Holy Wisdom Orthodox Mission

A parish of the Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of the West

1355 North 4th Street • Grand Junction, CO 81501
(Corner of North 4th Street & Kennedy Street)

970-689-4777 • holywisdomorthodox@gmail.com

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Church Customs and Etiquette

Relax: You will not be judged or criticized if you are not familiar with our traditions...

There are numerous customs and traditions in the Orthodox Church that are important parts of our worship. Some of these customs are universal to the Church, while some may vary from parish to parish, or cultural tradition.

Etiquette is the way we act or conduct ourselves toward others that is considered customary and polite. It is based on mutual respect which cultivates feelings of trust, safety, and wellbeing. Church etiquette is the collection of customs, norms, and traditions that have developed over time which facilitate community worship and interaction.

Church etiquette in the Orthodox Church is founded on the principle of not judging one another. Whether someone knows our worship practices or not, or whether they observe them or not, we are called to be mindful only of ourselves.

Church etiquette is nonetheless vital to minimize social discomfort and to promote effective participation in worship. It is simple common sense, based on respect for God and others. We are in church to worship God in Holy Trinity. The priest announces, “In the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near.” If we approach our lives and our worship together with this in mind, then we will be people of proper church etiquette.

Sadly, American culture in the 21st Century is very casual, even subtly anarchist, in its approach to life. Dress, music, language, values, morals, and entertainment all reflect a trend to “downgrade” life from what God intended it to be. We choose not to allow this prevailing tendency to enter into our Christian piety, whether at home or at church

In general...

Posture of Worship: Standing and Sitting
The traditional posture for prayer and worship in the Orthodox Church is to stand. In “Orthodox countries” there are usually no pews in the churches. Chairs or benches on the side walls are reserved for those who need them, such as the elderly, the infirm, women “with child,, etc. In North America, some Orthodox faithful have introduced pews into their churches thus creating the artificial “need” to figure out when to sit and when to stand. Whether a church has few chairs or many, there are times when one should definitely stand:

  • At the beginning of the service: “Blessed is the Kingdom...”
  • At all Litanies.
  • At the Entrances: with the Gospel, the censer, and the Holy Gifts
  • At the Gospel Reading
  • During the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer
  • At the Anaphora beginning with “Let us stand aright” through the Hymn to the Theotokos
  • At the distribution of Holy Communion, i.e. the Body and Blood of Christ in our midst, through the end of the dismissal

These guidelines actually leave little time for sitting. Whatever parish you may be in, when in doubt it is customary to stand in prayer. At the same time one must be respectful of local customs and remain sensitive so as not to draw attention to oneself, or block other’s participation in the service.

Making the Sign of the Cross
Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross as a means of blessing themselves and others. The Cross of Christ is an instrument of death turned to source of life, and therefore making the sign of the cross is a way to shield oneself with an armor of faith. Jesus commanded his disciples to "take up his cross and follow [Him]", so making the sign of the cross serves as a reminder of our commitment to Christ.

We make the Sign of the Cross this way:

  • With our right hand: our thumb and first two fingers touch each other, and our third and fourth fingers are folded into our palm
  • With our first three fingers we first touch our head, next our stomach, and finally our right shoulder and left shoulder.

A person looking around on a Sunday morning may notice that different people cross themselves at different times. To a certain extent, when to cross oneself is a matter of personal piety and not of dogma. We do, however, follow these general guidelines:

  • We make the Sign of the Cross:
    – When entering and exiting the church.
    – Before venerating an icon, Gospel, or Cross.
    – At the end of each petition intoned by the priest or deacon.
    – When we hear one of the variations of the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
    – When crossing in front of the Altar.
    – When passing by the church.
  • We bow, but do not make the Sign of the Cross:
    – When a bishop or priest blesses us with with: his hand (such as in “Peace be unto all”), the Gospel, the Chalice, a Cross, or an icon.
    – When a bishop, priest, or deacon censes us.

