On Church Etiquette
Russian: О церковном этикете
“…all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)
Every human society, or as sociologists would say, “social group,” has its own specific rules of behavior and etiquette. These rules can be very different, but this does not mean that one group’s etiquette is better than that of another. Quite simply, in Russia, for example, when meeting someone, it is customary to wish each other good health (“Здравствуйте!”), but in the United States to ask “How are you?”
The Orthodox Church is the sacramental Body of Christ, but at the same time, it is a group of people who are united not only spiritually, but also socially. This is why the Orthodox Church has developed its own rules of etiquette. Unfortunately, many of us grew up in an unchurched soviet or post-soviet society and came into the Church at an age when our parents and grandparents were no longer telling us how to behave ourselves, as they did when we were younger. This is why it is up to us to observe and learn the rules and customs of the Church and of our parish.
“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…” (Isa. 61:10)
It is quite often that we hear misunderstanding of the reasons why the Church has rules about our garments: “What difference does it make to God what I wear?” Indeed, there is no difference to God what we wear, because He looks at our hearts, not our clothes. But to us it really matters what we have on and how we are dressed. When getting ready for a ball, for example, a lady puts on a beautiful gown, and it would be strange to attend an official reception dressed in a swim suit. But when going to a barn to do chores, we would not wear a tuxedo. So, it is not surprising that some clothes are fitting to wear to church and some are not.
In the Russian Church, it is customary that men wear trousers and a long-sleeved shirt (sweater, jacket, etc.). It is unacceptable to come to church in shorts, exercise pants, or a t-shirt. Jeans, especially with fashionable holes, can be worn to a party, but it is best not to wear them to God’s temple.
Women should wear a skirt and blouse or a dress, and cover their heads. The outfit should be with long sleeves and without a décolleté. In general, displays of sexiness are out of place in church; God’s temple is a place for prayer, not for attracting everyone’s attention. The center of attention in church should be God, not our person.
Of course, this does not mean that we cannot wear anything beautiful. Quite the opposite, in church, everything should be beautiful—architecture, art, vestments. And our garments need to be clean, neat, and beautiful. But we must try to develop our taste, and learn to distinguish between what is beautiful and what is flashy.
Avoid having large writing on your clothes, especially if you cannot read it and do not know what it means. Also unacceptable are various images; we come to church in order to pray and to be inspired by the images of saints, but not at all in order to advertise our favorite cartoon or rock-band. Finally, in church, you should not advertise the companies that produced your clothing. If you wish to be a walking billboard for American Eagle, Hollister, or any other company, you should do this outside of church.
What to do if the weather is too hot?—Follow the rules of Church etiquette. Take a look at the clergy: even in the heat, they are dressed in a cassock (with long sleeves), a sticharion (also with long sleeves), and a priest also puts on a phelonion. Just imagine if the clergy began to serve on hot days in tank-tops, shorts and sleeveless vestments—that would be unthinkable. In the same way, the laymen also should not complain about the weather, but humbly keep the rules of Church etiquette. In some parishes, however, short sleeves have become acceptable, so one must seek guidance from his or her parish rector.
“…and the house was filled with the fragrance…” (John 12:3)
Should you wear perfume or eau de Cologne? If the smell is good, then yes, but not in church. Remember that some people are allergic to perfumes and can suffer an allergic reaction or asthma attack because of your choice of a smelly substance. If for some good reason you absolutely have to use something smelly, try to use as little of it as possible.
Makeup is also out of place in church. To dirty an icon or cross with lipstick is disrespectful not only toward the sacred object, but also toward the people who will venerate it after you, as well as toward those who will then have to clean-up the smears of lipstick.
“I will enter thy house, I will worship toward thy holy temple…” (Ps. 5:7)
Upon entering the church it is customary to thrice make the sign of the cross with prayer. The words of the prayer can be found in almost any prayer book, but one could also simply say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Of course, no one will keep track of whether you made three signs of the cross before you entered the church or not. But we must remember that a church is not a grocery store where one can quickly run in to pick up some bread or milk. A church is the house of God, thus we must pause, pray, or just ponder the holiness we are about to enter.
You should come to church for the beginning of the service and stay until the end. If there are objective reasons why you must be late or leave early, then enter and exit the church very quietly, in order not to distract other people by commotion at the door.
