Church Traditions

What is “proper behavior” during Church services? Below you will find information about some of our traditions, which is intended to inform newcomers and remind regular parishioners of Church etiquette and practices.

Click here for “twelve things I wish I’d known before my first visit to an Orthodox church” by Frederica Mathewes-Green

Punctuality

The time to arrive at Church is before the Divine Liturgy starts.  If you should arrive after the service begins, follow the guidelines under “Entering the Church” below so your entrance does not interrupt the service. The best way to avoid entering the Church at an inappropriate time is to arrive on time.

Entering the Church

After the Divine Liturgy has begun, you should not enter the nave (main part) of the Church during:

  • The reading of the Epistle or Gospel
  • The sermon
  • The Creed
  • The Anaphora (consecration prayers)

If you arrive after the service begins, enter the Church quietly and observe what is happening. If any of the above is taking place, wait until it is finished to quickly find a seat. If Father is giving the sermon, stay in the back until he has concluded.

Leaving Before Dismissal

Leaving the Church before dismissal deprives us of a blessing. Worship has a beginning, “Blessed is the Kingdom…” and an end, “Let us depart in peace…”. However, if you need to leave on account of an urgent matter, please do so reverently by moving to the nearest aisle, making the sign of the cross and bowing in the direction of the altar.

Venerating Icons

When you enter the Church, it is customary to venerate (kiss) the holy icons. Usually there are icons in the narthex and/or at the entrance of the nave, and many Churches have icon stands at the front near the iconostasion as well. Non-Orthodox newcomers to the Church are often confused or perplexed about venerating icons. In a very traditional Church an icon will be on a stand at the entrance or in the center of the nave; this icon is venerated first. Then the icon of Christ which is to the right, before the iconostasion, is venerated, followed by those icons that are accessible on the right side of the Church. Crossing over at the rear of the Church, the icon of the Theotokos which is to the left, before the iconostasion, is venerated, followed by those icons that are accessible on the left side of the Church. In many Byzantine Churches in this country, the only icons available for veneration are those in the narthex. It is customary when venerating an icon, especially the principal icons, to make three reverences (sign of the cross three times followed by a prostration, or low bow to the ground, each time after crossing oneself) and then kissing the icon once. When venerating an icon, pay attention to where you kiss. It is not proper to kiss an icon on the face. Rather, you would kiss the hand. Pay attention to what you are doing as you venerate an icon, showing  the proper respect due to the person depicted, the same respect you would show in person. If wearing lipstick or lip balm/gloss, please be careful not to get it on the icon.

Lighting Candles

Lighting candles is an important part of Orthodox worship. Each act of lighting is a form of prayer. Candles are typically lit when coming into the Church. There are times during the Divine Liturgy, though, when candles should not be lit: during the Epistle and Gospel readings; the Small or Great Entrances, the sermon; and the Anaphora (consecration prayers), essentially those times when we should be more attentive in the Divine Liturgy.

When to Cross Oneself

Anyone who has looked around during the services will notice that different people cross themselves at different times (and sometimes even in different ways). To a certain extent, when to cross oneself is dictated by personal piety and is not an issue of dogma. But there are times when it is specifically proper to cross yourself and times when you should not. Below are brief guidelines of when to cross and when not to cross.

When to cross:

  • When you hear one of the variations of the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”
  • At the beginning and end of the services and your private prayers
  • Before venerating an icon, the cross, or the Gospel Book
  • Upon entering or exiting the Church
  • When passing in front of the holy Altar Table

When not to cross:

  • At the chalice before or after taking Communion (to avoid hitting the chalice with your hand)
  • When the bishop or priest blesses saying, “Peace be with all” (merely bow slightly and receive the blessing)

Attire

In years past, it was customary for people to put on their “Sunday best” to go to church. This is not all that common today; in fact, the dress in our churches is often too casual. We should offer Christ our “Sunday best,” not our everyday or common wear. We should dress neatly and modestly, not in a flashy way that would bring attention to ourselves, and not in a provocative way. Our dress in Church should always be becoming to a Christian.

Crossing Legs

According to Orthodox piety it is not proper for people to cross their legs in Church. The crossing of legs suggests either a kind of self-confidence or a laid-back lack of proper mindfulness of context not appropriate to prayer and worship. We should be aware that the Church at all times is the house of God, the special sanctuary where we seek to be as discerning, humble, and respectful in all our movements whether speaking, moving, or sitting.

Children

We welcome children into our Church. We encourage families to bring their children so that they will be exposed to Orthodox Christianity from a young age and become part of our Church family. Sometimes our little ones may not be able to sit for over an hour during services, may need to be fed or changed, or may become fussy or cry. Parents are requested to use judgment and courtesy during such moments and to remove the child from the Church until the child will not be disruptive or distracting.

Cell Phones

Cell phones and beepers must be silenced before entering the Church and any usage in Church is prohibited.