Orthodox Christian



Church Etiquette

Articles from Brother Clergy:
Let Us Pray...

Some Things You Should Know While in Church

(Editor's Note:  The following article was printed at the direction of His Grace, Bishop Isaiah of Denver, who offered it to the faithful of his Diocese for their guidance.  It was first printed in Word magazine, the official publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of New York and all North America.  It was subsequently reprinted in The Diocesan Observer, the official publication of the Serbian Orthodox New Gracanica Metropolitanate-Diocese of America and Canada The author is Father David Barr, Pastor of Holy Resurrection Church in Tucson, Arizona, a parish of the Antiochian Archdiocese.)
In the Orthodox Church there are a lot of customs and traditions that are important parts of our worship. Some are cultural; some are pious customs. Some are essential; some are not. From time to time we address some of these various etiquette issues to inform our communities how we can best understand each other and work together to worship the all-Holy Trinity.
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Standing versus Sitting

The traditional posture for prayer and worship in the Orthodox Church has been to stand. In the Orthodox "old countries" there usually are no pews in the churches. Chairs or benches on the side walls are usually reserved for the elderly and the infirm.  In North America, we have tended to build our churches with pews, and since we have them we need to figure out when we may sit and when we should stand.

First of all, it is fully acceptable (and even preferable) to stand for the entire service. If you prefer this it would be better to find a place closer to the back or side of the temple so as not to stand out or block someone's view.

When should you definitely stand? Always stand during the Gospel reading, the Little and Great Entrances, the Anaphora, the distribution of Communion, the special services for a Memorial or the Artoklasia, whenever the priest gives a blessing, and die dismissal.

When is sitting appropriate? Traditionally the Orthodox sit only when the Psalter Kathismata, an Old Testament Reading, or an Epistle are read.

In many parishes the service books in the pew have suggested times when sitting is acceptable. These instructions may be followed; and it is probably safer to do so than following what the people do in the first couple of rows. When in doubt, stand; it is never wrong to stand during the services.

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Lighting Candles

Lighting candles is an important part of Orthodox worship. We light them as we pray, making an offering to accompany our prayers. Orthodox typically light candles when coming into church - and that is usually the best time to light them. But there are also times when candles should not be lit. It is not proper to light candles during the Scripture readings, during the entrances, during the sermon, and most of the times when the faithful are standing. If you find yourself arriving at the temple after the services have begun, a good rule of thumb to remember is: if everyone is standing, wait until they are sitting to light a candle (unless of course they are sitting for the sermon). Other than that is probably all right to light a candle.*

* Editor's Note: These practices generally apply to instances where candles are lit and placed in a receptacle near the front of the temple, before the iconostasion.  This practice is more commonly found in Slavic tradition parishes in this country; whereas in Byzantine tradition parishes candles are placed in a receptacle before the icons in the narthex. In the case of candles lit in the narthex, these may be lit and placed there upon entering the temple; the only exception would be during the more sacred and solemn moments of the Divine Liturgy such as during the Gospel, the Great Entrance, the Anaphora and Consecration, etc.

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Entering the Temple (Late!)

The time to arrive at the temple is before a service starts. For some unknown reason, however, it has become customary - or rather a bad habit - for some individuals and families to come late. If you arrive after a service begins, try to enter the temple quietly and observe what is happening. If a scripture selection is being read, or an entrance is taking place, or during the Anaphora and Consecration, wait until it is finished to quickly find a seat. If the celebrant is delivering a sermon, stay in the back of the temple until he has finished. If in doubt, check with one of the ushers to see if it is a good time to seat yourself. Try not to interrupt a service by your entrance.

By the way, the best way to avoid the problem is to arrive on time - then you do not have to wonder whether it is appropriate to enter or not. People who arrive late for the Divine Liturgy should not partake of the Eucharist.