A blessing from the clergy is always done on behalf of, and invisibly representing, our Lord Jesus Christ. If we bless ourself at such times (by making the Sign of the Cross) we imply that our blessing supersedes that which we receive from the Lord. Similarly, if we bless ourself when asking a blessing from a bishop or a priest we fail “to distinguish between reverence toward holy things and toward persons.”

Lighting Candles
Lighting candles is an important part of Orthodox worship. We light them as we pray, making an offering to accompany our prayers. Orthodox typically light candles upon entering the church after they venerate the icons. If a service is already in progress, and the candlestands are up front, it is a good idea to wait until after the service to light candles so as to not to distract others from prayer, nor draw undue attention to oneself.

Greeting the Clergy
An Orthodox Christian greets a bishop or a priest by asking his blessing and then venerating (kissing) his right hand. This is proper according to our Tradition. We do not greet our clergy informally or with a handshake.

We Orthodox Christians approach a bishop or priest with our right hand over our left and say either “Master, bless” to a bishop, or “Father, bless” to a priest. The bishop or priest will say “The Lord (blesses)” and make the sign of the Cross over our crossed hands.

We receive this blessing with the understanding that it is always Christ Himself Who is blessing us through the hand of His bishop or priest. For this reason we kiss the back of the bishop’s or priest’s right hand to show respect and gratitude to Christ for the blessing He has given us.

Please, however, do not be concerned if this custom is unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Orthodox clergy respect and observe common social norms and will gladly greet non-Orthodox individuals with a typical handshake.

Antídoron (“Holy Bread” )
After taking Communion, as well as at the end of the Divine Liturgy, it is traditional to receive and eat a piece of Antídoron (Greek: Ἀντίδωρον) or “holy bread.” In some Orthodox churches Antídoron may be received only by Orthodox Christians. In other traditions it may be given to anyone who attends the Divine Liturgy including non-Orthodox Christians.

Historically Antídoron was distributed as a blessing (Greek: εὐλογία) only to those who did not receive Holy Communion for some reason; the word Antídoron (Greek: Ἀντίδωρον) is translated “instead of the Gifts.” Today it is customarily consumed after Holy Communion to ensure that the Holy Gifts are entirely swallowed. It is additionally distributed after the Divine Liturgy as a blessing.

Antídoron is not Holy Communion, it is not consecrated as the Body of Christ. Instead it is blessed during the Divine Liturgy after the Consecration.

Because it is blessed, Antídoron must be treated respectfully. Crumbs must be consumed, and not allowed to fall on the ground. Children must be monitored carefully as they take the Antídoron, and taught to eat it and treat it respectfully.

As a pious custom, some Orthodox Christians may take Antídoron home and receive a small portion each day after reciting their Morning Prayers (and before eating breakfast). At church any left over pieces of Antídoron after the Divine Liturgy, as well as all crumbs, are typically placed outside to be dissolved into nature.

Dressing for church...

“Church clothes”
There was a time when people put on their “Sunday best” to go to church. By contrast, there is today not an insignificant backlash against such propriety. Many contemporary churches innocently flaunt a “come as you are”; pitch as part of their advertising ploy. Though God does not demand us to “dress up” for Him (as though He is in any way impressed by our external appearance), the fact is, as followers of Christ in all areas of our life, we should offer Christ our “best” and not just our “leftovers” (c.f. Cain and Abel). Our dress should always, especially at church, be becoming of a Christian. We dress modestly, not in a flashy way that merely brings attention to ourselves.

