In my home parish it was quite a big thing to be admitted to the Guild of Servers. I think it was about being part of a group who believed in excellence and reverence in the sanctuary and as we had that drummed into us from the very beginning it seemed a natural progression. You see, we were the first women ever to serve at my home parish and indeed one family left because of it. So we had to be very good, very unobtrusive, with no make-up, black shoes (of course), and to try and not menstruate if at all possible.
Once a year the Guild met somewhere round the province for its AGM and we looked forward to a day out in the charabang, having a nosy round someone else’s sacristy and a rummage through their vestment cupboard. It all kicked off with a Eucharist where all the servers were robed as per their own custom. Oh how I remember sneering at those who wore albs and, what was that…? White shoes? slingbacks? Heaven forfend! There we were in cassocks and cottas and black shiny shoes, bosoms bound and yet puffed out with pride. Then we were served refreshments which varied depending on which part of the country we were in, followed by the AGM. Now the Chaplain-General was a rather elderly and infirm priest who didn’t really seem to approve of us ‘girls’ but we brazened it out. After all, we knew that if it wasn’t for us girls then our church would be struggling with one or two servers per mass and not a full complement of five. I don’t really remember what business was discussed at the AGM other than sniggering over the War Memorial Fund and what relevance it had for us today. There was often an election which seemed to involve the same people decade after decade. Then we gathered in our robes again for the sung Guild Office which was almost impossible to sing in plainsong with elderly voices who’ve really seen their day of hitting that note. More giggling ensued.
When you were made a member of the Guild you had to kneel at the altar rail, make promises and were presented with a cross. Then you were given a copy of the Constitution and Rule which was to guide us in all our ministrations. I remember it being a proud moment. Children could be admitted too and we always tried to encourage them to come along to the AGM, although when I look back I do wonder why. What on earth would a child find attractive about that day? The language was archaic, as were most of the members, and really there was nothing to interest a little ‘un. Occasionally a teenager would turn up but we never saw them again, and who can blame them? In time the order of service for the Guild Office was updated to something more modern but the whole format of plainsong remained, which rather defeated the purpose in my view.
Years passed and I became a priest. I stopped going to the Server’s Guild because I knew that those in charge were against the ordination of women and who wants to go where they’re not welcome. I did go one year at the invitation of a dear friend and was asked to join as an Associate Priest. I stood in the choir stalls of some distant church and was duly ignored by every priest around me. I noted that the same people were in charge. I vowed never to go again. Years passed and one’s memory fades and I went once more at the invitation of some clergy friends in Glasgow diocese. We had a laugh but really it was dreadful. The mass was unbelievably bad and one wondered why a very old and infirm priest was presiding when there were so many others in attendance. Please believe that I am not implying that old clergy should not preside at mass. Far from it. But you know there are just some occasions when you have to recognise that you shouldn’t be singing mass because your voice isn’t what it once was, and being helped up and down steps and having to sit at every available moment. And yes, it was the same people who got voted in. I didn’t go back.
My invitation arrived today for this year’s AGM. Same format, same people. There was also a note that the Constitution and Rule had been revised from the 1929 version. Hallelujah, I thought. The Secretary General even commented that it was easier then he’d thought it might be. Servers will have an opportunity to make comments on the revision. I had a quick look and stifled a guffaw. Basically ‘he’ has been replaced with ‘the server’ throughout. I’m sure that our young servers will immediately connect with the very first paragraph:
To the server is given the privilege of ministering like Samuel of old, in the Sanctuary. The Server should value this honour and ever strive to become more worthy of it by performing every duty with recollection of the Unseen Presence to Whom such services is rendered. In order to attain this ideal the server should endeavour to be to the congregation an example of carefulness in observing, so far as able, the precepts and rules of the Church; using the sacraments frequently and with devotion, due preparation and thanksgiving; with application to prayer and meditation, and to a greater realisation of the boundless Love of God.
And so it goes on. The ‘Fraternity’ still exists so women still not welcome. You know I’d thought I might make some amendments and send it in but I can see that it would be a mammoth task of rewriting the whole thing and frankly I can’t be bothered. But if they’re wondering why more young people don’t join then perhaps they ought to have a look at the language and ask what they are offering them. And to stop standing for the senior posts themselves and encourage younger people to take their place.