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Crossing Legs

In some Orthodox cultures, crossing one's legs is taboo and considered to be very disrespectful. In our North American there are no real taboos concerning crossing one's legs, and we tend to do so to get comfortable when sitting. Should we cross our legs in the temple during services?  No.  Not because it is wrong to ever cross your legs, but because it is too casual, and too relaxed, for being in the temple.  Just think about it, when you get settled into your favorite chair at home, you lean back, cross your legs, and then your mind can wander anywhere it wants to.

Remember, sitting in the temple is a concession to human weakness; not the normative posture for prayer. Crossing your legs is an even further surrender to laxity. You surely do not want to get too relaxed and let your mind wander off too much. In fact, when you sit in the temple, sit attentively - and not too comfortably When sitting in the temple, keep your feet flat on the floor, ready to stand at attention (which, after all, is precisely what "Let us be attentive!" means).

The rule is, cross yourself with your fingers and hand - but do not cross your legs!

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In and Out

In and out? It is the name of a hamburger place in Los Angeles; it should not characterize the traffic pattern through our temples during services. It sometimes seems that our temples must have a revolving door at the entrance; it is used by both children and adults. Use the restroom before coming to the temple; or immediately upon arrival if your journey was lengthy. You should not need to get a drink of water during the services - especially if you plan to receive Communion. Do not come to the temple in order to go to the fellowship hall; come to pray.
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Leaving Before the Dismissal

Leaving the temple before the Dismissal is not only rude, but it deprives us of a blessing. Worship has a beginning ("Blessed is our God" or "Blessed is the Kingdom") and an ending ("Through the prayers of our holy fathers".) To leave immediately after receiving Holy Communion is to treat the temple like a fast food restaurant where we come and go as we please. We live in a fast paced world where we seem to be hurrying from place to place. But in God's presence we need to make every attempt to light this pressure to move on to the next thing on the day's agenda. When we ultimately get to the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no follow-on agenda; likewise when we arrive and hear the words, "Blessed is the Kingdom . . ." we should be glad to sojourn in the presence of God's house.

We deprive ourselves of blessings by not being still and participating in God's holiness. Eat and run at McDonald's - but stay in the temple to partake of God's precious gifts and to thank Him for them.

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Blot that Lipstick

Have you ever looked at an icon in just the right light and seen the lip prints all over? It's disgusting, isn't it? In fact, it's downright gross. Lipstick may arguably look fine on lips, but it looks horrible on icons, crosses, the Communion spoon, and the Bishop's or Priest's hand. Icons have been ruined by lipstick; and it is at the very least inconsiderate of others to leave your lipstick behind for them to have to deal with.

Worst of all, when lipstick gets on the Communion spoon, the priest transfers it to the Holy Chalice where it instantly spreads out in a sheen (like an oil film) over the most precious Body and life-giving Blood of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Wearing lipstick when taking Communion is not only disrespectful but a terrible sacrilege. Why would anyone wish to receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the remission of sins and life everlasting while at the same moment committing a sacrilege?  It just is not rational.

What is the answer to the issue of wearing lipstick?  If you insist on wearing lipstick - although the fathers ask us why we seek to alter the image of our face created by God by using makeup, blot your lips well before venerating an icon, taking Communion, kissing the Cross, or the bishop's or priest's hand. Even better, wait until after the service is over before applying lipstick.

After all, God is not impressed with how attractive you look externally - your makeup or your clothing - but with how attractive you are internally - your adornment with good works and piety.

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Venerating Icons

When you enter the temple it is customary to venerate the holy icons. Usually there are icons in the narthex and/or at the entrance of the nave, and many temples have icon stands at the front near the iconostasion as well.

