St. George the Great Martyr - Etiquette
ENTERING THE CHURCH
When entering Orthodox church, reverently make the sign of the Cross and pray, "God, forgive me a sinner and have mercy on me.”
Continue through the narthex quietly and reverently. If you wish to purchase a candle, they are available in the narthex. Candles represent the light of Christ and the flame of the Holy Spirit.
You may then venerate the icons before you. The icon of the day will be on the first icon stand on the right. The Orthodox Church teaches that it is proper to venerate, not worship, icons. The acceptable way to do this is to kiss either the hands or feet of the saint depicted in the icon, or the scroll, the Gospel book, or the hand cross a saint is holding. Please be aware that it is improper to kiss the face.
In an Orthodox church there is only one Eucharistic service (Divine Liturgy) per Sunday, and it is preceded by an hour-long service of Matins (or Orthros) and several short preparatory services before that. There is no break between these services—one begins as soon as the previous ends, and posted starting times are just educated guesses. Altogether, the priest will be at the altar on Sunday morning for over three hours, “standing in the flame,” as one Orthodox priest put it.
The Orthodox Divine Liturgy begins when the priest intones, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” We need to arrive early enough to receive this blessing. Arriving later causes a distraction for others who are praying. If an occasional problem occurs and you have to come in late, enter the church reverently and quietly. Try not to interrupt the Liturgy by your entrance.
You may notice that Orthodox worshippers arrive at any point from the beginning of Matins through the early part of the Liturgy, a span of well over an hour. This is distracting to newcomers, and may even seem disrespectful, but soon you begin to recognize it as an expression of a faith that is not merely formal but very personal. Of course, there is still no good excuse for showing up after 10:00a.m. but punctuality is unfortunately one of the few virtues many Orthodox lack.
STANDING IN CHURCH
It is the custom of some Orthodox Christians to stand throughout the Divine Liturgy, as well as during other services. It is perfectly acceptable to stand in church. If you choose to stand, please do so near the sides so that the view of the altar is not blocked for those who are seated. If you are accustomed to sitting during the Divine Liturgy, remember to stand at these times:
- When the Liturgy begins and the priest gives the blessing;
- During the Small and Great Entrances
- When the priest is censing the icons and congregation
- During the Gospel reading
- At the Anaphora
- For Holy Communion
- At the final Blessing
CUSTOMS AND BEHAVIORS
In the Orthodox Church, there are many pious customs and traditions that are an important part of our worship.
- Crossing oneself - To a certain extent, when to cross oneself is according to personal piety, and not an issue of dogma. It is always appropriate to cross oneself at the mention of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; whenever entering or leaving the church; at the beginning of the Liturgy; when passing in front of the altar; when venerating an icon, the Gospel, or the cross; and at times for personal petitions. It is not necessary to cross oneself when the priest is giving a blessing or censing the congregation. Instead, one should bow to receive the blessing. One should also not cross near the chalice, before or after receiving Holy Communion, as it is possible to hit the chalice with your hand.
- Bowing - Orthodox Christians bow when the Theotokos and Christ are petitioned. They also bow to the priest at his blessing, censing the congregation and when he asks forgiveness before the Great Entrance and again before Holy Communion. It is traditional for the Orthodox faithful to bow and cross themselves when they enter and leave the church, and when they pray before the icons.
- Kneeling - There are times when kneeling or prostration is a pious practice in the Liturgy, the most notable being at the Consecration of the Holy Gifts. You may kneel, prostrate or stand with head bowed – as is your custom. Not everyone prostrates. Some kneel, some stand with head bowed; in a pew they might slide forward and sit crouched over. Standing there feeling awkward is all right too. No one will notice if you don’t prostrate. In Orthodoxy there is a wider acceptance of individualized expressions of piety, rather than a sense that people are watching you and getting offended if you do it wrong.
- One former Episcopal priest said that seeing people prostrate themselves was one of the things that made him most eager to become Orthodox. He thought, “That’s how we should be before God.”
- However, kneeling and prostration is prohibited during the Paschal season, from Pascha to Pentecost, in honor of the Resurrection.
- Touching the priest’s vestments - For some, it is a tradition to touch the hem of the priest’s vestment or phelonion as he passes by in the Great Entrance with the Holy Gifts. This custom imitates the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Christ’s robe. When touching the hem of the priest’s phelonion, one should be careful not to step in front of the procession, to pull or tug on the garment, or to push anyone away.
Remember that you are in church to worship God, the Holy Trinity. The priest says, “With the fear of God and faith and love, draw near.” Let this be the way you approach your worship.
- Refrain from socializing during the Liturgy - Save your greetings and conversations for the fellowship hall. We are in the Liturgy to greet God with our prayers and worship, not to distract others.
- Mobile devices – The use of mobile phones is never proper during the Liturgy. If you have a professional reason to carry one for emergencies, keep it on mute, not vibrate, and sit near the exit so that leaving for an emergency will not be a distraction to others. Otherwise, turn off your phone before entering the sanctuary.
