Ask a Priest: Female Altar Servers
Question: I attend a church that does not permit female altar servers. Is there any justification for this practice? Wasn’t one of the innovations of Vatican II the abolition of gender discrimination aside from the priesthood?
Answer: Female altar servers in the Latin Rite is a relatively new phenomenon. In the Eastern Byzantine Rites not even laity are allowed in the sanctuary (behind the iconostasis). In the Jewish religion in the time of Jesus, no women were permitted in the inner courts of the Temple and only the High Priest in the inner sanctuary of the Holy of Holies twice a year.
In the Orthodox Jewish communities today men and women are separated in the Synagogue. In the Islamic faith, women are only permitted (with veils) in the back and outer part of the mosque to worship, not in the front with men.
The reason for this is a clear delineation of hierarchy and patriarchal structure in the history of the three great monotheistic faiths. Thus to allow females to act as lectors, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and as altar servers is a real break with tradition and the past.
In a similar vein, we can look back to a time when women could not be elected to Government, could not be doctors, lawyers etc. and could not even vote. It is not therefore surprising that one will find churches and traditionalist communities resisting what they might consider recent innovations. However, I think it is a step in the right direction towards greater respect and equality of the sexes