Church Etiquette and Traditions
What is “proper behavior” during Church services?
Below are some gentle reminders about Church etiquette and traditions.
The time to arrive at Church is before the Divine Liturgy starts. If you should arrive after the service begins, follow the guidelines under “Entering the Church” below so your entrance does not interrupt the service. The best way to avoid entering the Church at an inappropriate time is to arrive on time.
Entering the Church
After the Divine Liturgy has begun, you should not enter the nave (main part) of the Church during:
- The reading of the Epistle or Gospel
- Great Entrence
- The Creed
- The Anaphora (consecration prayers)
If you arrive after the service begins, enter the Church quietly and observe what is happening. If any of the above is taking place, wait until it is finished to quickly find a seat.
Leaving Before Dismissal
Leaving the Church before dismissal deprives us of a blessing. Worship has a beginning, “Blessed is the Kingdom…” and an end, “Let us depart in peace…”
When you enter the Church, it is customary to venerate (kiss) the holy icons. Usually there are icons in the narthex and/or at the entrance of the nave, and many Churches have icon stands at the front near the iconostasion as well. Non-Orthodox newcomers to the Church are often confused or perplexed about venerating icons. In a very traditional Church an icon will be on a stand at the entrance or in the center of the nave; this icon is venerated first. Then the icon of Christ which is to the right, before the iconostasion, is venerated, followed by those icons that are accessible on the right side of the Church.
Crossing over at the rear of the Church, the icon of the Theotokos which is to the left, before the iconostasion, is venerated, followed by those icons that are accessible on the left side of the Church. In many Byzantine Churches in this country, the only icons available for veneration are those in the narthex. It is customary when venerating an icon, especially the principal icons, to make three reverences (sign of the cross three times followed by a prostration, or low bow to the ground, each time after crossing oneself) and then kissing the icon once.
When venerating an icon, pay attention to where you kiss. It is not proper to kiss an icon on the face. Rather, you would kiss the hand. Pay attention to what you are doing as you venerate an icon, showing the proper respect due to the person depicted, the same respect you would show in person. If wearing lipstick or lip balm/gloss, please be careful not to get it on the icon.
Lighting candles is an important part of Orthodox worship. Each act of lighting is a form of prayer. Candles are typically lit when coming into the Church. There are times during the Divine Liturgy, though, when candles should not be lit: during the Epistle and Gospel readings; the Small or Great Entrances, the sermon; and the Anaphora (consecration prayers), essentially those times when we should be more attentive in the Divine Liturgy.
When to Cross Oneself
Anyone who has looked around during the services will notice that different people cross themselves at different times (and sometimes even in different ways). To a certain extent, when to cross oneself is dictated by personal piety and is not an issue of dogma. But there are times when it is specifically proper to cross yourself and times when you should not.
Below are brief guidelines of when to cross and when not to cross.
When to cross:
- When you hear one of the variations of the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”
- At the beginning and end of the services and your private prayers
- Before venerating an icon, the cross, or the Gospel Book
- Upon entering or exiting the Church
- When passing in front of the holy Altar Table
When not to cross:
- At the chalice before or after taking Communion (to avoid hitting the chalice with your hand)
- When the bishop or priest blesses saying, “Peace be with all” (merely bow slightly and receive the blessing)
In years past, it was customary for people to put on their “Sunday best” to go to Church; in fact, dress clothes were often referred to as “Sunday clothes.” This is not all that common today; in fact, all too often the dress in our Churches has become too casual. In all the areas of our lives, we should offer Christ our best and the same is true of our dress. We should offer Christ our “Sunday best,” not our everyday or common wear. We should dress neatly and modestly, not in a flashy way that would bring attention to ourselves, and not in a provocative way. Our dress in Church should always be becoming to a Christian.
According to Orthodox piety it is not proper for people to cross their legs in Church. The crossing of legs suggests either a kind of self-confidence or a laid-back lack of proper mindfulness of context not appropriate to prayer and worship. We ought to be aware that the Church at all times is the house of God, the special sanctuary where Orthodox Christians gather to present themselves before God and to pray and worship. Even when services are not being held, Orthodox Christians are properly reverent in Church and thus speak, move, or sit with conscious respect toward all the icons and what the Church symbolizes. God’s presence, of course, is not limited to the Church. But if we truly are aware, as we ought to be, of God’s special presence in Church and that in prayer and worship we encounter God Himself surrounded by the angelic host, the Seraphim and Cherubim, hovering about His throne and covering their faces out of respect for God, then we, too, will seek to be as discerning, humble, and respectful in all our movements in Church whether speaking, moving, or sitting.
We welcome children into our Church. We encourage families to bring their children so that they will be exposed to Orthodox Christianity from a young age and become part of our Church family. Sometimes our little ones may not be able to sit for over an hour during services, may need to be fed or changed, or may become fussy or cry. Parents are requested to use judgment and courtesy during such moments and to remove the child from the Church until the child will not be disruptive or distracting.
Cell phones and beepers must be silenced before entering the Church and any usage in Church is prohibited.