Acolyte

Acolyte

[ak-uh-lahyt]
This article is about religious acolytes. For other uses, see Acolyte (disambiguation).

In many Christian denominations, an acolyte is anyone who performs ceremonial duties such as lighting altar candles. In other Christian Churches, the term is more specifically used for one who wishes to attain clergyhood.

Etymology

The word acolyte is derived from the Greek word akolouthos, meaning companion, attendant, or helper. The Acolyte ministry has its roots in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, where the prophet Samuel is seen assisting Eli, the Levite priest , and Elisha is seen assisting Elijah the Prophet.

Eastern Christianity

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches, the nearest equivalent of acolyte is the altar server. At one time there was a rank of minor clergy called the taper-bearer responsible for bearing lights during processions and liturgical entrances. However, this rank has long ago been subsumed by that of the reader and the service for the tonsure of a reader begins with the setting-aside of a taper-bearer.

The functions of an acolyte or taper-bearer are therefore carried out by readers, subdeacons, or by non-tonsured men or boys who are sometimes called "acolytes" informally. Also, the term "altar-boys" is often used to refer to young altar servers. Subdeacons wear their normal vestments consisting of the sticharion and crossed orarion; readers and servers traditionally wear the sticharion alone.

In recent times, however, in many of the North American Greek Orthodox Churches, for the sake of uniformity, readers have been permitted to wear the orarion (The Bishop presents the reader, who is to serve on the altar, with the orarion). Readers do not cross the orarion while wearing it, the uncrossed orarion being intended to slightly distinguish a reader from a subdeacon.

In the Russian tradition, readers wear only the sticharion, and do not wear the orarion unless they have been specially blessed to by their bishop. (This might be done if a reader must occasionally serve in the role of a subdeacon, or for some other reason the bishop believes is fitting.) If a server has not been tonsured, he must remove the sticharion before he can receive Holy Communion.

In the early church, a taper-bearer was not permitted to enter the sanctuary, only a subdeacon or above was allowed to go in. Nowadays, however, servers are permitted to go in, but they are not permitted either to touch the Holy Table or the Table of Oblation.

Western Christianity

Anglicanism

In Anglican churches such as the Episcopal Church of the United States or the Church of England, altar servers are called acolytes and can be of either sex or age (usually 10 and up).

An acolyte can assist in worship by carrying a processional cross, lighting candles, holding the Gospel book, holding candles or "torches", assisting a deacon or priest set up and clean up at the altar, swing incense or carry the incense boat, hand the offering plates to ushers, and many other tasks as seen fit by the priest or acolyte warden.

The acolytes wear robes that differentiate them from the clergy, the lay Eucharistic ministers, or the choir, although they may appear quite similarly dressed. These robes can be called albs, cassocks, cottas or a combination of those items. The robe belt worn by many is called a cincture, and frequently reflects the color of the liturgical seasons. It is generally a twisted rope with knots on the ends and is secured around the waist. Wearing crosses or other special pins or symbols is the prerogative of the individual church.

In more traditional dioceses, the acolytes are ranked as they develop their abilities to serve - Trainees, Junior Acolytes, Senior Acolytes and Acolyte of Merit. In others, the functions of acolytes are performed without vestments, and without significant formal training by persons available in the parish.

Methodism and Lutheranism

In the Methodist and Lutheran traditions, acolytes participate in the worship service by carrying a processional cross, lighting the altar candles, extinguishing the altar candles, and ringing the church bell to call the congregation to worship. In these traditions, the lighting of the altar candles in the worship service is a symbol of Jesus’ coming into the presence of the worshiping community. Before the extinguishing of the last altar candles, the acolytes relight their "candle lighter" and then process out into the narthex. This symbolizes that Jesus Christ is for all people everywhere. It also symbolizes the light of Jesus Christ going out into the world where believers are called to serve. Similar to those in the Anglican tradition, acolytes in these traditions wear robes called albs with a cincture.

Roman Catholicism

The acolyte is the highest of the minor orders, having as duties the lighting of the altar-candles, carrying the candles in procession, assisting the subdeacon and deacon, and the ministering of water and wine to the priest at Mass. Acolytes wear the cassock and surplice. While acolytes do not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, they are considered part of the clergy, and are encouraged to step on the way to Holy Orders.

References

  • John N. Wall. A Dictionary for Episcopalians. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000.

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