The article itself is good, but there’s one part that leapt out and grabbed me by the front of my scruffy sweatshirt. Lax pointed out,
Until 1971, when women were first ordained as deacons, the highest post a woman could attain was member of the vestry, the elected group that manages parish business. But even that was uncommon; usually the highest ranking woman in the parish was the leader of the altar guild, which arranges the flowers in the church, sets up the Eucharistic vessels and washes and irons the linens used in the service.
Seeing that was a revelation to me, something which might begin to explain a relationship that has always confused me: the relationship between clergy and altar guild.
Now, I’ve served on altar guilds at two churches; I was the sacristan at CDSP for two years; and I have nothing but respect for the work of the altar guild. But I’m here to tell you, that as a priest, I have never encountered more conflict than with the women of the altar guild. The amount of resistance, anger, and territoriality has often taken me by surprise.
I think this can be summed up succinctly in an encounter I had a few years back. I realized on my way to church on Sunday morning that I had forgotten to tell the head of the altar guild that I had made a change in some part of the set up for that morning. I knew this was going to be trouble and instantly went to the sacristy to apologize and explain. The head of the altar guild let me know in no uncertain terms that my behavior had been unacceptable and ended by telling me, “Don’t fuck with the altar guild.” Not language you hear every day from septuagenarian widows.
I think she said what a lot of altar guild leaders secretly and honestly feel. And part of that, I suspect, stems from the fact that it used to be they were the highest ranking women in the parish, but now where are they? Now that women run the joint, are bishops, priests, deacons, wardens, treasurers, deputies to General Convention – not to mention running the denomination in both houses – what status is there in serving on the altar guild? The truth is, not a lot.
That’s not all there is to it, of course, so forgive me for this superficial analysis, but I do wonder how this loss of status affects the attitudes of the long-time members of our altar guilds. What’s more, how many of them joined because priesthood was not an option? I’m trying to imagine how many bishops, priests, deacons served out their life ministries in the altar guild because there was no other outlet for it. Well, you could also be a DRE—director of religious education—but that position is largely vanished now, while the work of the altar guild is still largely unchanged.
And still largely unrecognized. Do you notice, of a Sunday, that your purificator has been ironed? No? Neither do I. But the altar guild still does it, using those thankless linens that need to be laundered and starched and ironed just so.
The altar guild is a ministry that gets noticed primarily by its failures. The wine isn’t in the cruet? Complain to the altar guild. The chasuble wasn’t set out? Complain to the altar guild. The candle ran out of oil? Complain to the altar guild. That constant castigation might have been a bit easier to take when there was some status in the position. But now I sense that the low status serving on the altar guild currently holds cannot match up to the constant criticism that comes with the job.
I’m just imagining all those thwarted priests ironing linens in dingy sacristies year after year for decades. It makes me sad. The church fucked with the altar guild big time.