of the primitive Church in the purest times, and of this Church also for many years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The reviving therefore of this ancient and laudable custom we heartily commend to the serious consideration of all good people, not with any intention to exhibit any religious worship to the Communion-table, the east, or church, or anything therein contained, in so doing, or to perform the said gesture in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, upon any opinion of a corporal presence of the Body of Jesus Christ on the holy table, or in mystical elements, but only for the advancement of God’s Majesty, and to give him alone that honor and glory that is due unto him, and no otherwise; and in the practive or omission of this rite, we desire that the rule of charity prescribed by the apostle may be observed, which is, that they which use this rite, despise not them who use it not; and that they who use it not, condemn not those that use it.” 
2. The 1549 BCP, Certain Notes: “As touching kneeling, crossing, holding up of hands, knocking upon the breast, and other gestures, they may be used or left, as every man’s devotion serveth, without blame.”
3. Cranmer leaves a convenient definition for ‘profanity’ where the 1548 Book of Ceremonies explains the “hallowing of Altars” by their preservation, “Sanctified, that is to say, Separated from all profane uses and dedicated to the ends before rehearsed, and therefore no Christian person should abuse the same, either with eating, drinking, buying selling, playing, dicing, or with any other profane or worldly matter; for all soverness, quietness and godliness ought there to be used.” p. 4
4..  but they indeed settle upon two themes.  First, they beg that due worship is found acceptable to God. Second, such hallowing asks the church and its ornaments be guarded against profane use. Some extracts from Cosin’s form:
“..may be consecrated and dedicated unto his religious service and worship for the glory of his holy name and that it may be thereby searated form all secular and common uses, and assigned to be for ever hereafter a Church as a peculiar house of Prayer and other divine offices therein to be performed according to the rules and constitutions of the Church of England” p. 240 …The blessing for the parish church is given, but the Bishop next blesses each of church artifact beginning with the font and ending with the Table. Notice the prayer for the hallowing of the Altar does not go beyond the language of the prayer book, speaking for the total action of Holy Communion (use) rather than a Eucharistic presence per se. Cosin’s blessing of the Altar follows:
“Grant, o Lord, that this place may be hallowed [the chancel] together with all things prepared for it for thy holy service and that thy faithful and devout people approaching with pure hearts and clean minds unto this thy holy Table, here to present and offer up themselves, their souls and bodies, a reasonable holy and lively sacrifice unto thee, together with the Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for that blessed sacrifice which thy Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ once offered upon the Cross for the sins of the whole world, may by the religious partaking of his most holy Sacrament obtain remission of their sins, and all other benefits of his passion, and be endued with they grace and heavenly Benediction through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord, who liveth, etc..” p. 246]

5.  St. Paul suggests a continuation of type with Levites and the NT ministry where he urges their material support from the congregation, “Do you not now that they which minister about holy things live on those things of temple? And they which wait of the altar are partakers at the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” (1 Cor 9:13-14). The Male lineage of priesthood is established in Levi under Aaron, “And thou shalt bring Aaron and his sons unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation and wash them with water…And thou shalt anoint them, as thou didst anoint their father, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office for their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood..” (Ex. 40:12-15). Significantly, the census counted only males (Num. 3:19). Rather than pass away with the Cross, the original intent was restored by Christ. The Book of Numbers explains God first ordained the oldest boy of every Israelite family be dedicated as a priest, but the tribe of Levi was later called as a substitute, “And the Lord said unto Moses, Number all the firstborn males of the children of Israel from a month old and upward, and take the number of their names. And thou shalt take the Levites for me instead of the firstborn among the children of Israel” (Num. 3:40-41). If ‘families’ are understood in the national sense, then this becomes an argument for ethnic patriarchates rather than a universal Levitical caste.
6. Taylor says the Altar’s reverencing is pre-Niceane, quoting the 19 Canon of the Councell of Laodicea, which was before the 1 Nicene
7. Perhaps this is where a discussion on the sacramental character of the priesthood may begin. However, sacramental ministerial arguments avoid what I am trying to establish here, namely, an ordering of the christian community based on relative holiness or design. Intrinsic to this construction is the woman as the weaker vessel. In PC environs this older hermenuetic is anathema, though evident in the prayer book. The male character of ordained ministers post-dates the Settlement, yet the temptation of Eve and altar bowing, I believe, lays a ready basis for Holy Orders mirroring the Levitical one. It should be noted, sacramental arguments for clergy tend to be liberal ones, often giving more liberty to women in altar and government functions than evangelical headship apologies, as Dr. Witt charges (above).  I personally believe altar guilds and lay reading offices should be male and properly considered ‘liturgical’. 

