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Church Etiquette

When worshipping in the Orthodox Church people often have questions about etiquette. 
The following are some responses to commonly asked questions. 
If you have additional questions you can email your question to or ask the priest.

Entering Church (Arrive Early) 
It is important to plan appropriately so that you may arrive on time for services.  Typically, people should arrive at church about 10 minutes or so before the service to allow time to light candles, venerate the icons, etc.  However, there are times when we are left with the option to arrive late or not at all.  In these situations it is always better to come even if it is late.  The same goes for leaving services early.

Having said this, experience testifies that coming to Church late is often more a matter of habit or priorities than of circumstance.  Those who arrive after the reading of the scriptures should generally refrain from partaking of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) that day. 

Standing vs. 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 are reserved for those who need them, i.e. the elderly, infirm, the pregnant, etc.  Whether a church has few chairs or many, there are times when one should definitely try to stand:

  • The beginning of the service: "Blessed is the Kingdom..."
  • The Entrances: with the Gospel and later, the gifts in the Chalice and paten.
  • Gospel Reading
  • The Creed, the Lord's Prayer
  • The Anaphora beginning with "Let us stand aright" through the Hymn to the Theotokos
  • The distribution of Holy Communion, i.e. the Body and Blood of Christ in our midst, through the end of the dismissal

When in doubt, stand in prayer - yet remaining sensitive not to draw attention to oneself, or blocking another's participation in the service.

Crossing One's Legs
In many cultures throughout the world, crossing one's legs is taboo and considered very disrespectful.  In North America there are no real taboos against such action, rather, we tend to cross our legs to get comfortable.  It is not proper Church etiquette to do so in Church.  Not because it is "wrong" for us ever to cross our legs, but because it is too casual, too relaxed, to irreverant 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 our goal is to remain attentive (i.e.: "Let us attend") at all times as someone actively worshiping the Triune God or a soldier prepared for (spiritual) battle before his commander.  If we need to sit, we must do so attentively and not too comfortably that our minds not wander off the "one thing needful." 

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 venerating the icons.  If a service is already in progress, one may still light candles, though he/she should be mindful not to interfere with or distract from what is happening during the service (the entrances, the reading of the scripture, etc.).  One may always wait until after the service to light candles which will be burned throughout the week when people gather at the church.

Making the Sign of the Cross 
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.  However, there are times in the service when crossing oneself (thumb and first two fingers touching each other, third and fourth fingers folded into the palm: touching head first, to stomach, right shoulder to left) is called for:

  • To cross: when you hear one of the variations of the phrase "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"; before venerating an icon, Gospel, or Cross; when blessed with an icon, Cross, Gospel, or Chalice; entering and exiting the temple; when passing before the Altar
  • Not to Cross: (only bowing of the head): when blessed with hand (as in "Peace be unto all"), or censed. In receiving a blessing from a bishop or priest one does not make the sign of the Cross beforehand. "In this way ought we to distinguish between reverence toward holy things and toward persons" (Jordanville Prayerbook)

Handling the Holy Bread / "Antidoron" 
After taking Communion, at the end of the Divine Liturgy, and at Vespers with a "Litya" or "Blessing of Bread", it is traditional to eat a piece of holy bread or antidoron - the left-over bread from which Holy Communion was prepared and various commemorations made.  While antidoron is not the Body and Blood of Christ, it is blessed bread, and as such, we should take precaution to eat it carefully so that crumbs don't fall to be trampled underfoot.  Monitor the children as they take the antidoron, teaching them to eat respectfully.

In and Out 
Certainly parents should have ready access to the doors to take small children out if they become distracting or need a short break - for this reason the doors should be accessible.  People are asked to avoid the temptation to congregate around the back candlestand and door, and challenge ourselves to move forward into the Nave.  This also provides room for people who may arrive after you.

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 or outside, inviting guests to these areas to visit.  Of course, at times it is necessary to exchange a few words for the benefit of the services.  At such times, the key is to speak quietly and succinctly. 

Kiss (don't shake) the Bishop's and Priest's hand
The proper way to greet a bishop or priest is to ask his blessing and kiss his right hand. How do you do this?  Approach the bishop or priest with your right hand over your left with the palms facing up and say "Father ("Master," in the case of a bishop), bless."  This is appropriate and traditional, rather than shaking their hands.  When you receive such a blessing it is Christ Himself who offers the blessing through the hand of the priest or bishop.  Who of us would not want all of Christ's blessings we can get? 

Sunday Dress 
God, Whom we alone come before in Liturgy, is not impressed with our external attractiveness, but with the adorning of our souls in humility, good works, and piety.  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.  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 Guidlines:

  • Children:  Typically 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.  T-shirts with logos are not usually appropriate, either.
  • Women:  Clothing should be clean and modest (i.e. tank tops, short skirts, and excessively-tight dresses serve to attract attention to oneself).  Slacks and pant-suites are an accepted part of our culture, however tight jeans and spandex type wear are never appropriate.
  • Men:  While coat and tie are by no means mandatory, shirts with collars and clean pants / slacks are not too much to ask.  Again, shorts are to be avoided, particularly on Sunday morning.
The above guidelines may be adjusted somewhat for services outside of Divine Liturgy, i.e. Vespers.  With all this said, it is better to be in church for prayer, than not to 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.  Use your best judgment and good taste when it comes to dressing for the Divine Services.  Always remember that you don't go to church to be seen by people - you go to present yourself before, and to worship, God, Himself. 

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 the parent sees to cleaning 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 for Holy Communion (or at least cutting back on breakfast).  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.  Chewing gum is never appropriate in church. 

A Word about Lipstick 
Lipstick looks terrible smeared on icons, crosses, the communion spoon, and the priest's or bishop's hand.  Hand-written icons can be ruined by lipstick; and even though the cross or spoon can usually be cleaned after everyone venerates, it"s not very considerate to those who follow.  What is the answer?  If someone is wearing lipstick to church, they should blot their lips well before venerating. 

Final Thought 
Our American culture of the 21st Century is rather 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 must not allow this prevailing tendency to enter into our Christian piety, whether at home or at church.  Most church etiquette is based on simple common sense and a 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 proper church etiquette will simply come naturally.