- Refrain from reserving seats - Allow others to sit as they come into the church and especially make room for visitors so they will feel welcome.
- We do not clap in church
- Lipstick - Do not wear lipstick while taking Holy Communion, or when kissing the cross, an icon, the priest’s or bishop’s hand, or any sacred object. It is best not to wear it at all in the church.
- Leg crossing - One should not be too casual in the Divine Liturgy. People from some Orthodox traditions are offended by the crossing of legs. In our North American culture, while there are no real taboos, we tend to cross our legs to get comfortable when sitting. Crossing one's legs in church is not permitted, not because it is "wrong," but rather because it is too casual and relaxed for being in church. Remember, sitting in church is a concession, not the normative way of prayer. Keeping your feet on the ground also enables you to remain attentive and to stand when necessary.
- Church Dress – Respectful attire is also an important part of attending Orthodox services. You do not need to be dressed "fancy" but respectfully and modestly so as to present yourself to God. Preferably, women should wear dresses or skirts and men should wear dress pants or suits. No shorts, short skirts or revealing clothing please. Some women have the pious tradition of covering their heads. Scarves are available for women to borrow in the narthx. Men and boys must remove their hats when entering the church.
- Photography in the Church - Whenever photography will take place during a service at an Orthodox church (including special events such as weddings and baptisms), please make sure to instruct photographers that pictures and videos may not be taken from behind the priest or standing in front of the altar.
- Children - Christ said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). It is possible for young children to remain in church throughout a service if they are taught to be quiet and respectful. For those who are too small to be quiet throughout the whole Liturgy, please remove them from the nave of the church briefly if they becomes fussy or out of control. If a baby or toddler needs a snack, please clear away any leftover pieces. However, the child should not have anything in his/her mouth when he/she comes to Holy Communion. It is not acceptable at any time to chew gum in church (at any age). It is never appropriate to allow a child to run down the aisles, play loudly, or carry toys that make noise. Eventually, children will be able to spend longer times in the Liturgy. That is where they should be, but remember the reason for coming to church is to pray and worship. Plan to have your children use the restroom and get a drink before church begins, and don’t allow them to come and go continually. Consider bringing your children into the church at a time when there is no service to “practice” church behavior. Teach them that they are visiting God’s very special house, and they will need to have very special manners there. You will be surprised how quickly they can learn.
Orthodox Christians are invited to approach and receive Holy Communion if they are properly prepared . Please allow godparents and parents to bring newly baptized children first. The church school students and their teachers should follow them. All others who are prepared to do so may then approach the holy chalice . Some choose to kiss the chalice and then the hand of the priest upon taking communion.
The cloth held by the priest and the altar servers is there to prevent any particles of the gifts from falling onto the floor. It is not to be used as a napkin.
BLESSED BREAD AND CONSECRATED BREAD (Antidoran)
Only Orthodox may take communion, but anyone may have some of the blessed bread. Here’s how it works: the round communion loaf, baked by a parishioner, is imprinted with a seal. In the preparation service before the Liturgy, the priest cuts out a section of the seal and sets it aside; it is called the “Lamb." The rest of the bread is cut up and placed in a large basket, and blessed by the priest.
During the eucharistic prayer, the Lamb is consecrated to be the Body of Christ, and the chalice of wine is consecrated as His Blood. Here’s the surprising part: the priest places the “Lamb” in the chalice with the wine. When we receive communion, we file up to the priest, standing and opening our mouths wide while he gives us a fragment of the wine-soaked bread from a golden spoon. He also prays over us, calling us by our first name or the saint-name which we chose when we were baptized or chrismated (received into the church by anointing with blessed oil).
As we file past the priest, we come to a table with a basket of blessed bread and wine. People will take portions for themselves and for visitors and non-Orthodox friends around them. If someone hands you a piece of blessed bread, do not panic; it is not the eucharistic Body. It is a sign of fellowship. While antidoron is not Holy Communion, it is blessed bread, and as such should be eaten carefully so that crumbs do not fall. Both adults and children should always remember to treat and consume the antidoron with respect.
Visitors are sometimes offended that they are not allowed to receive communion. Orthodox believe that receiving communion is broader than me-and-Jesus; it acknowledges faith in historic Orthodox doctrine, obedience to a particular Orthodox bishop, and a commitment to a particular Orthodox worshipping community. There’s nothing exclusive about this; everyone is invited to make this commitment to the Orthodox Church. But the Eucharist is the Church’s treasure, and it is reserved for those who have united themselves with the Church. An analogy could be to reserving marital relations until after the wedding.
We also handle the Eucharist with more gravity than many denominations do, further explaining why we guard it from common access. We believe it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. We ourselves do not receive communion unless we are making regular confession of our sins to a priest and are at peace with other communicants. We fast from all food and drink—yes, even a morning cup of coffee—from midnight the night before communion.
