This guide is meant for personal reflection, not as a means of judging others. Keep in mind that there are different traditions among the Orthodox faithful. In Orthodoxy there is a wider acceptance of individualized expressions of piety, rather than a sense that people are watching you and getting offended if you do it wrong. Variations in behavior with pious intent should not be confused with disrespectful behavior. If you are uncertain about something, ask Father. We come to church to pray and worship God above all else, and that should be our focus.
ENTERING THE CHURCH
When entering an Orthodox church, reverently make the sign of the Cross and pray, "God, forgive me a sinner and have mercy on me.”
Continue through the narthex quietly and reverently. First, light your candle. Candles represent the light of Christ and the flame of the Holy Spirit. Candle-stands are in the narthex. You may then venerate the icons before you. The Orthodox Church teaches that it is proper to venerate, not worship, icons. The acceptable way to do this is to kiss either the hands or feet of the saint depicted in the icon, or the scroll, the Gospel book, or the hand cross a saint is holding.
Please be aware that it is improper to kiss the face.
Seating in our church is to the right or left. You may sit on either side. The first few seats on the right are sometimes reserved for families commemorating the passing of a loved one. In these instances the section will be clearly marked, so please find a seat behind them.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PUNCTUALITY
The Orthodox Divine Liturgy begins when the priest intones, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” We need to arrive early enough to receive this blessing. Arriving later causes a distraction for others who are praying. If an occasional problem occurs and you have to come in late, enter the church reverently and quietly. Try not to interrupt the Liturgy by your entrance. Remain stationary in the narthex if:
- The Priest is facing the congregation
- The Priest censes the congregation
- During the Small Entrance (Priest carries out the Holy Gospel)
- During the Great Entrance (Priest carries out the Holy Gifts)
- During the readings of the Epistle and the Gospel
- During Consecration of the Gifts (“se imnoumen”)
- During the Creed & the Lord’s Prayer
- During the sermon
The best way to avoid this situation is to arrive on time. Coming to Orthros before the Divine Liturgy will ensure that you will be settled in plenty of time to pray without distraction. Services schedule is posted and regularly updated on this website.
STANDING IN CHURCH
It is the custom of some Orthodox Christians to stand throughout the Divine Liturgy, as well as during other services. It is perfectly acceptable to stand in church. If you choose to stand, please do so near the sides so that the view of the altar is not blocked for those who are seated. If you are accustomed to sitting during the Divine Liturgy, remember to stand at these times:
- When the Liturgy begins and the priest gives the blessing;
- During the Small and Great Entrances
- When the priest is censing the icons and congregation
- During the Gospel reading
- At the Anaphora
- For Holy Communion
- At the final Blessing
Sometimes the priest will motion to stand or sit, respectfully follow the request. Whenever a hierarch is visiting the parish, out of respect follow his example and stand and sit when he does.
Orthodox Christians are invited to approach and receive Holy Communion if they are properly prepared. Please allow godparents and parents to bring newly baptized children first. The church school students and their teachers should follow them. All others who are prepared to do so may then approach the holy chalice. The cloth held by the priest and the altar servers is there to prevent any particles of the gifts from falling onto the floor. It is not to be used as a napkin.
PIOUS CUSTOMS AND BEHAVIORS
In the Orthodox Church, there are many pious customs and traditions that are an important part of our worship.
- Crossing oneself - To a certain extent, when to cross oneself is according to personal piety, and not an issue of dogma. It is always appropriate to cross oneself at the mention of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; whenever entering or leaving the church; at the beginning of the Liturgy; when passing in front of the altar; when venerating an icon, the Gospel, or the cross; and at times for personal petitions. It is not necessary to cross oneself when the priest is giving a blessing or censing the congregation. Instead, one should bow to receive the blessing. One should also not cross near the chalice, before or after receiving Holy Communion, as it is possible to hit the chalice with your hand.
- Bowing - Orthodox Christians bow when the Theotokos and Christ are petitioned. They also bow to the priest at his blessing, censing the congregation and when he asks forgiveness before the Great Entrance and again before Holy Communion. It is traditional for the Orthodox faithful to bow and cross themselves when they enter and leave the church, and when they pray before the icons.
- Kneeling - There are times when kneeling or prostration is a pious practice in the Liturgy, the most notable being at the Consecration of the Holy Gifts. You may kneel, prostrate or stand with head bowed – as is your custom. However, kneeling and prostration is prohibited during the Paschal season, from Pascha to Pentecost, in honor of the Resurrection.
