31 December 2012
The Real Issue With Female Acolytes
I’ve been chewing, for some time, on the practice of having males only serve as liturgical assistants and acolytes in the Church. At my current congregation, for many years both boys and girls had been allowed to serve in this way. Most of our circuit congregations allow it.
The only definitive position that the Synod takes in its quasi-official documents is that there is no Scriptural prohibition to it. So, anyone who would use males only, especially in a place where both girls and boys have been allowed to serve, has “a lot of explaining to do.”
So I’ve been mulling it over how best to explain this to those who ask (and some have asked). Two things I come up against: 1) There is no word of Scripture that I can think of that would prohibit the use of females in that capacity, and 2) The tradition of most of our congregations has been to allow both males and females to serve as acolytes.
Given the lack of a definite sedes doctrina for female acolytes, the issue is usually thrown quickly into the adiaphora basket. However, the fact that something is an adiaphoron, if it is truly such, does not necessarily mean that we must do it. What it means is that the Church is free in this regard to do what seems best.
Furthermore, in matters where Scripture is silent our Confessions do give to pastors some freedom in making ordinances, so long as they do not make such things binding on consciences or teach that we are justified by them. The issue of who may serve as an acolyte, I believe, would fall into the realm of pastoral privilege. In other words, if the pastor’s preference is not to use female acolytes, then so be it.
In a recent newsletter article for our church, I explained what our acolytes do: they are liturgical assistants to the pastor, doing much more than lighting candles. They are also crucifers and torch bearers. They assist by collecting the Offering plates and taking them into the chancel. They collect the empty individual glasses from the elderly in the back of the Church when we take Communion to them. They vest in cassock and cotta.
I also explained that this is a good way for us to teach the boys and young men in our church about their role as leaders in the Church. It is a good way to teach them proper decorum and reverence. There are other ways the girls can serve. They are encouraged to shadow the women who care for the altar and prepare Communion. And, as in most congregations, there are many women’s organizations and activities for them to be involved in. I also mentioned the fact that today the Church suffers especially from a lack of male participation, and that this is meant to help curb that deficiency.
But all this aside, is there still a more fundamental reason why the practice of using males only for this role in the Church is ideal? I believe so. There is no question that we live in a time when there is much confusion regarding the roles of men and women in the Church. More and more churches are making it possible for women to have authoritative roles, as well as female pastors. There is a general lack of understanding of what roles are appropriate for women to fill in the church.
So, is it right for us who value male headship and authority, who do not allow women to serve as pastors, or to assist with the conduct of the Service, to allow girls to serve in these minor roles? Isn’t this rather confusing to them? If a girl has assisted in the conduct of the Service, has vested just like the boys, has carried crosses and torches, etc, isn’t she more likely to question when she gets older the practice of a male-only clergy? Isn’t she more likely to ask, “What’s the difference? Why was a girl allowed to do all these other things, but she can’t be a pastor?”
Maybe this is an overreach, but as a parent I know that it is necessary not only to tell my kids how to behave, but also to model that behavior for them. If I tell them not to do something, but go ahead and do it myself, that sets a bad example for them, and essentially confuses them. Why is it okay for Dad to do it, but not me? So also, I think that we almost become guilty of leading young women into temptation when we give them these roles. We tempt them by enticement, like leading a young child in front of a candy shop, even letting them taste the candy, but then saying, “You can’t have any.”
In this case, we let the young women get a “taste” of what it is like to assist in the Conduct of a Divine Service, but then we say, “You can’t do that” when it comes to being pastors. Not only is this unloving, but it creates problems later on down the road. If, however, from their childhood, they have learned to see only men leading the Service, and young men assisting with the Service, won’t they be less likely to be among those who question the propriety of a male-only clergy?
One could, I suppose, take the position that it doesn’t really matter who lights candles if this is done apart from the Service. We usually have ours lit 5-10 minutes before the opening hymn, and the boys extinguish the candles after the closing hymn. When I don’t have acolytes present, either I light them or an usher does (and our ushers are all men—go figure).
As a compromise, so as not to cause too much offense, I suppose a pastor could allow girls the opportunity to light candles before the Service and to extinguish them afterward, while reserving the roles of crucifer and torch bearer for males only since these take place during the Service. In this case, however, I wouldn’t have the girls vest, or remain up front after wards. I would just have them light the candles and go back to sit with their families.
In either case, I think that the real issue at hand is what is being taught and conveyed to the young people and the rest of the congregation. It would seem that with all of the confusion over the roles of men and women in the Church today, we might do well to listen to the words of the apostle: “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.”
If something is truly a matter of Christian freedom, then the rule should apply both ways. If the Church is free to use male and female acolytes, both lighting candles and assisting the pastor in the liturgy, then we should also be free not to do it. Too often, however, the opposite is true. People think that if we are free to do something then we must do it. St. Paul’s words above would not allow such thinking though.