• Vested Interest

What Is An Acolyte?

Mary Davenport Davis
September 21, 2015

Last week, during the Back to School Sunday Forum, a teenager who was considering joining the Acolyte Corps asked me what an acolyte is and does. I found myself immediately struggling to come up with an answer, so I did what any good leader would do: I grabbed a nearby acolyte and asked him to answer the question. He rose beautifully to the occasion, talking about his role in carrying the processional torches, assisting at communion, and all the other ways he supports the congregation’s worship every week. But I kept wondering: well, that’s what an acolyte does; is that what an acolyte is?


So I looked up the Greek. Akoloutheo means “to follow,” and it has basically the same range of meanings as the English “follow”: you can follow someone physically, by walking behind them; you can follow an argument in the sense of understanding what they’re saying; you can follow a particular way of life. An akolouthos is simply a “follower.” And so perhaps an acolyte is a follower, an attendant, someone who walks behind the leaders of worship and carries things. Then again, perhaps an acolyte is a follower in another sense: someone who follows Jesus and the way of the cross, someone who walks in the pilgrim ways of God.


Etymology, however, is not destiny. We tend to be fascinated with word origins, but there’s always the danger that we’ll freeze-dry our language, insist that the “original” meaning is the best and only meaning, and ignore the best and most fundamental quality of language: change. And so, when we’re wondering what an acolyte is, it’s useful to know that the word “acolyte” comes from a root meaning “to follow,” and to reflect on what that might mean; but I think it might be just as useful to look at our actual, living-breathing-laughing acolytes, Chinanu and Rebecca and Talia and Henry and Miguel, and so many more. What is an acolyte? They are.


I feel this same tension in every part of worship. Where is the meaning of the liturgy, I wonder? Is the meaning of the Eucharist to be found in that long-ago evening where Jesus shared a meal with his disciples? Or is it to be found in the early Christian communities who came to table together in remembrance and re-enactment of the gift? Or is it in the sense of unshakeable welcome I feel at the altar—that this is the one table where I will never be turned away? We must know where these things came from to know what they are; but we also need to recognize that what they are is continually being formed through us.


At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!