Servers, Girls, and “The Last Shall Be First”

This just came to mind over at Father Z’s, where they’ve been having (among other things) a discussion of girl servers.

I was all for girls serving back when I was a girl; but mostly from the standpoint that since boys were so lazy about doing it that girls might as well get in, and that since it was legally possible and had precedents, it could very well be done. But the one time I had a chance to do it, it felt very odd and wasn’t something I really wanted to repeat. It looks odd, too, up in the sanctuary. Not revolting or wrong, but just not right. As if someone has missed the point.

So I periodically put some thought into this subject. The thing that comes to mind is that the Church has traditionally had a hierarchical structure in which, literally, the last shall be first and the one in charge is the one who is the servant of all the rest. To wash feet was degrading and yucky — hard work and detail work. It was the kind of job that, in the ancient world, was usually given to slaves or women. The only well-off people who usually did it for themselves were Jewish priests preparing to go into the Holy Place. For Jesus to wash the feet of his Twelve was to prepare them to go into His sanctuary — to attend the first Mass _in_ that sanctuary, and thus assist not as members of the people but as priests and bishops.

There were some deaconesses appointed at need to enter women’s quarters without scandal, but the usual deacons — servants — of the Church were men. Men to fetch and carry, men to do menial everyday work that would be assigned in a household to slaves or women. Responsible, important work, yes. But also purposefully menial, and purposefully given largely to men.

In another interesting move, vestments are largely adaptations of archaic men’s clothes. Part of what makes them archaic is that, outside of church, their elements would largely be interpreted by modern eyes as being women’s clothing. Again and again, these elements are maintained in vestments long after they have started to seem “girly” on non-clerical men. Why do they not seem girly? Perhaps because of this role reversal. Long robes and lace and big necklaces continued to seem manly, on men doing work that would anywhere else have seemed like work for parlormaids.

The sanctuary — the area immediately around the altar — spends a good part of Mass as the dwelling of God. In the court of Heaven, the rules are different than in the world. So it’s exalted to fetch and carry, and men dress in a different way. It does have a certain logic to it, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, women were largely the philanthropists of the early Church, giving money and space to hold Mass, praying, making vows, and doing all sorts of things — things which were not menial. Lady Bountiful does not fetch and carry. In the rest of the ancient world, women could only have taken the role of Martha in most religions, and it took a rich persuasive woman to be allowed to listen to a philosopher’s lectures. In the Christian world, women were actually encouraged to listen and rest!

So now we come to servers, who stand in for adult men training up to be priests, and do what they’d do. And what they do is menial work, the work of slaves and women. They act as human bookstands, human censers of perfume, human candlesticks and tables. They fetch and carry and stand still without drawing attention. Boys who enter into this world are doing something vastly against their usual natural inclinations. Girls who enter into this world are spending a whole lot of time being submissive and attentive to the wishes of an older man.

So it should be obvious that it’s feminist for boys to serve as acolytes and more feminist for girls not to do so.

Now, I fully acknowledge that it’s not just fetching and carrying, and putting religious significance on an act makes it a lot less servile. But. It’s not a matter of positions of power, either. To be a priest or a deacon is to be at everyone’s beck and call at all hours. To be a server is much the same, but with more limited hours and numbers of persons to serve.

Women already do way too much of this stuff. It’s always tempting to take on more of the stuff we’re good at, or that society encourages us to do; and to serve is not all that far a stretch. So it’s not wrong to be a server and girls can do a good job; but it’s not right, either. It’s counter-productive to this “reversal of gender roles” principle, and thus to part of the intended purpose of serving. Girls should be encouraged to sit back in the pew, prop their Lady Bountiful feet up on the kneeler, and watch the boys scurry about instead of doing it themselves.

And if you think America is so egalitarian that reversals of gender roles are no longer needed —

Do it for the poor Muslim women and those of other oppressive religions; for all the female sex slaves hidden in our society and procured from around the world; and for all the many other oppressed ladies in our world today. They could really use some role reversal, and they aren’t all that few.

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