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A Companion for Servers – Company of Servers

May 31, 2015

ACFSMany altar servers are young people but I have noticed that although they are trained to take part decently in the ceremonial, they have little idea of its meaning.

When I was young, there was an organisation, which still exists, called the Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary, which existed for this very purpose. And I loved it. But it has become moribund.

I joined the Guild during my teens, in the early 1960s, and am immensely grateful to it. As a server in what we used to call a ‘Prayer Book Catholic’ parish, I was taught the full riches of the catholic tradition by our guild chaplain and by various preachers at our services. It did a lot of good work with young servers like me. We always looked forward to coach trips to village churches, where it wasn’t simply a case of using a bit of incense for a Guild Office but was to give servers from those churches a glimpse of something bigger than their local, usually small, congregation. Such visits sometimes included barbecues and quizzes in the summer months.

My experience of the Guild and the encouragement of its members is one of the major influence which led me to read theology for my degree, work as a teacher of Religious Education in secondary schools for over thirty years and to be licensed as an LLM (aka Lay Reader) and trained as a spiritual director. I also led a quiet evening, based on the psalms of the Guild office, which was published in The Server along with some articles for young people.

I have acted as cantor for virtually every Guild Office for decades.

My impression of the Guild is that for much of its history, its membership was far wider than that of most other catholic societies, with the exception, perhaps, of the Church Union. This meant that it played a valuable role in spreading the catholic message – its teaching, not just ceremonial – to the Church of England.

I am ill at ease with the Guild and will never recommend that anyone join it now because of “the order of the warden that GSS members should not serve women” I wrote to the warden, the general secretary and my local group councillor about the guild’s position on women priests and, despite my being a member for 48 years, none of them even bothered to reply. Lack of concern for members is hardly a formula for growth.

COSSo I greatly welcomed it when The Society of Catholic Priests, a group spun off from Affirming Catholicism, gave birth to the Company of Servers.

This glossy manual is light years ahead of the dull green GSS one.

It starts with sound advice: a good server will be a person who enables worship to be offered, who will make the role of the ordained ministers that much easier. They will be dignified and prayerful, smart and humble. They will not be looking for the limelight for themselves but like St John the Baptist will always be pointing to Jesus and away from themselves…. A server will have many gifts and skills. Among the most important to have or develop is careful observation and an eye for detail. If you are able to watch and reflect as others serve to see how they move, how they stand, how they look, how they handle the tools of serving and react to each other then you have already developed an essential skill. Even if you serve at the altar on your own, it is important to carry out your duties calmly, reverently, prayerfully and unnoticed! If you serve as part of a team, it is important that you are collaborative and pay attention to what each other are doing.

There are suggestions for a rule of life.

There are some helpful prayers for use before and after serving. These are important because servers are often too busy to pray consciously whilst on duty. (However the use of Unto is a bit old fashioned and reflects the old preparation from the foot of the altar steps.)

There are some suggestions which seem obvious to hold hands like me but still need repeating: Remember that you have made a commitment to God and to your church. Make sure you know when you are supposed to be serving and be there. If you absolutely can’t make it, arrange a swap, or let whoever is in charge know, as soon as possible — not the day before!

Arrive in time at church to prepare for the service and so that whoever is leading knows there are enough servers for the service to be as good as it can be.

Think about what you wear. In worship we offer the very best we can to God. Servers should wear clean black shoes. Some keep a pair of shoes in the vestry just for serving. Al though some churches may not object to trainers or coloured shoes, wearing them will draw attention to yourself and may distract others from worship. Be inconspicuous!

If you have long hair, tie it back so that it is out of the way of your face and from anything you might be holding or carrying. It is especially dangerous to have long hair near lit candles!

Listen carefully when instructions are being given and ask questions if you are not sure what is expected of you.

Look at the other servers and try to mirror each other in the speed you move, how you hold your hands, when you bow etc.

Look at the person leading the service. If they need some thing in particular during worship then a raised eyebrow in your direction will be a more discreet way of asking for help than having to call out to you.

Think about what is happening next during the service. Are you in the right place? Will you need to move? Have you got what you need at hand? Nothing should take you by surprise!

Although there is so much to consider when serving, remember that you are worshipping God too and join in with the prayers and keep your thoughts holy!

Take responsibility and don’t expect that someone else will cover for you, set up or tidy up.

When carrying something as part of a liturgical action (e.g. carrying candles in a gospel procession) it is not necessary to bow or genuflect.A general rule: if you are carrying some thing, don’t bow!

Make sure that you don’t cause any distraction whilst serving or draw attention away from the liturgy, so don’t talk to other servers during worship.A discreet whisper or a nod in the right direction (literally), should be enough if something has been missed, forgotten, or if a server is unsure what to do next.

Another distraction, especially if you are a Eucharistic Assistant, is to have jewellery swinging about. There’s nothing wrong with wearing jewellery when serving but remember to keep it discreet and make sure it won’t interfere with serving, including getting caught in your robes as you put them on and take them off.

Don’t forget that you are a member of the congregation there to worship God.

There’s a glossary. Some things are a bit old-fashioned (burse, veil, maniple, biretta) but they reflect what some churches still use. It’s better than the GSS mentality where things were right or wrong, in or out. So a celebrant is just as OK in surplice and stole as in alb and chasuble.

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