The Holy Orthodox Church is perhaps one of the last social institutions where dignity, protocol, respect, and reverence are maintained. This is primarily because when we come to the church and its services we are entering the Kingdom of God on earth, His habitation, and we choose to honor this sacred place by our attentiveness to what is proper and ordered. We have the opportunity to reflect the image of Christ within us by our actions. “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” ( Peter 2:9).
This guide is meant for personal reflection and not as a means of judging others. Keep in mind that there are different traditions even among the Orthodox faithful. We come to church to pray and worship God above all else, and that should be our only focus. While the following references the Divine Liturgy, it should be noted that proper etiquette should be applied to all the Divine Services of the Church.
Entering the Church
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. It is always appropriate to arrive in a timely manner, before the service begins. Doing so gives one time to get settled, to acclimate themselves to their surroundings, and to prepare oneself to offer themselves wholly in prayer.
Arriving late without due cause is always inappropriate. Arriving late causes distraction and is inconsiderate to the rest of the faithful, to the celebrant and to God. The same can be said for leaving services early. Experience testifies that coming to Church late is more a matter of “habit” than circumstance: there are those who come late, and those who don't.
Some rules of thumb: Those who arrive late should generally refrain from partaking of the Eucharist that day as “proper preparation” for Holy Communion assumes the ascetical effort of arriving on time to the service and one should refrain from venerating icons or lighting candles in the front of the church so as to not distract others from prayer nor draw undue attention to oneself.
If an occasional problem occurs and you have to come in late, enter the church and take your place among the faithful reverently without drawing attention to yourself. The times in which you should wait in the back of the church, or the narthex, before entering include: when the Little or Great Entrance is taking place, when the priest is censing or giving the homily, and when the Epistle or Gospel is being read. If you are unsure when is the best time to enter the church, ask one of the greeters for guidance.
We come to the church on time as if to a “Great Banquet,” with reverence because we are partaking of the very Body and Blood of Christ, our Savior. Coming to the Hours before the Divine Liturgy will ensure that you will be settled in plenty of time to pray without distraction.
Standing in Church
It is the custom of Orthodox Christians to stand throughout the services of the Church. This is because the traditional posture for prayer and worship in the Orthodox Church is standing. In “Orthodox countries” there are usually no pews in the churches. Benches and chairs are along the walls for the elderly and those who need to sit for personal reasons. If you need to sit during the Divine Liturgy, remember to stand at these times: when the Liturgy begins and the priest gives the blessing; during the Little and Great Entrances; when the priest is censing the icons and the faithful; during the Gospel reading; at the Anaphora; for Holy Communion; and at the final Blessing. Whenever a hierarch is visiting the parish, out of respect follow his example and stand and sit when he does.
Lighting of Candles
It is a pious Orthodox tradition to light candles for personal petitions and intercessions when entering the church and venerating the icons. Most parishes have designated candle stands or holders for these candles. It is not proper to light candles at certain times during the service—generally the same times when you should not enter the church, such as during the Little and Great Entrances, when the priest is censing or giving the homily, or during the reading of the Epistle or Gospel.
Candles should be allowed to burn down without being extinguished early, since the burning candle symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven and the light of Christ in our midst. Please teach your children how and why we light candles while being mindful not to not them them light candles alone for safety reasons. At our parish candles are ‘not for sale’, with a designated price for candles of varying sizes, i.e. $1, $2, $5. While it is customary to make a monetary offering for each candle, how much we give should be left to each person and their ability to offer.
The Orthodox Church teaches that it is proper to venerate (not worship) the holy icons as pronounced by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 787 A.D. The acceptable way to do this is to kiss either the hands or feet of Our Lord or of the saint depicted in the icon, or the scroll, the Gospel book, or the hand cross a saint is holding, Please do not wear lipstick when kissing the icons.
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. It is not necessary to ‘follow the priest’ as he censes the temple.
Orthodox Christians bow when the names of the Theotokos and Christ are invoked. They also bow to the priest at his blessing, 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.
In some Orthodox traditions there are times when kneeling is a pious practice in the Liturgy, the most notable being at the Consecration of the Holy Gifts. However, kneeling is prohibited during the Paschal season, from Pascha to Pentecost, as well as on Sundays, in honor of the Resurrection.
Touching the priest's vestments
It is a tradition in some parishes to touch the hem of the priest’s vestment or phelonion as he passes by. 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.
Special Considerations During Services
Refrain from socializing during the services
Save your greetings and conversations for next door during the time reserved for fellowship. We come to the church to greet God with our prayers and worship, not to distract others.
Texting is never allowed during church
Unless you need to keep your phone on for an emergency, “Lay Aside all Earthy Cares”, as is sung during the Cherubic Hymn. Do yourself and others the favor of turning off your phone before entering the sanctuary to allow for your time worshiping to be as undistracted as possible.
Refrain from reserving places for others
Allow others freedom to come into the church and stand or sit where they feel comfortable, and especially make room for visitors especially seating at the back wall so they will feel welcome.
As stated elsewhere, 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. Lipstick looks terrible smeared on icons, crosses, the communion spoon, and the priest’s or bishop’s hand. Hand-written icons have been ruined by lipstick; and even though the cross or spoon can usually be cleaned after everyone venerates, it’s not very considerate to those who follow. What is the answer? If one insists on wearing lipstick to church, please blot your lips well before venerating and do not approach the chalice to receive Holy Communion while wearing lipstick.