Newcomers to the Church are often confused or perplexed about venerating icons. In a very traditional temple there will be an icon on a stand at the entrance or in the center of the nave; this icon is venerated first. Then the icon of Christ which is to the right, before the iconostasion, is venerated, followed by those icons that are accessible on the south (right) side of the temple. Crossing over at the rear of the temple, the icon of the Theotokos which is to the left, before the iconostasion, is venerated, followed by those icons that are accessible on the left (north) side of the temple. In many Byzantine temples in this country, the only icons available for veneration are those in the narthex. It is customary when venerating an icon, especially the principal icons, to make two reverences (sign of the cross followed by a bow), sign of the cross a third time followed by kissing the icon, then a final reverence (sign of the cross followed by a bow).

When venerating (kissing) an icon, pay attention to where you kiss. It is not proper to kiss an icon on the face; after all, you wouldn't go up and kiss the Lord or His Mother on the lips, would you? Rather, you would kiss their hand. Pay attention to what you are doing. When you approach an icon to venerate it, kiss the Gospel, scroll, or hand cross in the hand of the person depicted, or kiss the hand or foot. In fact, the hands and feet on some icons are covered with metal for just this purpose and so as not to damage the icon itself.

As you venerate an icon, show the proper respect due to the person depicted; the same respect you would show them in person. Remember blot off that lipstick first!

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Talking During Church

Isn't it great to come to the temple and see friends and family members? But wait until the coffee hour to say "Hi" to them. It just is not appropriate to greet people and have a conversation with them during the services. Besides being disrespectful towards God, it is rude towards the other people in the temple who are trying to worship. Talk to God while in the temple through your prayers, hymns, and thanksgiving - and to your friends in the fellowship hall afterwards.
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Kiss (Don't shake) the Bishop's and Priest's Hand

Did you know that the proper way to greet a bishop or priest is to ask his blessing and kiss his right hand?  How do you do this?  Traditionally, one approaches the bishop or priest with the right hand over the left hand and says, "Master (if a bishop, or 'Father' if a priest), bless."  In the Byzantine 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.

It is not appropriate to merely shake the hand of the bishop or priest, because, after all, they are not "just one of the boys." When you kiss their hands, just as when you kiss an icon, you show reverence and respect for their holy office which is to be an iconographic icon of Christ, the one High Priest. Moreover, they are the ones who bless and sanctify you, and who offer the Holy Gifts on your behalf in the Divine Liturgy. So, the next time you greet your bishop or priest, do not shake his hand, ask for his blessing.

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Sunday Dress

Remember the time when people put on their "Sunday best" to go to church? In fact, dress clothes were often referred to as 'Sunday clothes." This is not all that common today; in fact all too often the dress in our temples has become too casual. In all the areas of our lives, we should offer Christ our best; and the same is true of our dress. We should offer Christ our "Sunday best," not our everyday or common wear. And we should dress modestly, not in a flashy way that would bring attention to ourselves - and certainly not in a provocative or alluring way.  Our dress should always be becoming to a Christian - especially in the temple.

Here are some general guidelines:

Children:   Only young children (under 10) should wear shorts to the services - and then only dress shorts. Athletic shoes, cut-offs, spandex shorts, etc., are never appropriate for wear in the temple (for children or adults!). Shoes or sandals should be clean and tied. No one should wear a T-shirt with any kind of writing on it.

Women: Dresses should be modest. No tank tops (or dresses with only straps at the shoulders), no short skirts (mini-skirts), and no skin-tight dresses. Dresses should have backs and should not be low-cut in the front. If women wear pants to the services, they should be dress pants (not jeans or leggings).  Shorts of any type are inappropriate.

Men:    Men should also dress modestly. Coats and ties are not mandatory, but certainly always appropriate. Shirts should have collars and be buttoned to the collar (the actual collar button may be undone, but two or three buttons undone is inappropriate). Trousers should be clean. Blue (or black, or green, etc.) jeans are usually too casual for wear at the services (especially those with patches or holes). Again, shorts of any type are inappropriate.

If you are going someplace after the services where you need to dress casually, bring a change of clothing with you and change after the fellowship hour. Remember to use your best judgment and good taste when dressing for the services.  After all, you do not need to be seen by everyone else - you go to meet and worship God.

