The Cambridge chaplain is right to accept female servers at Tridentine Masses

Altar servers pictured at an Extraordinary Form Mass at the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I am in a quandary which I cannot resolve. I am a woman and I attend the Ordinary Form of the Mass. Yet I very much dislike seeing altar girls serving at Mass. I ought to be pleased both because they are “being given a role to play” and because, as an attendee of the OF Mass, I should presumably have liberal instincts and accept altar girls along with extraordinary ministers, guitars and everything else.

But I don’t like it. Why? Well, when this innovation came in I heard along the ecclesiastical grapevine that the late pope, Blessed John Paul II, had capitulated to it under pressure from liberals in the Vatican. If this is true, it is not a good reason to allow such a large change to the Church’s tradition. And in the eyes of traditionalists it is a further objection to the post-Vatican II Mass over which they already have many objections.

Further, I have subsequently read many persuasive articles arguing that priestly vocations have fallen since the innovation came into practice. Becoming an altar boy was, in the past, a not unusual way for a priestly vocation to be kindled. I am sure there are complex reasons why there is a dearth of vocations in the West, but it seems reasonable that this is one of them. Apparently boy altar servers have tended to drop out with the onward progress of the girls. My final objection is instinctual: it simply looks wrong and slightly pagan to see young women on the altar alongside a priest.

Now my quandary has been further complicated by reading Stuart Reid’s excellent Charterhouse in the Catholic Herald of May 27. He relates that Fr Alban McCoy, the Catholic chaplain at Cambridge, is allowing young women students to act as servers at –wait for it – Tridentine Masses said by him. This, as Blessed John Henry Newman might have said, is “a turn up”. EF Masses are where you go if you don’t believe the Mass of 1962 should ever be changed – and that includes the immemorial tradition of male-only altar servers. The late Mgr Alfred Gilbey, chaplain at Cambridge for 32 years who retired rather fast in 1965 when women (me included) began to attend his chaplaincy Masses, must be turning in his grave at Fr McCoy’s innovation.

Yet when I read Charterhouse I immediately felt that Fr McCoy was right. He says he did not seek out female servers but, according to Stuart Reid, “decided not to refuse the request of two young women to serve in the old form”. Now he has a team of 10 servers: six men and four women for both OF and EF Masses: “One rite of liturgy, one set of servers.” I read the situation thus: if you choose to attend the EF Mass you are a serious believer for whom the liturgy is a sacred celebration that must be performed with due reverence (this might not always be the case among some who attend the OF). Fr Alban also knows these young, committed, Catholic women have no aspiration to become priests themselves and thus no agenda (unlike some feminists who see serving at Mass as a first step in the right direction). In charity and wisdom he chose to accede to their respectful request. I agree with him.

I now seem to have argued myself into the rather weird position of approving of women altar servers only at Tridentine Masses, while strongly disliking their presence at OF Masses. This is entirely inconsistent. As I said, I am in a quandary.