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persons of the feminine sex

Archbishop Raymond Burke, the Roman Catholic Church’s top legal authority, has stated that reading at Mass or distributing communion is not a right of the baptized. “Assistance by “persons of the feminine sex” at the altar” is also not a right.

Pope John Paul II, of course, allowed “persons of the feminine sex” at the altar. The recent altar server pilgrimage to the Vatican drew thousands of boys and girls. “Archbishop Burke clarified, however, that the reality of the matter is that neither the presence of girls at the altar, nor the participation of lay faithful “belong to the fundamental rights of the baptized.””

The attitudes to women, particularly around menstruation, has a long history, going back into Biblical times. In 241 AD Dionysius, Archbishop of Alexandria, wrote: “menstruous women ought not to come to the Holy Table, or touch the Holy of Holies, nor to churches, but pray elsewhere.” Pope Gelasius I (494 AD) objected to women serving at the altar. The Decretum Gratiani (1140 AD), which became official Church law in 1234 AD, part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici has

  • Women may not distribute communion
  • Women may not teach in church
  • Women may not touch sacred objects
  • Women may not touch sacred vestments

The Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 – 1916 AD) also has:

  • A woman may not touch the corporal
  • Women may not receive communion during their monthly periods
  • Women should receive communion in their hand on a ‘housel-towel’ or on the tongue
  • Women should be veiled when receiving communion
  • Women may not be singers in Church

From 1917

  • Women may not distribute holy communion
  • Girls or women may not be Mass servers at the altar
  • Women should have their heads veiled in church
  • Sacred linen must first be washed by men, before women touch them
  • Women may not read out Sacred Scripture in church

IMO, and with respect, I suggest the understanding of laity as there to pay, pray, and obey is not the understanding of Jesus. Renewal of liturgy has rediscovered liturgy is (as the origin of the word suggests) “the work of the people”. It is not a spectator sport. It is a team sport, where each has a particular role. I would suggest that the laity, in fact, are the ones appropriately reading lessons, leading the prayers of the faithful, bringing forward the bread and wine, taking up and presenting a collection and other gifts for the poor, etc. Clergy should not usurp these tasks. Laity have responses particular to them in the liturgy. Clergy should not usurp these responses. Many post-Vatican II church buildings do not have a “sanctuary” (this became a problem with a recent Vatican ruling that priests not “leave the sanctuary during the Sign of Peace”). In such a building, at which point is a “person of the feminine sex” deemed to be “assisting at the altar”? May she take up the collection, but not present it? In such a church building may no woman go beyond the front seats or pew? Or even sit in the front seats or pews if there is no physical barrier between her and the altar?

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14 thoughts on “persons of the feminine sex”

  1. Is reading at Mass/Communion or helping distribute communion the ‘right’ of anybody, male or female, lay or ordained, rather than a privilege?

    1. Thanks, Robert, for that thought [please can you put your Christian name rather than rwmg, thanks]. I’m not sure that I personally would see that as either-or. In this country I have a right to vote, I also regard that as a privilege.

  2. Doesn’t right imply that if you are denied the opportunity to exercise the right, you can compel the authorities to ensure that you are given the opportunity? To me that conjures up all sorts of uncomfortable images in this context.

    1. I think you would need to expand your point, Robert, as possibly you are making it too tightly? I’m not sure where the analogy goes if you start to bring in “authorities”? Who, in your way of pressing this point, are the authorities over the Eucharist? Do we have a baptismal right to receive communion? Do we have a baptismal right to participate in the Eucharist? The quoted archbishop clearly sees certain functions as the right of the ordained – you questioned that right, which takes the discussion into possibly another, certainly equally valuable direction, but combining that with this one, in my mind at least, gets confusing. 🙂

  3. Hummmm, maybe they have not heard in Rome that we are no longer Chattel. Guess that’s one of the reasons why I choose to be Episcopalian not RC.

