The Basics of Church Etiquette

Knowing and practicing proper etiquette is important within the Holy Orthodox Church. After all, the Church is the manifestation of God’s Kingdom on earth, a sacred place that deserves our respect, reverence, and attentiveness.

Most people in Orthodox churches don’t expect new visitors to understand all the intricacies of the Faith. But we do hope you will practice proper etiquette when worshiping with us. We’ve written this post to help people unfamiliar with the Orthodox Faith (and remind us Orthodox about proper church behavior). We wrote a whole series of posts on church etiquette that go into a bit more detail than what you’ll see here.

Here are some guidelines to help you prepare for visiting an Orthodox Christian church:

Be on time

The best time to be anywhere is early. When we arrive late, we distract those around us. We also send the unconscious message – to our children, families, and friends – that church isn’t really that important, since we don’t mind showing up late. We never go to work late. Why should we show up late to worship our God?

If you do happen to be late, enter the church quietly and locate the priest. Where is he? What is he doing? Generally, if the priest is standing in front of the Holy Doors in the center of the church, you should wait until he goes back into the altar before finding your seat.

Dress appropriately

In all areas of our lives, God deserves our best. We should dress modestly, not in a flashy or provocative way that would bring attention to ourselves. We go to church to worship God, not make a fashion statement. Here are some general guidelines to help:

Gentlemen

  • Collared, button-up shirts
  • Clean dress pants
  • Ties and coats (not required, but always appropriate)


Ladies

  • Modest dresses and blouses (no low-cut necklines or open backs)
  • Sleeves (no tank tops or sleeveless tops – unless you wear a sweater to cover the shoulders)
  • Knee-length skirts or longer
  • Clean dress pants
  • Head covering (optional)

When it comes to footwear, so long as your dress shoes or sandals are clean and have backs, they are generally acceptable.

Venerate the icons correctly

When entering an Orthodox Church, you should always practice proper etiquette when venerating the holy icons. This can perplex many who visit for the first time. A couple guidelines to help you when venerating:

  • Cross yourself twice, then kiss the icon and cross yourself one final time
  • Kiss either the hands or feet of those pictured in the icons, not the face
  • You may also kiss the Gospel book, scroll or cross in the hand of the individual, if those are depicted in the icon
  • Refrain from wearing lipstick – this can damage the icons

Wait until service ends to socialize

Greeting people and having conversations in an Orthodox Church during services is considered inappropriate behavior. If you enter an Orthodox Church and no one says hello to you or welcomes you, this may be why. Please don’t take offense! They are merely focused on prayer and will be more than happy to socialize with you during fellowship hour.

Kiss the priest’s hand when introduced

Traditionally in Orthodox cultures, laity (regular parishioners) greet priests and bishops by kissing them on the right hand. The priest or bishop typically extends his hand, which you take in yours as if to shake it. But instead of shaking his hand, you simply kiss the back of it.

Young boy kissing the hand of an Orthodox priest.
A young boy kisses the hand of an Orthodox clergyman.

When you kiss a priest’s or bishop’s hand, you show reverence and respect for their holy office. In return, they bless and sanctify you and offer the Holy Gifts on your behalf in the Divine Liturgy. So when you greet your bishop or priest, don’t shake his hand, ask for his blessing.

Sit properly when you are not standing

Though we spend most of the service standing, there are small stretches of time during which the congregation sits. Sitting during worship is a concession to human weakness, and slouching or crossing your legs while sitting indicates further slothfulness and laxity.

Crossing the legs and slouching are both far too casual and relaxed to be acceptable etiquette in an Orthodox Church. When the body lounges, the mind wanders. And the last thing we want when we should be praising God is for our minds to be preoccupied with something far less important.

When you sit in church, sit attentively. Keep your feet flat on the floor, ready to stand at attention and thank God for every blessing He has bestowed upon you.

Be mindful of your children

If you bring your little ones to church with you, please guide them and help them understand proper behavior in the church. Some things to think about:

  • If your child begins to make excessive noise or cry, consider removing them form the temple until they calm down.
  • Try not to bring snacks for children older than 18 months. We should all be fasting in preparation for Holy Communion!
  • If you bring toys for your children, consider bringing ones that don’t make too much noise.

Read More >> 8 Things to Expect in an Orthodox Church