In our experience, we don’t have any general sins; they’re all quite specific. There is no complete confession-prayer in the Liturgy. Orthodox are expected to be making regular, private confession to their priest.
The role of the pastor is much more that of a spiritual father than it is in other denominations. He is not called by his first name alone, but referred to as “Father Firstname.” His wife also holds a special role as parish mother, and she gets a title too, though it varies from one culture to another: either “Khouria” (Arabic), or “Presbytera” (Greek), both of which mean “priest’s wife;” or “Matushka” (Russian), which means “Mama.”
Another difference you may notice is in the Nicene Creed, which may be said or sung, depending on the parish. If we are saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, and you from force of habit add, “and the Son,” you will be alone. The “filioque” was added to the Creed some six hundred years after it was written, and we adhere to the original. High-church visitors will also notice that we don’t bow or genuflect during the “and was incarnate.” Nor do we restrict our use of “Alleluia” during Lent (when the sisters at one Episcopal convent are referring to it as “the ‘A’ word”); in fact, during Matins in Lent, the Alleluias are more plentiful than ever.
About seventy-five percent of the service is congregational singing. Traditionally, Orthodox use no instruments, although some churches will have organs. Usually a small choir leads the people in a cappella harmony, with the level of congregational response varying from parish to parish. The style of music varies as well, from very Oriental-sounding solo chant in an Arabic church to more Western-sounding four-part harmony in a Russian church, with lots of variation in between.
This constant singing is a little overwhelming at first; it feels like getting on the first step of an escalator and being carried along in a rush until you step off ninety minutes later. It has been fairly said that the liturgy is one continuous song.
What keeps this from being exhausting is that it’s pretty much the *same* song every week. Relatively little changes from Sunday to Sunday; the same prayers and hymns appear in the same places, and before long you know it by heart. Then you fall into the presence of God in a way you never can when flipping from prayer book to bulletin to hymnal.
A constant feature of Orthodox worship is veneration of the Virgin Mary, the “champion leader” of all Christians. We often address her as “Theotokos,” which means “Mother of God.” In providing the physical means for God to become man, she made possible our salvation.
But though we honor her, as Scripture foretold (“All generations will call me blessed,” Luke 1:48), this doesn’t mean that we think she or any of the other saints have magical powers or are demi-gods. When we sing “Holy Theotokos, save us,” we don’t mean that she grants us eternal salvation, but that we seek her prayers for our protection and growth in faith. Just as we ask for each other’s prayers, we ask for the prayers of Mary and other saints as well. They’re not dead, after all, just departed to the other side. Icons surround us to remind us of all the saints who are joining us invisibly in worship.
Every Orthodox church will have an iconostasis before its altar. “Iconostasis” means “icon-stand”, and it can be as simple as a large image of Christ on the right and a corresponding image of the Virgin and Child on the left. In a more established church, the iconostasis may be a literal wall, adorned with icons. Some versions shield the altar from view, except when the central doors stand open.
The basic set-up of two large icons creates, if you use your imagination, three doors. The central one, in front of the altar itself, is called the “Holy Doors” or “Royal Doors,” because there the King of Glory comes out to the congregation in the Eucharist. Only the priest and deacons, who bear the Eucharist, use the Holy Doors.
The openings on the other sides of the icons, if there is a complete iconostasis, have doors with icons of angels; they are termed the “Deacon’s Doors.” Altar boys and others with business behind the altar use these, although no one is to go through any of the doors without an appropriate reason. Altar service—priests, deacons, altar boys—is restricted to males. Females are invited to participate in every other area of church life. Their contribution has been honored equally with men’s since the days of the martyrs; you can’t look at an Orthodox altar without seeing Mary and other holy women. In most Orthodox churches, women do everything else men do: lead congregational singing, paint icons, teach classes, read the epistle, and serve on the parish council.
LEAVING BEFORE DISMISSAL
Leaving church before dismissal deprives us of a blessing. Worship has a beginning "Blessed is the Kingdom..." and an end "Let us depart in peace..." To leave immediately after Communion is to treat the church with disrespect. The church school students and their teachers are the only permissible exception.
GREETING A PRIEST OR BISHOP
It is not appropriate to merely shake the hand of a bishop or priest. In the Orthodox tradition in this country, the faithful usually take the bishop's or priest's right hand as though to shake it, but instead kiss it. We kiss/venerate his hand to honor the fact that his hand holds the Holy Gifts. If the Priest is holding the Gospel, Cross or other Holy Object, kiss/venerate the object first and then his hand.
Excerpted and edited from:
- "A Guide to Church Etiquette" - The Department of Marriage and Parish Family Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America in conjunction with Conciliar Media Ministries.
- "Church Etiquette or Some Things You Should Know While in Church", Fr, David Barr - The Word, January 1997
- "Church and Clergy Etiquette" - Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church https://stbarbarachurchnc.org/etiquette.html
- "12 Things I Wish I'd Known" Frederica Mathewes-Green- http://frederica.com/12-things/ 1989-2013