It is customary to greet the people who are already in church with a simple bow, without any words or exclamations. In general, any conversations, with the exception of the most necessary ones, are out of place in church. We can learn the latest news from the lives of our friends and share our own news after the service and outside the church.
“Let us stand aright, let us stand with fear…”
When you enter the church, do not stay in the narthex (a kind of entry way), but proceed to the main part of the church (the sanctuary). Typically, only curious tourists stand in the narthex, and in ancient times, excommunicated but repentant sinners stood there. Christians must stand not in the entry way, but in the sanctuary, where the whole parish participates in the Divine Liturgy. People who remain in the narthex show that they are not Christians who participate together in the Liturgy, but spectators and tourists. Besides, a crowd in the narthex makes it difficult for other people to come into the church.
It is our tradition that in church men stand on the right and women on the left. They say that it is because it is not polite for men to stand behind women, especially when the latter bow down during prayer, or for women to push their way through tight groups of men. Perhaps this is so, but there also exists another reason. The Divine Liturgy is not served by romantic couples or groups of friends, but by the Church which is the Body of Christ. Therefore, romantic couples, spouses, siblings, and friends are separated—men stand on the right, and women on the left—in order to participate in the Liturgy as members of the Church without distractions.
“Arise! Lord, bless…”
In the Russian Orthodox Church, we stand during services. In some way it is due to a feeling of deep reverence before God’s temple, service, and Sacraments. In the Orthodox mindset, one stands before God, not sits before Him. On the other hand, the service is not a time for rest and meditation, but for co-laboring with God in the task of our salvation. An outward symbol of our readiness to work is standing on our feet, not sitting.
However, if someone has difficulty standing due to illness or age, he or she can sit during the service. For such people, churches usually have benches or chairs. But even an ill person, if it is possible, should try to stand during the anaphora and when the royal doors are open. On the other hand, it is not necessary to stand during a sermon; even young and healthy people can listen to the sermon while sitting down.
“They greatly love to wander; they do not restrain their feet” (Jer. 14:10)
Of course, there is no need to mention that you should not aimlessly wander about the sanctuary. But what if you are late to the service, but you still want to venerate a particular icon, light a candle, etc.? You must remember two rules: not to walk around the church when the royal doors are open (the main doors of the iconostasis or the icon screen) and during the singing of the Eucharistic Canon or Anaphora. The Anaphora is the time when the Eucharistic bread and wine become the Body and Blood of our Savior. It begins after the singing of the Creed (“I believe in one God the Father Almighty…”) and ends with the singing of the Axion estin (“It is truly right to bless Thee, O Theotokos…”). Therefore, from the singing of the Creed until the end of the Axion estin walking about the church is not allowed. Also it is most rude to walk about the church and light candles when the Gospel is being read or during the sermon, when all Christians should be listening.
If a priest or a bishop stands in the middle of the sanctuary during a service (as is the case during the litiy—the blessing of bread, wheat, wine, and oil at the vigil), then it is unacceptable to pass from one side of the temple to the other in front of the one serving, that is to say, between him and the Altar. If you absolutely have to get to the other side of the church, then walk behind the priest—from the side of the narthex.
You should not stand with your back toward the Altar. This, however, does not mean that you should exit the church by walking backwards. Just remember that the Altar is the Holy of Holies of the church, and you should treat it with necessary reverence.
“Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 34:11)
The Orthodox Church does not have separate children’s services, youth services, adult services, etc.—but only one service to God to which all are called. Children should participate in church services from the youngest age, in other words, from birth. But just as with all other things, parents must gradually teach the child to follow the rules of behavior in church. Of course, one cannot expect a three-year-old to stand perfectly still for two hours straight, but one also should not allow the toddler to run around the sanctuary, yell, grab things, etc. Parents must gently but firmly guide the child’s energy into the proper channel, and sometimes simply teach the little boy or little girl to control outbursts of youthful energy. You must not think that misbehaving is natural for children, and therefore should not be stopped. Defecation into one’s pants is also natural for children, but we teach them not to do that. Parents must teach their children to observe church etiquette from the youngest age, and not get discouraged if this process takes some time.
Those who come to church without children should not glare at the children who are “not letting them concentrate,” but instead should be glad that there are children in God’s temple, and pray for those children and for themselves.
