On a walk one morning, A man passes a little building he never really paid attention to before. The sign on the lawn says, “St. John’s Orthodox Church.” He frowns at the sign; he’s never heard of the Orthodox Church before. The man goes home and decides to do some research. After hours of reading, he decides to visit. But he has no idea how to prepare. What should he wear? How should he greet the priest? Can he receive communion like he did at his Catholic church when he was young? Can he bring his two-year-old daughter with him?
In this ultimate guide, we tell you everything you need to know about church etiquette, so you can feel comfortable the next time you visit an Orthodox parish!
What is church etiquette?
Knowing and practicing proper behavior can mean the difference between success or failure in many aspects of life. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, etiquette is “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in particular social groups or situations.” Church etiquette, then, is just a set of customs for behavior in the church or on the grounds.
Etiquette is important within an Orthodox church, because the church is a sacred place that deserves respect, reverence, and attentiveness. We, as Christians, should 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?
What to wear to an Orthodox church
Usually the first question people ask when going anywhere is, “What’s the dress code?” Sometimes, we put a lot of thought into our appearance when we’ll be in public. This is normal and healthy, when kept in check. We should put thought into what we wear for church, but in a slightly different way.
When in church, your goal is to worship God, not make a fashion statement or call attention to yourself. Therefore, when planning what to wear to services, always keep modesty and godliness in mind. God deserves our best effort and our humility and love. What we wear should reflect this, while keeping God’s commandments in mind.
For men, this means wearing clean dress pants and collared, button-up shirts or sweaters. Ties and coats are not required, but are most certainly encouraged. Women: avoid tight clothing, low-cut and sleeveless tops, open backs and shorter-than-knee-length skirts or dresses. If you prefer pants, do not wear denim, sweats, shorts, etc. Some women also choose to cover their heads during worship. While this is usually not required, it is a wonderful way to express humility before God and remove temptation from our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Read more: Dress Code in an Orthodox Church >>
How and when to cross yourself
Another common question many people have about etiquette in Orthodox churches concerns the sign of the cross. How are you supposed to do it? When? Let’s answer each of those one at a time.
How: Join the thumb, index, and middle fingertips of your right hand, resting the other two fingers against your palm. Take that hand and touch the joined fingertips to your forehead, and then to your abdomen. After this, touch your right shoulder, and then your left.
When: The Orthodox do not have strict etiquette rules about when you should and should not cross yourself in church. In the Orthodox tradition, we cross ourselves on many occasions. But no one “has to” make the sign at specific times. It’s all up to the individual in most cases.
Read More: How and When to Cross Yourself >>
Properly venerating icons
When in an Orthodox Church, you should always practice proper etiquette when venerating icons. This can perplex many who visit for the first time. If you are not yet Orthodox and this practice makes you uncomfortable, please know you do not have to venerate the icons. However, if you do decide to, here are a couple guidelines to help you:
- Cross yourself twice, kiss the icon or incline your head toward it, and then cross yourself a third time
- Kiss 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 saint, if they are depicted in the icon
- Do not venerate icons while wearing lipstick or lip balm – this can damage them
How to greet an Orthodox priest
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.
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.
Entering and exiting an Orthodox church
We should never just waltz into or out of a church, blase and irreverent. Instead, we must prepare ourselves spiritually and understand what behavior is and is not acceptable once we enter the church. Before entering the house of God, you should consider doing any or all of the following:
- Saying a prayer
- Crossing yourself
- Lighting a candle
- Venerating the icons in the narthex
Not only should we take care in how we enter or exit, but also when we should enter or exit the church. Arriving before the service starts gives us plenty of time to say personal prayers, light candles, venerate icons, find a spot in the nave, and spiritually prepare for the service. If you are a visitor, it also gives you the opportunity to take in everything around you.
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 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 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.
Bringing children to services
You are more than welcome to bring your children with you to services, even when visiting for the first time. If you do 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. Some parishes, like ours, have sound proof “cry rooms” where you can still participate in and watch the service.
- 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: Children in Church >>
Receiving Holy Communion
In the Orthodox Church, we participate in what we call monogamous communion. This means that only baptized and christened Orthodox Christians can receive Holy Communion during services. Why? Because the Church is Christ’s own Body (1 Cor. 12:27), His Bride (Rev. 21:9), the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16), God’s field and building (1 Cor. 3:9), and the Vine to which individual members are then grafted in (Rom. 11:17). And the Lord set an example for us by distributing the Last Supper to His disciples alone. Only when you have been grafted into the Vine and become a member of the Body can you partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord.
In many parishes, guests who are not Orthodox are welcome to partake of antidoron, or blessed bread. The priest usually distributes it to everyone after dismissal, along with a blessing.
Some Etiquette FAQs
Through the years, we have been asked several questions by visitors and inquirers. Here are some of the most common ones, along with answers.
Usually the best place to sit is either in the back or along the edges of the church, so you can see what is happening. Ultimately, you should sit or stand wherever you feel most comfortable. But in some churches, there are no pews, so the congregation stands most of the time. In that case, take your height into account. For example, if you are taller, consider standing in the back so you do not block anyone else’s view of the altar.
Absolutely. In many Orthodox churches, we have “Liturgy buddies” who are there for that specific purpose. They will stand with you for the first couple visits, guide you through the service book, and answer any questions you might have. Just remember to whisper!
(Note: this does not mean it is okay to socialize during services. Please wait until after Liturgy to engage in conversation with others.)
You might notice people bowing, prostrating, or touching their fingers to the floor. In Orthodoxy, we use many different postures during worship. If you feel uncomfortable doing as we do, that is perfectly understandable. We do these things as outward expressions of our faith. Until you feel the conviction we feel, you do not have to feel obligated to do as we do!
Read More: 8 Things to Expect in an Orthodox Church >>