Church Etiquette 101: Stand, Sit, or Kneel?

Church Etiquette 101: Stand, Sit, or Kneel?

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What time is it? That’s right – it’s time for your next crash course in Church etiquette! In our last post, we talked about what to do when you enter an Orthodox church. This time, we discuss when to stand, sit, or kneel throughout a typical Orthodox service (which we call the Divine Liturgy).

When and why do we stand?

When?

Here’s a short, but vague answer: we stand most of the time. In many Orthodox churches, worshipers stand for nearly 80% of the service. In fact, if you travel to “Orthodox countries” in Europe and the Middle East, you won’t find any pews at all! You may see a few chairs or benches scattered along the walls for the elderly, sick, infirm, and for pregnant and nursing mothers, but that’s it.

It is preferable that worshipers stand for the entire service if they can physically manage to do so. If you go to an Orthodox service, and you prefer to stand the whole time, please consider finding a place toward the back or sides of the church. This way, you won’t block the view of those elderly or infirm sitting behind you.

If you don’t stand for the entire service, that’s okay. No one will judge you!

Why?

Christians stood during worship for nearly sixteen centuries. It wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation that the focus of Christian worship in the West changed from the Eucharist to the sermon. In the Orthodox tradition, we continue to stand as our predecessors did, maintaining the tradition set forth in Scripture (Isaiah 6:2; I Kings 22:19; Daniel 7:10; II Chronicles 5:12; 6:2; 20:5; I Ezra 3:10; Nehemiah 9:4-5; 8:7), professed by Christ Himself (Mark 9:25), and practiced by the Early Church (Matthew 6:5; Luke 17:10; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20).

Remember: worshiping God is not about us. It is about Him. We are God’s humble servants. And we must be ready, attentive, and willing to serve Him. We must acknowledge that we are in the presence of God, and should therefore stand in awe and respect. As Tertullian of Carthage tells us: “It is especially improper to pray while sitting at the very time that a multitude of angels stand before the face of the Lord in fear and trepidation; sitting shows that we are somehow praying unwillingly, carelessly, in a lazy manner.”

Worship is work!

You may remember that we Orthodox call our main service the Divine Liturgy. Liturgy means “common work.” Worship is not a time of relaxation. It is not a time to lean back and just listen. Rather, it is a time to do the common work of worshiping and thanking God.

The Orthodox, unlike Western Christians, worship with our entire bodies, not just our minds. This is why you see so much movement during an Orthodox service that just seems to flow without any effort at all. People bow, prostrate, cross themselves, move about to venerate icons or kiss the cross. The priest and deacons and altar servers move about, the choir sings while others pray. So much is happening, it is actually quite mesmerizing to watch.

The next time you visit an Orthodox parish, take a moment to absorb this. The beauty of the common work is a true testament to your being in Heaven on Earth.

Is it okay to sit sometimes?

Of course it is! However, you need to think about the reason behind your sitting down. Is it because you have a health issue? Is it because of your age? Do you not know what’s going on and fear looking silly just standing there? Or is it simply because you don’t feel like standing all that time?

We must remember why we have come to church: to worship God. Thus, we should make every effort to stand as long as our bodies are able. If you do need to sit during the Divine Liturgy, remember to stand at these times:

  • At the beginning of the Liturgy when the priest gives the blessing
  • During the Little and Great Entrances, Gospel reading, and Anaphora
  • Whenever the priest is censing the icons, the faithful, or the temple
  • While the congregation receives Holy Communion
  • At the final blessing and Dismissal

In many parishes, the Divine Liturgy books in the pews or narthex may contain suggested times when you may sit. Whenever a hierarch (like a bishop or metropolitan) visits the parish, out of respect follow his example. Stand and sit when he does.

Bottom line? When in doubt, stand. You can never go wrong there!

Quick note on leg-crossing

In modern American culture, we cross our legs a lot when sitting. Usually we do this to get more comfortable. When we get settled into our favorite chair at home, we lean back, cross our legs, and let our minds wander while we read, watch TV, or socialize. Is this sort of etiquette appropriate for church?

No. But this isn’t because we’re supposed to be uncomfortable while in church. Rather, we refrain from crossing our legs because doing so is too casual and relaxed. Remember, we go to church to worship God, not to “hang out” like we do at a friend’s house. Remember, too, sitting in church is a concession of human weakness, not the norm for prayer or worship. Should we need to sit for health reasons, we must do so attentively, with our feet flat on the ground.

What about kneeling?

If you’ve ever visited a Catholic church, you have probably seen “kneelers” attached to the pews. But in the Orthodox church, we typically do not kneel all that often.

In some Orthodox cultures, the faithful kneel during the Consecration of the Holy Gifts and other parts of the Liturgy. However, the Church Canons prohibit kneeling during the Paschal season (Pascha to Pentecost), and on Sundays. We consider kneeling penitential, and thus do not kneel on days or seasons celebrating the Resurrection of Our Lord.

For a more detailed exploration of the canons determining kneeling practices in the church, check out this article.

Conclusion

To sum up, the Orthodox do a lot of standing. While we will not frown upon sitting during the Liturgy, we strongly encourage you to stand in the presence of God and worship Him attentively.

In our next post on church etiquette, we talk about when you should and should not make the sign of the cross during worship. Have any suggestions for our Church Etiquette 101 series? Let us know in the comments below!

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