So here is my confession: I was an altar boy. In our church, an altar server’s outfit consisted of a long red dress (or cassock) with a shorter white dress slipped over the top. Thinking back on this now, it feels nothing short of astonishing that kids would climb into such garb, but it never bothered us at the time.
I’m standing on the altar at a quarter to midnight in a cassock that stops just short of the ankle. This is unfortunate in that I’m wearing a giant pair of white trainers, creating the impression that Michael J Fox has just joined the priesthood. As the last one to arrive, the choice of cassock was limited and to make matters worse, it’s also covered in dried wax from previous candle extinguishing adventures. (All altar servers at heart are enthusiastic pyromaniacs and pride themselves on being able to snuff out a flame between finger and thumb). The occasion is the Easter Vigil – a legendary date in the servers’ calendar in that it can extend up to three hours. The air is thick with incense and not five feet away a man in a dress is drinking the blood of Christ.
Typically there would be two to five altar servers on duty, depending on how high the mass. At a bog standard weekday service, there was often just the priest, an altar server and a nun in the front pew. In such instances the priest would skip the homily and hymns and race to the end like a judge keen to finish a case before lunch. At 11am on a Sunday, at what was called a sung mass, there could be up to seven of us gliding about on the red carpet, mixing potions or ferrying water and wine like waiters in a busy restaurant.
In many respects, it was like being in a youth club. We had trips to Alton Towers (including visit when a server memorably stuck his head out of the minibus window and threw up on a passing motorcyclist). In others ways, it was like being part of a secret society. The structure was entirely hierarchal. There was pecking order and specific roles, a little like a rugby team.
At the bottom of the heap (and invariably this was the role I was assigned) was the boat bearer. This was one step up from doing nothing, and simply involved transporting a silver dish of incense and a spoon up to the priest. He would take a few grams of spice and drop it into a smoking orb on a chain called a thurible. You would then return to your pew until another refill was required. In many ways, it was like taking cocaine to a gangland boss. Next up were the acolytes, who flanked the priest, with a tall candlestick, following his every step. ‘This was like impersonating an angel,’ remembers Paul, who carried out this duty on innumerable occasions. ‘The key was to protect your flame at all costs, which wasn’t always easy in a draughty church. The other concerns were not setting the priest or yourself on fire.’
The bell ringer was a job that required an intermediate skill level; this involved twisting a large metal dome that resembled an upside saucepan to produce a bright ringing sound. This had to be done to coincide with particularly holy moments during the mass – such as the consecration, when the bread turned miraculously and reliably into the body of Christ. Occasionally, if you were off somewhere else, you would ring at the wrong moment causing the priest to drop what he was doing and run back to the altar, or 400 people to suddenly stand up. This was invariably followed by censorious looks from the senior server.
Then there was cross bearer. While on paper this sounded like a tough gig (ask Jesus or Joseph of Arimathea) in fact this was a brilliant job. It looked terribly impressive as you led the small procession of priest and servers solemnly around the church and up to the altar. It was all the more cushdy in that once you reached the altar, all you needed to do was lean it against the wall and take a seat. An hour later, you stood up and repeated the manoeuvre. The cross itself was a silver rod about seven foot tall leading to a kind of trident at the top with Christ on a smaller cross flanked by little metal figures of Mary and St. John. ‘You definitely had the kudos being cross bearer,’ says Paul, ‘but there was risk too. John and Mary were always a little loose and liable to fall off.’ There was always an instance of a server almost knocking himself out with a pound of Virgin Mary dropping on his head.
The most difficult and therefore most prestigious job was thurifer, so called because they carried the Thurible. This contraption was operated by the most experienced, and usually the oldest altar server. It was their role to generate enormous quantities of sweet smelling smoke and send our prayers to heaven. They had to be a certain locations on the altar at specific times, hand it to the priest, take it back and most terrifyingly, bless the congregation with it at one point in the mass. Throughout all this, they had to keep the orb swinging like a pendulum in a grandfather’s clock. Every thurifer had their own style and extent of swing. Most had a moderate motion, swinging the thing between five and seven o’clock. Others possessed the most astonishing action, swinging in an arc anywhere between two and ten o’clock. With these, it was vital to be well out of the way, unless you wanted another crack on the head with some holy heavy metal.
As well as duties on the altar, there would be occasional detours and even trips outside on special occasions like Christmas and Easter. The priest and servers would rove like a small, well drilled platoon down the aisles, into east and west chapels blessing everything in its path. The thurifer would whisper urgent orders under his breath such ‘go left,’ ‘hold it, James’ or ‘where’s the boat?’ Often there would be navigational mishaps where the cross bearer turned left while the acolytes kept on going. The cross would then have to perform a hasty u-turn to rejoin the main party. Much of this would be caused by daydreaming, which in turn was caused in large part by the tedium of the mass. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe (atheism was not a concept that even occurred to us) it was simply that every week we would hear the same words in the same order, except for the reading and sermon that followed, which was rarely a reason to get excited. During longer services, like the legendary two hour marathon that was Christmas midnight mass, some servers would faint at having to spend so long on their feet, sending their burning machinery rolling off the altar and into the congregation.
For our trouble, we were given chocolate on feast days and occasional passes to get out of school to serve at weddings or funerals. There were always rumours of servers earning a pound or even more from lucrative invite-only gigs, and you spent your day dreaming of being summoned to these glorious paydays. Mischief was rife. Laughing on the altar was considered the cardinal sin and we went to extraordinary lengths to get each other going. One server we shall call Harry was notorious for disappearing into the sacristy (basically the priest’s dressing room) on some innocent pretence like getting more incence for the boat. While he was there – and in full view of the servers, but no one else, he would do handstands or pull moonies while we bit our lips and attempted to look angelic. Eventually we hung around long enough to earn a bronze servers’ medal, which was given on St Stephen’s Day – the 26th December. There were rumours of silver and gold as well, but we had never seen these and refused to believe they existed. While we were delighted to receive the gong, it did mean going to mass two days in a row, which felt a bit much, especially when all you wanted to do was play with your new X-Wing Fighter.
Ultimately, being a server was more interesting than being one of the crowd. You were on stage. There were things to remember. You got to dress up and see behind the altar. You felt quite important – an in fact you almost felt famous. None of this had anything to do with God really, but it made the time pass more quickly. Occasionally you would drift off into an almost trance like state; you would imagine yourself climbing the walls of the church and navigating like Spiderman across the stone buttresses in the ceiling. You would zone in on the huge crucified Christ figure dangling in the air above the congregation. How had all this come about? What had inspired these people to build this stupendous building and what sent a billion of them back to mass each week? It was in these moments that you were knocked out by the mystery of it all and felt closest to the presence of God. It was then that you heard the words: ‘Oi, James, where’s the boat?’