In many cultures throughout the world, crossing one's legs is taboo and considered very disrespectful. In North America there are no real taboos against such action, rather, we tend to cross our legs to get comfortable. Should we do so in church? No. Not because it is “wrong” for us ever to cross our legs, but because it is too casual—and too relaxed—for being in the presence of God. When we get settled in our favorite chair at home, we lean back, kick up our legs, and allow our minds to wander. Remember, sitting in church is a concession, not the norm of prayer. We should remain attentive (i.e.: “Let us attentive”) at all times as a soldier prepared for (spiritual) battle before his commander. Should we sit, we must do so attentively and not too comfortably that our minds not wander off the “one thing necessary.” Also, please be aware that people from some cultures are offended by the crossing of legs or by arms behind the back. Keeping your feet on the ground also enables you to remain attentive and to stand when necessary.
In and out
Certainly parents should have ready access to the doors to take small children out of the nave and even downstairs or outside if necessary if they are distracting or need a short break—for this reason the door to the basement and narthex are to be accessible, i.e. let us avoid the temptation to congregate around the back archway and narthex, and challenge ourselves to move forward into the nave. It should go without saying that adults and teens should be able to hold their place for the entire time, with moving around or going in and out of the nave during the entire time of the service.
Receiving the Antidoron (Blessed bread)
When receiving the antidoron (literally translated, “instead of the gifts”) after Holy Communion or after venerating the cross at the end of Divine Liturgy, be mindful not to allow the crumbs to drop, since this is blessed bread. Children will need assistance so that they do not take too many pieces, and so they are not careless in handling the bread. After receiving the blessed bread, return to where you were standing and be attentive as the Prayers of Thanksgiving after Holy Communion are being chanted at this time.
The respectful protocol is to leave the church only after the final blessing, and after venerating the cross held by the priest at the end of the Divine Liturgy. If you choose to leave before the Prayers of Thanksgiving are completed, please exit the church quietly and refrain from conversing until after you have exited the church so as not to disrupt those who wish to hear the Prayers of Thanksgiving after Communion. It is not acceptable to be in the residence next door, kitchen, or an administrative office at any time during Liturgy. Those who leave early deprive themselves of a blessing. After exiting the church, it is customary to face the doors of the church, bow, and make the sign of the cross before walking away.
Greeting the priest and bishop
In our modern culture, we greet one another with a handshake. The exception to this is when we greet a member of the clergy. We do not shake a bishop’s or priest’s hand; we kiss it with reverence and ask for a blessing. The proper way to do this is to approach the hierarch or priest with right hand over left, palms facing up, and then bow while saying, “Master, bless” to the hierarch, or “Father, bless” to the priest. If either places his hand in yours while blessing you, this is an appropriate time to kiss his hand. We kiss his hand because we are honoring Christ, whom he represents and receiving His blessing.
Whenever we are preparing to come to church, we should remember that we will be entering the House of God. This requires that we dress modestly and with reverence. Generally this will mean that we want to wear our best clothing. At any age it is not appropriate to wear shorts, pants that are too casual, short skirts, tight-fitting or transparent garments, garments with low necklines, or strapless tops. Some Orthodox traditions require women to wear dresses or skirts with covered shoulders and backs. Although men are not required to wear a suit and tie, they will want to make an effort to dress as if they were going to an important event. Clothing with logos or printed material distracts others from praying. Some women have the pious tradition of covering their heads. Men and boys must remove their hats when entering the church. What could be a more important meeting than that with God Himself? The purpose in choosing our clothing wisely is that we model what is important to us by how we dress.
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.
Children in church
Christ said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 9:14). It is possible for young children to remain in church throughout a service if they are taught to be quiet and respectful. Many parishes have cry rooms or nurseries for those who are too small to be quiet throughout the whole Liturgy. We have a small area in the basement for this purpose but please do not allow the children to go into the church school area of the basement. Please be respectful to those around you if your child becomes fussy or out of control, and remove them from the nave of the church quickly. If a very young child needs a snack, please pick up any leftover pieces. Never allow a child not have anything in his mouth when he comes to Holy Communion.
It is never appropriate to allow a child to run in church, to roam about during the services, 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.
Parents often bring little snacks for young children to keep them occupied and quiet in church. This is fine as long as it is discreet and quiet and the parent sees to cleaning up any leftovers. By the time a child is 3-4 years old this will most likely be unnecessary. And by the time a child reaches age 7 they are mostly capable of fasting the entire morning of Holy Communion (or at least cutting back on breakfast). Chewing gum is never appropriate in church.
Consider bringing your children into the church at a time when the Liturgy is finished 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.
Above all: "In all things, give glory to God."
Our American culture of the 21st Century is rather casual, even subtly anarchist, in its approach to life. Dress, music, language, values, morals, and entertainment all reflect a trend to “downgrade” life from what God intended it to be. We mustn’t allow this prevailing tendency to enter into our Christian piety, whether at home or at church. And having, fostering and recognizing Christian piety, should not be seen as a “bad thing.” Most church etiquette is based on simple common sense and a respect for God and others. We are in church to worship God in Holy Trinity. The priest announces, “In the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near.” If we approach our lives and our worship together with this in mind, then we will be people of proper church etiquette.
Adapted from Holy Transfiguration Church, Colorado, and the Antiochian Archdiocese documents on Church Etiquette.