Gent, Barbara & Sturges, Betty. Altar Guild Book (Morehouse 1984)
Legg, J Wicham. The Clerk’s Book (London 1903)
___________. English Orders for Consecrating Churches (London 1911)
Simcox, Carroll E.. Understanding the Sacraments (Morehouse 1956)
Stanley, Vernon. Hierurga Anglicana, part II (London 1903)
Tarsitano, Louis R.. An Outline of an Anglican Life (Carillon 1994)

8 responses to “Serving the Altar

  1. From Bishop Peter Robinson at Facebook:
    Q: Is there any problem with female lectors/readers in the Anglican tradition?
    Robinson: “Basically, no problem here with a woman reading the lessons at MP or EP, or the prophetic lesson at the Eucharist where such is authorized. It seems to me to be within the area within which pragmatism can legitimately be applied.

    The fun starts with lay readers, because, ipso facto, most Anglicans, especially in the USA, treat this as a minor order. Given that a Lay Reader has authority to lead public worship in the absence of a priest, this one can develop into a bit of a hot potato depending on whether you can accept a woman having leadership over a mixed assembly of men and women during public worship. The Biblical answer to this would seem to be ‘no’ and the traditional answer to this is definitely ‘no.’

    If you look at the 1958 PECUSA Canons you will see that deaconesses were restricted to leading worship and catachising women and children, which observes the Church’s traditional strance on this issue. The NT notion that women and men are equal, but not interchangable, is where this discussion has to start from.”


  2. Pingback: Institution of Ministers | Anglican Rose

  3. Another post regarding the blood sacrifice and maleness of priesthood by Mrs. Lindsay:


  4. Again, the paucity of “in-persona-christi” in Laudian literature, yet the emphasis on the holiness of the Mensa. Here’s Anthony Sparrow commenting on the decency of women at their churching. He says,

    “The woman that is to be churched, is to have a Veil. And good Reason; for if, as St. Paul 1 Cor. 11 says, Every Woman, when she prays in public, ought to have a Veil, or Covering, on her Head, in Token of her Modesty and Subjection. Then much more, when she is to sit in a more eminent place of the Church, near to the holy Table, apart from the rest of her sex, and in the public view, ought she to have such a Veil or Covering. Nor can it be deemed unreasonable for her at that Time to have a Veil or Habit distinct from others, that so it may be known, for whom Thanks is particularly given.” p. 228 A Rationale.

    The exhortation for a Veil especially when near the Altar may be a keyhole for saying something about the woman as the ‘weaker vessel’. This is somewhat implicit in churching rites, more so with the East. Note: Robinson’s mention of lay readers in ‘public worship’, given the traditional requirement clerks be male, most likely applies to abstaining from administrating Holy Communion (which is reserved to the priest unlike, say, Morning or Evening Prayer).


  5. The Rev. William H. Wilmer, a prominent evangelical who in 1881 wrote The Episcopal Manual, a general exposition on the doctrine and discipline of the Protestant Episcopal Church USA, says about the orders of ministry in relation to the OT:

    “It is certain, however, that there is an intimate connexion between the two dispensations, and a strong resemblance between the positive institutions of the former, which, in fact, were, for the most part, typical, and those of the latter. We find, for instance, the Church founded on the twelve Apostles, answering to the congregation of Israel– divided into the twelve tribes under the twelve patriarch;– the seventy disciples appointed by Christ, answering to the seventy elders who assisted Moses– the prayers, praises, benedictions, and federal rites of the Christian church, answering to all those in the Jewish. In this view, we cannot but think, that the Episcopal plan exhibits a fine analogy and noble consistency with the divine dispensations, by the preservation of three orders in the ministry, which, as St. Jerome remarks, were established in the Christian in correspondence with the Jewish hierarchy of High Priest, Priest, and Levite”. p. 42

