The Basics of Church Etiquette

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 goes into a bit more detail than what you’ll see here.

On a walk one morning, A man passes a modest little building he never really paid attention to before. The sign on the lawn says, “St. Stephen’s Orthodox Church.” He frowns at the sign. He has never heard of the Orthodox Church before. The man goes home and decides to do some research. After hours of reading, he hesitantly decides to visit. But he has no idea how to prepare for it. What should he wear? How should he greet the priest? Could he receive communion like he did at his Catholic church when he was younger?

Do you have some of the same questions as the man in this story? If so, this is the post for you! 🙂 Here, we’ll tell you the basics of what you need to know to feel comfortable visiting an Orthodox parish!

What is church etiquette?

The accepted definition of “etiquette” is, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in particular social groups or social situations.” So, Church etiquette, then, is simply a set of customs for behavior while in the church or on the church grounds. Knowing and practicing proper etiquette can mean the difference between success or failure in many aspects of life. This includes places of work, public spaces, and electronic communities.

Etiquette is even more important within the Holy Orthodox Church. After all, she is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth. She is a sacred place that deserves our respect, reverence, and attentiveness. We, as Christians, ought to reflect the image of Christ both externally and internally at all times. And how much more so should we make the effort when inside the very House of God?

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

1. 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.

2. 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:

Gentlemen

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

Ladies

  • Modest dresses and blouses (nothing low-cut or open)
  • Sleeves (no sleeveless tops – unless you wear a sweater over 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.

3. Venerate the icons correctly

When entering an Orthodox Church, you should always practice proper etiquette when venerating 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

4. Wait until service ends to socialize

Greeting people and having conversations in an Orthodox Church during services is considered inappropriate. If you enter 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.

Likewise, when you leave the church after service, be mindful not to make much noise. Proceed to the fellowship hall and socialize there, as it is disrespectful to disrupt the prayers of others in the church.

5. Kiss the priest’s hand

Traditionally, 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.

6. Sit properly when not standing

Though we spend most of the service standing, there are small stretches of time during which we sit. Sitting during worship is a concession to human weakness. In other words, we allow it because we understand that people get weak and tired and need to rest their legs. That said, while we sit, we should not slouch or cross our legs. 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.

7. Be mindful of your children

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

  • If your child cries or makes excessive noise, consider removing them 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, consider bringing ones that don’t make noise.

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

Learn more about Church Etiquette with our Informational blog series.

Church Etiquette 101 gives you a glimpse into the world of proper Orthodox worship behavior. We provide practical tips and guidelines to help both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox understand our customs and pious practices.