Some guidelines:

  • Men: Men should dress modestly as befits a follower of Christ. While coat and tie are by no means mandatory, shirts with collars and clean pants or slacks are appropriate. Shorts are not proper in church.
  • Women: Dresses are certainly most appropriate, and should be modest: avoid tank tops, short skirts, and skin-tight dresses which serve only one purpose contrary to the aim of being in Church. Head coverings are encouraged and appropriate. Slacks and pant-suites are an accepted part of our culture, however tight jeans and spandex-type wear are never appropriate.
  • Children: Only young children should wear shorts to church – but not athletic shorts, cut-offs, or “spandex” (which are not appropriate for adults either). Tennis shoes that “light up” should be avoided, especially for altar servers, in that they draw attention away from prayer. “This Bud’s for you!” and other similar T-shirts are a definite out.

The above guidelines may be adjusted for services outside of Divine Liturgy; e.g., Vespers. It is better to be in church for prayer, than to not come at all for mere lack of a change of clothes – as may be the case when coming from a Saturday outing, or work-party, etc. Finally, this is not a call for someone to buy a whole new wardrobe just to be a part of the Church! Use your best judgment and good taste when it comes to Church. You don’t go to church to be seen by people – you go to present yourself before, and to worship, God.

While in church...

Crossing One’s Legs
In many cultures throughout the world, crossing one’s legs is considered very disrespectful. In North America this is generally not so, but if we think about it it seems obvious that we cross our legs to be “comfortable.” Logically, this is too casual for being in the presence of God. When we get settled in our favorite chair at home, we lean back, kick up our legs, and allow our minds to wander. In church we should remain attentive prepared for spiritual battle. Should we sit, we must do so attentively and not so comfortably such that our minds wander off from worshipping God.

Talking During Church
Besides being disrespectful toward God Who is present, it is distracting for others who are striving to pray. This rule includes all services of the Church, whether it be the Hours read prior to Divine Liturgy, or the priest hearing Confessions after Vespers. It is best to save conversation for the fellowship hall, inviting guests downstairs for a visit.

Lipstick looks terrible smeared on icons, crosses, the communion spoon, and the priest’s or bishop’s hand. Hand-painted icons are ruined by lipstick; and even though the cross or spoon can usually be cleaned after everyone venerates, it is not considerate to those who follow.

If one insists on wearing lipstick to church, lips should be blotted clean before venerating the icons – and especially before receiving Holy Communion.

Something to consider: God, Whom we alone come before in Liturgy, is not impressed by our external attractiveness, but by adorning our souls in humility, in good works, and in piety.

Entering Church Late
It does not seem logical to enter the church after the services have begun, inasmuch as we are invited to participate in the fullness of the worship experience and thus to arrive early before they begin. Likewise, leaving services early is similarly illogical.

Obviously circumstances may sometimes delay us, or require us to leave early, from a service. In these cases we should not feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, but know that God loves us and always welcomes us to worship Him. Most importantly, we should judge another since we do not know their circumstances.

As a rule of thumb, should we happen to arrive late it makes sense to take a place near the back of the congregation so as not to create a distraction for others. If the delay is due to carelessness, one should consider refraining from partaking of the Eucharist since an element of preparing for Holy Communion is the ascetic effort of arriving on time for the Eucharistic Liturgy.

It is often the case that coming to Church late becomes more a matter of “habit” than circumstance. Let us love God and one another, that we may eagerly wish to be in the Lord’s house with our brethren and strive not to be delayed.

Children in Church...

Going In and Out of Church
Children are certainly part of our parish family. Little children will make noise and will occasionally be quite loud! This is normal. It is common sense for parents to take small children out of the church when they are fussy or need a short break. Parents should consider sitting toward the back of the church with ready access to the doors.

Snacks for Children
Parents often bring little snacks for young children to keep them occupied and quiet in church. This is fine as long as it is discreet and quiet and if the parent cleans up any leftovers. By the time a child is 3-4 years old this will most likely be unnecessary. And by the time a child reaches age 7 they are mostly capable of fasting the entire morning of Holy Communion (or at least cutting back on breakfast). Chewing gum is never appropriate in church.

For those children who do require snacks during service, please refrain from feeding them, even a bottle, while in line for Communion, as they ought to come to the Holy Mysteries without food already in their mouths.