For many years, from perhaps age eleven or so until I finished high school, I served as an acolyte at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City. I was not a very good acolyte, and when I got old enough to be a lector, I abandoned my acolyting days like a snake shedding its skin. But over the years I served under perhaps four or five different priests, and by far the best of these to acolyte for was Father Hulme, who died just yesterday in hospice care in Iowa City after a long career in the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa.
Many more formal remembrances of him are sure to come, and stories of his time leading churches in Boone, Perry, and Cedar Rapids, but I am focused here on only a very small part of it, the one that intersected with my life in the church, which I attended for three decades. (How and why I left that church, and have not as yet joined another, is another story for another time.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the sometimes arcane procedures of the Episcopal Church, acolytes perform various functions and tasks: they help lead processionals and recessionals, they light the Gospel as the deacon reads from it in the midst of the congregation, and they assist the priest during the consecration of the bread and wine—the long ceremonial process that turns a substance made from flour and water and some fairly gross church wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ (symbolically or actually, depending on whether you are a consubstantiation person or a transubstantiation one—but such theological considerations are also beyond the scope of this remembrance).
The point is that you have to hand the crusts of water and wine (handle facing the priest) to the priest at the right times, and be prepared to take them back (in whatever manner given); you and your fellow acolyte need to hold a small bowl (I’ve forgotten the name) while the other pours water over the priest’s fingertips and then takes the linen cloth from over your wrist (a specific wrist, I am sure) and then take it back when he hands it back to you, and then you have to kneel during a very long section of prayer (this was the part where people routinely fainted) recounting the night Jesus died and, depending on the priest, ring a bell at specific moments. The bell, we were told during training, was to alert the congregants to important moments when the whole service was done in Latin. One year at Easter the service was done in Latin, and my fellow acolyte and I just looked at each other hopelessly and rang the bell at whatever seemed like the right moments. The rest of the time you have to sit very, very still in your white polyester robe, lest Bob Towner, who trained us all (or, I am sure, his ghost to this day) rise up after the service and let you know how badly you had messed up.
I am sure, in fact, that I have messed up in recounting the various duties of the acolytes and the order in which they occur (and for the sake of simplicity, I have conflated the roles of acolyte and crucifer, although they are similar). But you get the idea.
Some priests were extremely difficult—if you handed them the wrong object at the wrong time in the wrong direction, as I was prone to doing—they would glare at you at best, or lecture you later at worst. And of course they had every right to—your job was, all in all, not that difficult, and it was meant to be done precisely. I was not good at order and precision, and the knowledge of the probable disapproval I would face made me all the more anxious and thus all the more prone to screwing up.
Father Hulme was different. He served as a substitute priest at Trinity, so it was not often that one served with him, but he was never unkind, always patient, never judgmental. I remember him saying with utmost gentleness “wine” when I handed him the water cruet instead, and just smiling if I spilled the water while pouring it instead of getting it all into the small bowl. If he was frustrated or annoyed, he never showed it, and he always seemed genuinely thankful for your service, however poorly done it was.
The last few services I attended at Trinity, some years ago, were the 7 am Tuesday morning healing prayer services that were held each week and that were led by a rotating cast of former rectors and retired clergy. They were small services, never more than a dozen or so of us at most, and they were attended mostly by old men who had been at Trinity seemingly since the dawn of time, and who remembered me from my childhood, as I remembered them. Often we would go out for coffee after the service, and I remembered how Chuck Hawtrey would always ask me about what I was reading during coffee hour at church when I was ten or eleven or twelve and then listen with real interest. I remembered how it was several of them who were carrying me to the sofa the time I fainted while I was just eleven weeks pregnant, and how I came to surrounded by these kindly men I had known forever. And I remembered serving as an acolyte for Father Hulme, and how much his kindness taught me, and how I have always hoped to emulate that when teaching people things myself.
I end with the “A Prayer Attributed to Saint Francis,” which was given to all the acolytes back in my day:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen.The Book of Common Prayer