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Pew Blocking

Never heard of pew blocking? It is the practice of sitting right next to the aisle so that no one else can get by or sit in the middle of the pew. Everyone has seen it. In fact, the best pew blockers come early so that they can get the coveted aisle seats and then be sure no one can get past them. The most effective form of pew blocking, takes place when two people take their places on opposite ends of the same pew, thus effectively eliminating anyone else from sitting in that row.

There are two solutions to pew blocking. The first is simply to move towards tile middle of the pew, leaving the aisle seats for those coming later. For those of you who cannot handle sitting in the middle of the pew, take the outside aisle spot and graciously allow those coming alter you to go past you (even by moving out so they can get by). Remember pew blocking is not hospitable - nor is it an efficient system of seating.  So don't be selfish; move on over towards the middle. Don't be a pew blocker.

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To Cross or not to Cross

Anyone who has looked around during the services will notice that different people cross themselves at different times (and sometimes even in different ways). To a certain extent, when to cross oneself is according to personal piety, and not an issue of dogma. But there are times when it is specifically proper to cross yourself and times when you should not. Here is a brief list of when to cross and when not to cross.

To Cross:  When you hear one of the variations of the phrase "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" at the beginning and end of the services and your private prayers; before venerating an icon, the cross, or the Gospel book; upon entering or exiting the temple; when passing in front of the holy Altar Table.

Not to Cross: At the chalice before or after taking Communion (you might hit the chalice with your hand); when the bishop or priest blesses saying, Peace be with all (merely bow slightly and receive the blessing).

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Touching the hem of the Priest's Garments

Many people like to touch the hem of the priest's phelonion (outer garment) as he goes through the congregation for the Great Entrance. This is a nice, pious custom by which you "attach" your personal prayers to the prayers of the entrance with the Holy Gifts.

At the same time, you need to be careful neither to grab too hard or to trip up the clergy, nor to push others out of the way. And be sure to help your children so that they observe those guidelines as well.

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Snacks for Children

You can always tell where the young children have been sitting in the temple. The telltale signs are graham cracker crumbs, cheerios, and animal crackers.  Parents sometimes bring snacks or juice along for children during the services.  Such activity is disrespectful of the sacred services and disruptive to others in attendance.

At the very most, a bottle may be brought for very small children and babies. Eating snacks (or even whole meals) is totally inappropriate. If a child has an immediate need for nourishment, they should be fed before the services, or taken outside the temple to eat a snack.

If a child did eat something during the service, parents should clean up any mess before leaving the temple.

Children who are going to receive Holy Communion should learn to fast Sunday mornings by the age of seven.

By the way, chewing gum is a NO-NO during Liturgy for everyone.

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Handling the Antidoron

After receiving Communion, and also at the end of the Divine Liturgy it is customary to receive a
piece of Antidoron - the bread that was left over when the Holy Gifts were prepared prior to the Liturgy. While Antidoron is not Communion - the Body of Christ - it is nonetheless blessed and should therefore be eaten carefully so that crumbs do not fall all over the place. After receiving Holy Communion, take one piece of Antidoron (you do not need four or five pieces) and when you return to your seat - or get to a place where you can stop for a moment - eat the bread trying not to drop any crumbs.

If you wish to bring a piece to someone else, take an extra piece - do not break yours in half because it produces too many crumbs. And monitor your children as they take Antidoron and teach them to eat it respectfully.

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A Final Thought

North American society in the late 20th century is rather casual in its approach to life. Do not allow this prevailing attitude to enter into your Orthodox Christian piety.

There are surely a lot of other areas that could be covered here, but keep in mind that most of Church etiquette is based on common sense and on showing respect for God and others.

Always remember that you are in the temple to worship God, the Holy Trinity.

The priest proclaims, "With fear of God, faith and love, draw near;" let this be the way you approach all of worship. If you do, you will probably have good Church etiquette.