- Touching the priest’s vestments - For some, it is a tradition to touch the hem of the priest’s vestment or phelonion as he passes by in the Great Entrance with the Holy Gifts. This custom imitates the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Christ’s robe. When touching the hem of the priest’s phelonion, one should be careful not to step in front of the procession, to pull or tug on the garment, or to push anyone away.
Christ said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). It is possible for young children to remain in church throughout a service if they are taught to be quiet and respectful. For those who are too small to be quiet throughout the whole Liturgy, please remove them from the nave of the church briefly if they becomes fussy or out of control. There is a nursery/playroom down the hall and a changing platform in each restroom. If a baby or toddler needs a snack, please clear away any leftover pieces. However, the child should not have anything in his/her mouth when he/she comes to Holy Communion. It is not acceptable at any time to chew gum in church (at any age). It is never appropriate to allow a child to run down the aisles, play loudly, or carry toys that make noise. Eventually, children will be able to spend longer times in the Liturgy. That is where they should be, but remember the reason for coming to church is to pray and worship. Plan to have your children use the restroom and get a drink before church begins, and don’t allow them to come and go continually. Consider bringing your children into the church at a time when there is no service to “practice” church behavior. Teach them that they are visiting God’s very special house, and they will need to have very special manners there. You will be surprised how quickly they can learn.
Remember that you are in church to worship God, the Holy Trinity. The priest says, “With the fear of God and faith and love, draw near.” Let this be the way you approach your worship.
- Refrain from socializing during the Liturgy - Save your greetings and conversations for the fellowship hall. We are in the Liturgy to greet God with our prayers and worship, not to distract others.
- Mobile devices – The use of mobile phones is never proper during the Liturgy. If you have a professional reason to carry one for emergencies, keep it on mute, not vibrate, and sit near the exit so that leaving for an emergency will not be a distraction to others. Otherwise, turn off your phone before entering the sanctuary.
- Refrain from reserving seats - Allow others to sit as they come into the church and especially make room for visitors so they will feel welcome.
- We do not clap in church
- Lipstick - Do not wear lipstick while taking Holy Communion, or when kissing the cross, an icon, the priest’s or bishop’s hand, or any sacred object. It is best not to wear it at all in the church.
- Leg crossing - One should not be too casual in the Divine Liturgy. People from some Orthodox traditions are offended by the crossing of legs. In our North American culture, while there are no real taboos, we tend to cross our legs to get comfortable when sitting. Crossing one's legs in church is not permitted, not because it is "wrong," but rather because it is too casual and relaxed for being in church. Remember, sitting in church is a concession, not the normative way of prayer. Keeping your feet on the ground also enables you to remain attentive and to stand when necessary.
- Church Dress – Respectful attire is also an important part of attending Orthodox services. You do not need to be dressed "fancy" but respectfully and modestly so as to present yourself to God. Preferably, women should wear dresses or skirts and men should wear dress pants or suits. No shorts, short skirts or revealing clothing please. Some women have the pious tradition of covering their heads. Men and boys must remove their hats when entering the church.
- Photography in the Church - Whenever photography will take place during a service at an Orthodox church (including special events such as weddings and baptisms), please make sure to instruct photographers that pictures and videos may not be taken from behind the priest or standing in front of the altar.
HANDLING THE HOLY BREAD (ANTIDORON)
After receiving Holy Communion and at the end of the Divine Liturgy, it is customary to receive a piece of holy bread or antidoron - the bread that was left over after Holy Communion was prepared. While antidoron is not Holy Communion, it is blessed bread, and as such should be eaten carefully so that crumbs do not fall. Both adults and children should always remember to treat and consume the antidoron with respect.
LEAVING BEFORE DISMISSAL
Leaving church before dismissal deprives us of a blessing. Worship has a beginning "Blessed is the Kingdom..." and an end "Let us depart in peace..." To leave immediately after Communion is to treat the church with disrespect. The church school students and their teachers are the only permissible exception.
GREETING A PRIEST OR BISHOP
It is not appropriate to merely shake the hand of a bishop or priest. In the Orthodox tradition in this country, the faithful usually take the bishop's or priest's right hand as though to shake it, but instead kiss it. We kiss/venerate his hand to honor the fact that his hand holds the Holy Gifts. If the Priest is holding the Gospel, Cross or other Holy Object, kiss/venerate the object first and then his hand.
Excerpted and edited from:
- "A Guide to Church Etiquette" - The Department of Marriage and Parish Family Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America in conjunction with Conciliar Media Ministries.
- "Church Etiquette or Some Things You Should Know While in Church", Fr, David Barr - The Word, January 1997