In the Orthodox Church there are numerous customs and traditions 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. The following, adapted from Fr. Anthony Karbo of Holy Theophany Orthodox Church in Colorado Springs, CO, addresses questions most often asked by those new to the faith, and even those not so new…

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, i.e. the elderly, infirm and pregnant. 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…”
• All Litanies—The Entrances: with the Gospel and later, the Chalice
• 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

As you can see, this leaves little time for sitting. Whatever parish you are in, when in doubt, stand in prayer—yet remaining sensitive to not drawing attention to oneself, or blocking other’s participation in the service.

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, placing them in the candle stands when venerating the icons. If a service is already in progress, it is ok to light candles up to the reading of scripture. Once the Reader comes out carrying the Apostol (for reading the Epistle), it is a good idea to wait until after the service to light candles so and not distract others from prayer, nor draw undue attention to oneself.

This same approach is best when one arrives late to a service (which, by the way, is entirely inappropriate, without due cause, for a Christian who has come to worship God; the same goes for leaving services early).  (Read more about this below)

The Lord’s Day worship begins on Saturday evening with Great Vespers and includes Sunday morning Divine Liturgy. For all services, the proper time to arrive at church is well before the service is scheduled to begin, in order to pray and complete our preparations for worship. As is our custom always enter prayerfully and, when the time is proper, light candles and venerate the holy icons. We come to the church on time as if to a “Great Banquet,” with reverence because we are partaking of the very Body and Blood of Christ, our Savior. Coming to pray the Hours before the Divine Liturgy begins, will ensure that you will be settled in with plenty of time to pray without distraction

Experience testifies that coming to Church late is more a matter of “habit” than circumstance: there are those who come late, and those who don’t.  If arriving late, one should refrain from venerating icons in the front of the church once the Reader comes out of the Altar with the Apostol (for reading the Epistle), etc. for the same reason given under “Lighting Candles”.

A general ‘rule of thumb’: Those who arrive late should generally refrain from partaking of the Eucharist if one is not in services for the reading of Epistle and Gospel. However, what is far worse than coming late, is not coming at all! Always feel free to talk with the priest about unusual circumstances that will affect your participation in the fullness of Divine Services.

Whenever you come, early, on-time, or late, you should always come forward to venerate icons first. Let your focus be on showing love and respect to our Lord through proper entry into the Temple. Never just ‘slide into a row of chairs’, without first bowing before the Lord, crossing yourself, lighting a candle if you choose, and venerating the Holy Icons if you are able. Always ask if you wonder what to do… we have all been there.

In the event that arriving late is completely unavoidable, try to enter quietly and unobtrusively, observing what is happening. Remain in the Narthex if the Epistle or Gospel is being read, during the homily, during the Little and Great Entrances – These are NOT times to come & go, unless you are tending to little ones or an emergency. And NEVER enter or leave during the Anaphora (the prayers of consecration of the holy Mysteries).

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. Should we do so in church? No. Not because it is “wrong” for us ever to cross our legs, but because it is too casual—and too relaxed—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. Remember, sitting in church is a concession, not the norm of prayer. We should remain attentive (i.e.: “Let us attend”) at all times as a soldier prepared for (spiritual) battle before his Commander. Should we sit, we must do so attentively and not too comfortably that our minds not wander off the “one thing necessary.”

Certainly parents should have ready access to the doors to take small children out of the nave and even outside if necessary if they are distracting or need a short break—for this reason the exit door must be accessible, i.e. let us avoid the temptation to congregate around the back doors, and challenge ourselves to move forward into the nave.

It should go without saying that adults and teens should be able to hold their place for the entire time, without moving around or going in and out of the nave during the various services.
The sermon or homily is not an intermission. It is not appropriate to go out or to come in during them or to try to slip out quickly before they begin or at their conclusion.

The services are not over until the dismissal is proclaimed. The protocol is to leave the church only after the final blessing, and after venerating the cross held by the priest at the end of the Divine Liturgy or other service. As one leaves the Temple it is proper to turn, face the iconostas and bless yourself. After exiting the church building, it is customary to face the doors of the church, bow, and bless yourself before walking away.

If you need to leave early, please exit the church quietly and refrain from conversing until after you have exited so as not to disrupt others. It is not acceptable to be in the kitchen, or social hall at any time during Liturgy (For those providing hospitality, or other services in support of our worship, be present in the Nave for the scripture readings and homily, following the protocol for coming and going above.)

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:

Children: Only young children are allowed to 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 with bold images and messaging are a definite out. Do not bring toys, coloring or other items that can attract other children, or distract those engaged in the Divine Services.

Women: Dresses are certainly most appropriate, and are to be modest (i.e. tank tops, short skirts, and skin-tight dresses are never appropriate, and serve only one purpose contrary to the aim of being in Church). Slacks and pant-suites are an accepted part of our culture, however tight jeans, ‘yoga pants’ and spandex-type wear are never appropriate. The wearing of head coverings is traditional and encouraged, but not enforced.

Men: Men are also to dress modestly as befits a follower of Christ. While coat and tie are by no means mandatory, shirts with collars and clean pants/slacks are not too much to ask. Again, particularly on Sunday morning, shorts, sleeveless or tight shirts, shirts with bold images or messaging are never appropriate.  And jeans and tennis shoes should be avoided.  For those who serve as greeters, at the cleros, or in the altar, long sleeve shirts and dress shoes are expected. Men do not wear any hats or headwear in church (with the exception of the liturgical headwear of some clergy).

The above guidelines can be adjusted for services outside of Divine Liturgy, i.e. 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 go out and 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.

Lipstick looks terrible smeared on icons, crosses, the communion spoon, and the priest’s or bishop’s hand. Hand-written icons have been 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 one insists on wearing lipstick to church, blot your lips well before venerating…. Point of consideration: 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.

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, the Prayers being read while we come forward to venerate the cross after the Dismissal, or the priest hearing Confessions after Vespers. If you must speak to someone, at least move to the Narthex, but keep it to a minimum. It is best to save conversation for the fellowship hall, inviting guests downstairs for a visit.


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 (palms up) and say “Father (“Master,” in the case of a bishop), bless.” This is appropriate and traditional, rather than shaking their hands.

When?  At those same times you would generally greet with a “Hello, good to see you…” upon arrival, and a “Goodbye, see you soon…”, when you leave wishing God’s peace .  It is never required, but is always welcome in the bonds of love within the Church.  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?

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).

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 of 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.

After taking Communion, at the end of the Divine Liturgy, and at Vespers/Vigil 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 still 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.

Our American culture of 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 mustn’t 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 simply approach our lives and our worship together with this in mind, then we will be people of proper “church etiquette.”

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