Church Customs and Etiquette
Relax: You will not be judged or criticized if you are not familiar with
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Posture of Worship: Standing and Sitting
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:
the beginning of the service: “Blessed is the Kingdom...”
the Entrances: with the Gospel, the censer, and the Holy Gifts
the Gospel Reading
the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer
the Anaphora beginning with “Let us stand aright” through the Hymn to
the distribution of Holy Communion, i.e. the Body and Blood of Christ
in our midst, through the end of the dismissal
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
Making the Sign of the Cross
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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” )
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.
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
is not Holy Communion, it is not consecrated as the
Body of Christ. Instead it is blessed during the Divine Liturgy
after the Consecration.
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.
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...
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Talking During Church
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.
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.
one insists on wearing lipstick to church, lips should be blotted clean
before venerating the icons – and especially before receiving Holy
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
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.
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
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
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
Children in Church...
Going In and Out of Church
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
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
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.