AskDefine | Define acolytes

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Plural of acolyte

Extensive Definition

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.


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

Anglican Tradition

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 any gender 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

Until the Second Vatican Council, the acolyte was 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 wore either the alb or the surplice. While acolytes did not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, they were considered part of the clergy, and were a required step on the way to Holy Orders.
After the reforms of the minor orders in 1972, the acolyte survived but became one of two lay ministries (along with lector) instead of an order, with its conferring rite renamed from ordination to institution to emphasize this. It was still confined to men alone but was de jure now open to all men, even those not going into seminary. However, since altar servers can do just about anything an acolyte can do, very few men outside of seminary are formally instituted.
An instituted acolyte, though, does have some special faculties: he is a permanent extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and can also be entrusted with celebrating Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He is the only lay minister who can do the purifications of the vessels at Mass. He is given a priority to lead blessing ceremonies: "An acolyte or reader who by formal institution has this special office in the Church is rightly preferred over another layperson as the minister designated a the discretion of the local Ordinary to impart certain blessings." (Book of Blessings, Introduction, n. 18). He has priority to lead Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, if a deacon is absent: "Those to be chosen first by the pastor are readers and acolytes who have been duly instituted for the service of the altar and the word of God. If there are no such instituted ministers available, other laypersons, men and women, may be appointed;" (Directions for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, 1988, n. 30).
Indult Catholic societies such as the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest or Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter are permitted to ordain seminarians to minor orders, including the acolytate.
The term acolyte may also informally refer to ordinary non-instituted altar servers.


  • John N. Wall. A Dictionary for Episcopalians. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000.
acolytes in Czech: Akolyta
acolytes in German: Akolyth
acolytes in Spanish: Acólito
acolytes in French: Acolyte
acolytes in Galician: Acólito
acolytes in Italian: Accolito
acolytes in Dutch: Acoliet
acolytes in Polish: Akolita
acolytes in Portuguese: Acólito
acolytes in Russian: Аколит
acolytes in Swedish: Akolut
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1