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(Editor's Note: The following article was written by Hieromonk Raphael, who was attached to Saint George Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.)

For the Orthodox, the lighted candle embodies the victory of Jesus Christ over the forces of death, sin, evil, and darkness. Thus we read about Christ in the Bible that "in Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not . . ."  Each candle is a symbol of Christ's victory over the forces of darkness, sin, evil, and death.

The basic idea of "Light" as opposed to "darkness" is at the root of candles used in worship. Symeon the Prophet spoke of the coming of Christ as a "light for revelation to the Gentiles." Symeon was reflecting the prophecy of Isaiah about the coming of the Messiah, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned."  Jesus said, "I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness."

One of the most ancient hymns of the Church, the "Lamplighting" hymn of Vespers, begins by referring to Jesus as "Gladsome Light" ("Fos ilaron").

Clearly the practice of lighting a candle as you enter the temple is a powerful way of uniting your own prayer with that of the Church, with that of all other Christians, living and fallen asleep, and with Christ Who is the "Light of the world."

The candle should not be used as a magical substitute for prayer, but should be lighted as a sacramental expression of our own conscious prayer.

When we take a candle, it is customary to make a monetary sacrifice in the form of a donation; we are therefore mindful that all things come from God and that we are stewards of the gifts He has given us.

Taking the fire from another, already lit candle, reminds us that the Faith has been preserved and transmitted to us by those who came before us, and that our lives and work in the Church will preserve and pass on the Faith to those who come after us.

Passing the flame from one candle to the next reminds us to pass to other the spiritual light which we have freely received from God.

The warmth of the flame melts the cold wax, enabling the wick to draw it up and transform it through fire into heat and light. In the same way, God's love melts our cold hearts, enabling the Holy Spirit to purify and illumine our souls.

If you are not in the habit of lighting a candle each time you enter the temple, and of lighting one on behalf of those dear to you, perhaps now is a good time to begin.

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Are You Prepared?

(Editor's Note: The following article appeared in the Sunday bulletin of a Colorado area parish.)

Much is said about how we should prepare to receive Holy Communion. First we must understand that we are receiving the true Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

When we receive Holy Communion, it works within us according to our spiritual condition.   For those struggling to live a spiritual life: for the purified it is pure, for the illuminated it is illumination, and for the deified it is theosis.

Holy Communion for those prepared to receive it is life itself, and thus frequent reception of the Eucharist is a very good thing.

At the same time, however, for the unpurified and unrepentant, the Eucharist is judgment, condemnation, and death - even bodily.

This is why the Apostle Paul writes that "Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord." In doing so, those who partake unworthily "eat and drink damnation to themselves," and for this reason "many are weak and sickly among you, and many have died." (I Corinthians 11:27, 29, 30)

So how do we receive worthily? Again Saint Paul tells us, "let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup." (I Corinthians 11:28)

To "examine oneself" means that one must examine his spiritual state and have the grace of God in his heart. Further, to be living a spiritual life, one must be making an honest attempt to abide by the rules and guidelines given to us by the Church.

As a minimum, one should keep the fasts (Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as the various Lenten periods). One should also be examining his conscience and partaking regularly of the Mystery of Holy Confession. Another mark of seriousness in regard to the spiritual life is frequent reading of religious books and attendance at the services of the Church.

"When in fear and trembling and unworthiness we are permitted to receive the Divine, undefiled Mysteries of Christ, we should display even greater watchfulness and guard our hearts. Thus the Divine fire, the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, will consume our sins and stains; for when that fire enters into us, it at once drives the evil spirits from our hearts and remits the sins previously committed.  If we thereafter keep watch over our intellect, when we next receive these Mysteries, the Divine Body will illumine our intellect still more and make it shine like a star."

Saint Hesychios of Jerusalem, 5th Century
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Let Us Pray . . .

Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine Knowledge and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel.  Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all these things that are pleasing to you.
Liturgy of St. James


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