  4. Bosco,

    This is a timely reminder to me of some of the reasons that I left the RC Church 28 years ago. Using history and scripture to justify male domination demonstrates the complete blindness to reality of the church hierarchy.

    Monocular vision is a fault we can all suffer from, and the anglican church can be just as guilty. It is time that the Pope and his subordinates woke up to the fact that people are no longer prepared to be patronised but wish to fulfill the promises they made at Baptism and to be part of the Royal Priesthood established by Jesus Christ to be share among all of his people.

    If the RC Church wishes to be exclusively male dominated they will continue to be held up as a fossil and will become increasingly irrelevant in the world. That would be a tragedy for the millions of the faithful who are being let down by purely human motives.

  5. thanks for giving me some great references for ‘Is sexism a sin’
    the Anglican communion still has a lot to work on

  6. Interesting post, Bosco. And yet in the US, there has been increasing lay participation. I must say I like Luther’s take on this that even the milk maid could be more holy and a greater saint than a monk in the monastery. I used to be RC as a child, but later had issues with the type of thinking you referred to in your post.

    Another good post. Many thanks.

  7. To me, talking of rights in this context conjures up an unpleasant picture of someone saying to whoever is organising a service, “I have the right to read the Lesson or assist with distributing the Communion elements and you can’t stop me”, possibly with a veiled threat that if he/she doesn’t get their way they will complain to the church council, bishop or whoever.

    Isn’t being able to participate in the Eucharist part of God’s grace to us? Talk of rights seems to me to sit very uneasily with that. Reading the Lesson or assisting is supposed to be service. You can volunteer but how can you demand of someone that you have a right to serve them? Who is serving whom once that starts?

    1. Yes, that all makes sense, Robert. But the flip side of your sentences is that it gives the impression that the Eucharist is the private possession of “whoever is organising a service”. That, to me at least is an equally “unpleasant picture”. In my and many others’ tradition, “whoever is organising a service” cannot do as they please, and those participating have certain “rights”, unpleasant as that word may appear. When I preside at the Eucharist tomorrow, those who participate have the right that they hear Luke 14:1, 7-14 read as the Gospel reading, they have the right to expect that we will pray an authorised Eucharistic Prayer, etc. In some traditions, certainly, all is led and totally controlled by “whoever is organising a service”. Within the Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, and other traditions clergy are not the sole ones with rights, but all the baptised have rights.

  8. I would be equally unhappy if the celebrant thought of the Eucharist as his/her private possession. The celebrant serves us and we serve him (I’ve no personal objection to a her, but in fact it is a him).

    I have expectations about what will happen tomorrow morning, that we will follow a Communion service from the Australian Prayer Book, for example, and these expectations fit in with my preferences, the preferences of other members of the congregation, and the preferences of our clergyman. But if for some reason it doesn’t happen that way, I’m certainly not going to start demanding my ‘rights’. If the services repeatedly go against my preferences, I might start looking round for another church I find more congenial, but I recognise that they are only my preferences, not my entitlements.

    1. I suspect, Robert, that we are actually not discussing significant differences in essence but in semantics.

      Again, I may understand what you are saying, but I might not use serving language in a Eucharist in quite that way. Nor would I divide the participants so neatly into “him and us”. This also underlies the use of “celebrant” for the presider. I understand all of us at a Eucharist to be celebrating together. Each with different gifts and roles. If, the clergyman has made certain vows and signed certain declarations about leading worship then, yes, you may have the personality type that doesn’t make a fuss when these promises to you are broken, but there is nothing wrong with others following due process as is their “right”.

  9. How can a church choose to ignore 70% of the membership and dictate that women can’t be ordained, can’t serve at the table and must meekly stand by while the boys make the rules? Living on the head of that pin has become so intolerable a lot of people of both sexes are getting off. I was thrown off the pin six years ago. Now I’m Episcopalian and loving it each and every day.
    Schley Cox

  10. >>I suspect, Robert, that we are actually not discussing significant differences in essence but in semantics. <<

    You may well be right. It's been fun. Peace and love in Jesus Christ.

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