Saturday, November 11, 2023

Altar servers or acolytes. . .

Countless conversations over the years have dealt with the dilemma of what to do with the youth who serve at the altar.  Are they to be only boys or boys and girls or does it even matter anymore?  Although we are quick to rush to the question of gender, the problem we must face first is who these youth are.  Are they acolytes (those who light the candles and a few other duties or are they altar servers?  It seems to me that Lutherans have a lot of trouble answering this question.  In this respect, we are not unlike Roman Catholics in the confusion.

There was a time when it was clear.  The youth serving at the altar were not simply acolytes and because of this they were exclusively male.  They may have had candle duties as part of their responsibility but they were altar servers.  This means that they did not simply do their task and disappear to the side but accompanied the priest at the altar for the most profound moments within the mass.  To do this, they were schooled in their duties as those upon whom the Church conferred an office.  Not all those who were of the age or desire to become servers were given such responsibility.  When the mass was in Latin, the altar servers were required to know the Latin of the mass as well as the names and purpose for every piece of chancel furniture and every sacred vessel used in the mass.  These were to be memorized along with the actual text of the liturgy.

If I have a problem with requiring only males as acolytes it is because we no longer have such expectations and we can no longer count on the support of parents in this cause.  Altar servers and acolytes have also become victims of the dumbing down of the faith and worship.  It is about all I can expect to have a youth show up when scheduled and many are the times when moments before the Divine Service I am roaming the pews looking to find someone willing to serve.  The problem here lies not with youth but with the congregation which sees these as roles primarily for the purpose of cuteness and giving the kids something to do.  The problem also lies with families who do not esteem the service of those at the altar as something important enough to get to church 20 minutes early so that the youth can be instructed in their roles by the pastors whom they will serve.  The problem also lies with the fact that we do not esteem ceremony or ritual as anything more than an affectation to be tolerated when in reality these are servants of and tools for the practice of our piety.

Furthermore, the use of altar boys to recruit pastors is not best served by making them acolytes with an added extra duty or too.  I do not believe that a layman reading the occasional Scripture reading or a girl serving as an acolyte is seen as having much to do with the pastoral office.  I have been a pastor for 43 years and I cannot name one individual sitting in the pews who thought that me in my Eucharistic vestments was the same as the usher, acolyte, or elder who assist in some way in the Divine Service.  I will say that the problem is not that folks esteem the pastor too highly but that we do not esteem the Divine Service and those who serve in any way within the Divine Service as important or essential or noble.  The problem here is not about the youth but about the way we have boiled things down to the lowest common denominator in everything that happens on Sunday morning and placed preference and like above everything.  

Quite honestly I simply gave up on altar servers (altar boys) and simply acquiesced to them being acolytes with a few additional duties.  There were simply too many other things I had to do and this was a practice (not a doctrine) that I set aside for a day that did not come -- yet.  It is not about fairness or equity or that gender does not matter but that to restore the practice of altar boys would represent a sea change of attitudes within the congregation and throughout the wider church body.  I certainly am happy that there are some congregations where this practice has been restored and acolytes are a guild or academy or order and not simply a title defined by function.  It has not happened here yet.  In order for it to happen, parents will need to be willing to be instructed and supportive and the congregation will need to learn to esteem those who serve for more than their cute factor or a smile at their occasional lapse in decorum.   Whether that will happen on a wider scale or when it will happen here, I do not know.  What I do know is this.  Unless those serving are altar servers with requisite expectations of knowledge, skill, and devotion, the issue of boys or girls will not really matter.

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