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.
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 the Methodist tradition, 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 the Methodist tradition, the lighting of the altar candles in the worship service is a symbol of Jesus' coming into the presence of the worshiping community. The extinguishing of the altar candles 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 the Methodist tradition wear robes called albs with a cincture.