Mothers and grandmothers! Please refrain from gooing and gaaing, even if a baby is very cute. This creates noise in the church and provokes a natural response from the child who also begins to goo and gaa. The only difference is that mothers and grandmothers usually make a lot more noise than their children do, especially when they begin to loudly chant, “Hush, hush, hush!”
When giving a prosphoron and pieces of antidoron (blessed bread) to the children, make sure that crumbs do not fall on the floor. It is absolutely unacceptable to allow crumbs of a prosphoron or a piece of antidoron fall on the floor. Often, the best way to avoid crumbs is for the adult to break off a piece of blessed bread and place it directly into the child’s mouth.
“Receive the Body of Christ, taste the Fountain of Immortality”
Much has been written about Communion, but it seems fitting to point out a few things. In the Russian Church Communion is offered to Orthodox Christians who have gone to confession and received a blessing to partake of Communion. In our parish, confessions are heard after the evening service and also before the beginning of the Liturgy. During the Liturgy we do not have confessions. If you are waiting for confession, please notify the priest of your intent. While in the altar, the priest has no way of knowing if someone is waiting for confession. Ask a deacon or an acolyte to tell the priest that you are waiting. On some rare occasions it may be appropriate to lightly knock on the northern door of the Altar in order to get the priest’s attention.
Menstruating women and men who had a nocturnal emission must not approach Communion. Additionally, married people must abstain from spousal relations before Communion. These rules, however, are not really rules of church etiquette as much as they are canonical rules. If you have questions about them, make sure to speak with your pastor.
Veneration of holy icons should be done before, but not after Communion. After Communion, one should immediately proceed to the table where the acolytes have prepared wine mixed with water and pieces of prosphora. One should carefully eat a piece of prosphoron and drink some wine mixed with water immediately after Communion in order that no small piece of the Holy Gifts remains in the mouth.
When approaching Communion, cross your arms on your chest and do not make the sign of the cross, lest you accidentally bump the Chalice.
Parents who carry their small children to the Chalice should hold them on the right arm and hold the child’s arms with their left hand. If your child has a runny nose and he is drooling, you must wipe his nose and mouth before approaching the Chalice.
The Chalice must be approached orderly, that is to say, in order. First the clergy approach, then the monastics if they are present, then men, then women, and finally children. The practice of letting children go first for Communion, though not bad in itself, does not reflect the meaning of the Liturgy. Children should be allowed to be first in line to the zoo or to buy ice cream. But in Church, a somewhat different principle of order is in place.
“Let us depart in peace…”
After the service has ended, you must first piously exit the church, and only then share the latest news with your friends. Even though the service has ended, the temple remains the temple, and we must remember this. Once outside or in the parish dining hall, you may talk and socialize (of course, as long as you are not visiting a monastery, where very different rules apply).
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt. 6:33)
Despite the importance of some rules of Church etiquette, we should remember that the meaning of Christian life is not in following rules, but in a closer union with God. Rules merely serve a supportive, utilitarian role. The meaning of a saw or hammer is not in owning and caressing them, but in the building that can be built with their help. Therefore, in conclusion, I would like to mention one more important rule: if you notice that someone has broken a rule of Church etiquette out of ignorance, do not take a whip and chase that person out of the temple, especially if you are an older person, and the man or woman whom you plan to drive out is much younger than you. First, learn to heal and raise from the dead, only then to drive out of temples. It is absolutely unacceptable to take upon yourself the role of a Church policeman: teaching and correcting parishioners’ mistakes is the job of a bishop or a priest, to whom the bishop delegated this responsibility in a particular parish.
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Of course, this short pamphlet cannot be all-encompassing, but I would like to hope that it is useful. If some aspect of Church etiquette is of a particular interest to you, but you did not find an answer in this pamphlet, be sure to ask your parish priest or the author of this pamphlet:
Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov
address: 13820 S Union Hall Rd, Mulino, OR 97042
Or mail a check to Russian Church, PO Box 913, Mulino, OR 97042
Interview on Church Etiquette
Emmy Louvaris asks questions about church etiquette for the Orthodox Christian Network.
The January 8, 2010 episode of “Come Receive the Light” opens with a conversation about Orthodoxy in Latin America. The interview on church etiquette begins at minute 14 of the program.
To listen to the interview on church etiquette, CLICK HERE
To listen to the previous interview for OCN, on the theology of Eucharistic bread, CLICK HERE