    “St. Jerome, who wrote about the year 380, and who did not pretend to be anything more than a Presbyter, says that, ‘the Bishops are the successors of the Apostles, and they hold the Apostles’ place in office.’ Again, ‘we may know the apostolical economy to be taken from the Old Testament; for the same that Aaron, his sons, and the Levites were in the temple, the Bishops, Priests and Deacons are in the church of God.'” p. 49

    “Clemens Romanus, who was contemporary with several of the Apostles, in his epistle to the Corinthians, mentions the High Priest, the Priests and Levites, in direct allusion to the standing orders of the Church in that age.” p. 48

    “The mode of initiation into the Christian church, and the indispensable necessity of its initiation, are a clearly revealed in the New Testament, as the former are in the old; and as it regards the great principle upon which the Christian ministry is organized, the Apostle declares, that ‘no man has a right to take this honor upon himself, but he that is called of God as was Aaron” p. 41


  6. Like many Anglican divinity, there is a casual relation between the Gospel and Levitical ministry. George Horne making something of a comparison here at Ps. 77:20 in his Commentary on the Book of David.

    “20. Thou leddest thy people, like a flock, by the hand of Moses and Aaron. The loving kindness of God toward Israel did not stop at the Red Sea, but he conducted his chosen flock, by the guidance of faithful pastors, through all the perils of the wilderness to the land of promise. We likewise, through thy mercy, O blessed Lord Jesu, have passed the Red Sea at our baptism; and are now journeying in the wilderness. Give us those meek and lowly, and tractable dispositions, which become the sheep of thy pasture; set over us skillful and vigilant shepherds; and be thou ever both with them and with us; until, having surmounted all difficulties and dangers, led by the grace, and supported by thy providence, we all come, in perfect safety, to the land of everlasting rest, there to live with thee, one fold under one shepherd, world without end.”


  7. at Laudable Practice, the author sees both the shortcomings of In persona Christi as well as the full implications of keeping women from forms of preaching. See his #4 which seems to resonate with what I’ve written earlier but without any misgiving to female exclusion from the sanctuary or inner court:

    “4. Women are and always have been priests in the Church catholic. The suggestion that women cannot act in persona Christi is challenged by the truth that women, as members of the royal priesthood, do bear Christ to the world, acting in His person, being Christ to those whom they encounter: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). To both women and men Saint Paul addressed this priestly call:

    I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

    As there can be no priesthood apart from a participation in Christ’s priesthood, women do thus share in the Lord’s priesthood. If women can fully be members of the royal priesthood, why not of the ministerial priesthood when it differs from the royal priesthood not in essence but in function?

    Cranmer reminds us that the difference is one of function not of essence:

    the difference that is between the priest and the layman in this matter, is only in the ministration; that the priest, as a common minister of the church, doth administer and distribute the Lord’s Supper unto other, and other receive it at his hands (A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament, Book V.11).

    This is echoed in the classical Book of Common Prayer, with the Ordinal explicitly relating the gift of the Spirit in Ordination to “the Office and Work of a Priest”, and the Ember Day collects having a similar focus on function: “holy function”, “office and administration”. Hooker’s insistence that “the word Presbyter doth seem more fit, and in propriety of speech more agreeable, than Priest with the drift of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ” (V.78.3) similarly reflects this understanding that the presbyteral ministry is different to that of the laity through its functions rather than sacerdotal essence. When he refers to “a kind of mark or character”, it is in terms of authority to administer: “the bare execution of holy things” (V.77.2). Throughout his discussion of the ministry of presbyters, Hooker continually defines it in terms of function: “Whether we preach, pray, baptise, communicate, condemn, give absolution, or whatsoever …” (V.77.8).

    What is more, as both Sarah Coakley and Catherine Pickstock emphasise, the notion that the priest in the exercise of presbyteral ministry represents Christ rather the Church distorts historic understandings. In the words of Pickstock:

    the Priest as much represents the Church to God as God to the Church, and an over-Christological reading of the Priesthood is actually a modern deviation.

    That the ministry of presbyters is rooted in the royal priesthood, differs from the laity in function not essence, and that its representative function is significantly more nuanced than recent iterations of in persona Christi, all suggests that an understanding of ministerial priesthood which is dependent on male gender and its perceived representative qualities misreads the nature of both the royal priesthood and the ministry of presbyters.


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