Life as an Acolyte

AcolyteRobesI’ve been an acolyte since I was sixteen-years-old. I wanted to become one sooner, but being a girl, I had to wait until a priest would allow anyone of the female persuasion to serve behind the altar rail, in the holy of holies. I was trained, and overly trained, as my mentor (who became a bishop) wanted to make sure I knew EVERYTHING so as not to give anyone an inch of an excuse to say a girl couldn’t perform this ministry. So I can tell you the difference between the gospel and epistle side, what candles are lit first (and in what order) and what candles get extinguished first. I know what a credence table is, the different between a flagon and a cruet, and the use (and meaning) of a lavabo bowl and towel.

I eventually ‘graduated’ to serving as a minister of communion, aka LEM (Lay Eucharistic Minister), but find my training as an acolyte has informed every ministry I have had on the altar – preacher, bishop’s chaplain, and LEM, including taking on the role of crucifer, torchbearer, or altar preparer. And now I and my husband are privileged to train a whole new generation of acolytes.

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, where the prophet Samuel is seen assisting Eli, the Levite priest, and Elisha is seen assisting Elijah the Prophet. We see them dressed in robes of red or white, quietly carrying torches, crosses, alms basins, and cruets. A vital part of worship, they blend into the background helping our liturgies flow smoothly. And get to handle fire, a big draw for many young people.

Rodney Clapp wrote a great article in the Christian Century in the August 6, 2010 issue, “My Life as an Acolyte.” While you need to be subscribed to the magazine to read the entire article, a favorite snippet:

On one occasion, not long after our church had completed the building of a new wing, I went down to what we acolytes call the “fire room” to heat the coal and ready the thurible for censing. As I was transferring the heated coal to the thurible, the coal slipped from the tongs and fell to the cement floor. It shattered into several chunks.

I grabbed a broom to sweep up the glowing bits of charcoal, but failed to observe that the broom’s bristles were nylon—and quickly the broom was ominously smoking from multiple spots. I rushed the broom into the adjacent kitchen and dunked it under running water. Then I returned to the fire room and ground all the ashes with my foot until they were safe for sweeping. Everything was under control soon enough, but not before I imagined myself burning down the church, brand new wing and all.

You can see how an acolyte’s life can be exciting. And in addition to the fire thing, there’s bell-ringing, dressing in robed vestments like the clergy and leading the parade of clergy and choir members into and out of the sanctuary.

Yes, it’s a bit different today, . . . sneakers are okay, we have more girls than boys (who I think pay better attention, anyways), and we give them first dibs on grabbing a cookie before putting out the candles after the service. Tips we’ve now added include turning their cell phones off in their pockets and keeping the high heels low heels. Gum chewing is still a no-no, but showing up on time, robed, and ready to go is still the first rule. And to smile, enjoy the ministry, and know that most in the congregation are in awe of you because they are clueless as to how and what you are really doing.

Here’s a document (AcolyteTraining) I put together that we use training the acolytes at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, Connecticut. We are not anglo-catholic in our liturgy, so incense is not in use, thus we have no fear of thurible mishaps. However, a torch held a bit too close has been known to singe some eyebrows.

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