Etiquette

How Behavior in Church Helps us Become Holy

Holy Space

In the Book of Exodus we read that as the Holy Prophet Moses approached God in the Burning Bush on Mount Tabor, he was instructed to remove his sandals, “for the place on which [he stood was] holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Later God also spoke to Moses, telling him, “And you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26).

God teaches us that we are not only to act a certain way while in His presence, but to become holy ourselves. This begins within the Church building itself where the Kingdom of God is proclaimed.

Civility in the Kingdom of God

At the beginning of every Divine Liturgy, we hear the exclamation: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages!” It is made clear that we are no longer just standing in Church, but in the very Kingdom of God.

Within the Kingdom of God, there is a culture. Every culture has various behaviors – customs of civility – that are practiced by and expected of those who are living in it. There are also customs of civility in the Kingdom of God. The beautiful thing about the customs of civility in the Kingdom of God is that they are given more than just to help us all get along: These customs are given to make us holy.

Church Etiquette

So what does civility in the Kingdom of God look like, and how are we to behave? Here are a few guidelines that may be helpful. Please know that no one who is sincerely seeking the Lord by coming to Church will be turned away. These guidelines are rather meant for those who want to know how to properly prepare themselves for standing in the Temple of God and are never to be used as opportunities to judge others.

“I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”

— 1 Timothy 3:15

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’

— Matthew 22:11-13

When we come to Church it is with a repentant heart and the intention of encountering God in worship. Modest attire best suits this intention. Wearing clothes that draw attention to ourselves are the opposite of this intention, so all who come should keep this in mind before attending.

For Everyone:
Overall, dress modestly. It is generally understood that shorts, t-shirts, clothing with any kind of writing or images on it, and see-through or tight-fitting clothing are not befitting church attendance. In pious practice, shoulders and knees should be covered. (Just for context: When visiting an Orthodox monastery, all arms, legs, feet and women’s heads should be covered, but in a traditional parish setting the standard is eased to at least the shoulders and knees.)

For Women:
It is most appropriate for women to wear dresses or skirts to church, but if this is not possible, it is best if pants are dress pants (not jeans, leggings, yoga pants etc.). Dresses should have backs and not be cut low in the front. It is not proper to wear short skirts (mini-skirts). It is most appropriate for women to wear a head covering which are available in the narthex (entryway) of the Church.

For Men:
Men should also dress modestly. While a coat and tie are not mandatory, it is good for shirts to have collars. It’s best to wear dress pants, but if this is not possible, please wear long pants without patches or holes.

If you’re going somewhere after church where you need to dress casually, feel free to bring those clothes with you and use the restroom to change after the service.

How this Helps Us Become Holy
Selfies on Snapchat, profiles on Facebook, accomplishments on LinkedIn – we live in a world of self-centeredness. But when entering the Church we immediately encounter The Other. Dressing appropriately for this encounter helps remind us of the reality that we are not the center of the universe, and this chips away at vanity and selfishness residing within us.

“Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the Thrice-holy Hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares.”

Please be sure to *turn off* your cell phones when entering the church. If this is asked of us when we attend a business meeting or movie, even more appropriate is it to do without them so that we can encounter our Creator. It is also not appropriate to use tablets or other electronic devices while in Church.

We ask that you not bring food or drinks into the Church, or chew gum.

Toys for kids are also best to be left in your car. This not only prevents unnecessary noise and distraction, but also prevents them from becoming something to fight over with other kids.

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. It is always appropriate to arrive in a timely manner, 15-20 minutes before the service begins. Doing so gives one time to get settled, to acclimate themselves to their surroundings, and to prepare oneself to offer themselves wholly in prayer. Knowing where to find a place is fairly simple – just pick a spot in front of one of the benches.

While arriving late is better than never, it really shouldn’t be done without a good reason. Arriving late causes distraction and is inconsiderate to the rest of the faithful, to the priest, and to God. The same can be said for leaving early. Coming to The Hours before the Divine Liturgy (which starts at 9:40) will ensure that you are settled in plenty of time to pray without distraction.

On Sundays, please be sure to stay for our Social Hour after Liturgy.

The Light of Christ illumineth all!

It’s not appropriate to light candles at certain times during the service—generally the same times when we should not enter the church, (such as during the Little and Great Entrances, when the priest is censing  or giving the homily, or during the reading of the Epistle or Gospel). Candles should be allowed to burn down without being extinguished early, since the burning candle symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven and the light of Christ in our midst. It’s good to teach our young children how and why we light candles, while still being mindful not to let them them light candles alone for their safety.

How this Helps Us to Become Holy

One of the first things you may notice when entering an Orthodox Church is a sandbox full of lit candles. We see people making an offering, taking the candle, lighting it, saying a prayer and placing the candle in the sand. So what is this all about?

Christ said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Jesus Christ is that light. He is the light that shines for us in the midst this world of darkness. And anyone who follows Him needs not fear that darkness because we know that Christ will always shine for us, leading us in the Way to the Father. Each time we light a candle, we are called to remember that it is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who is the True Light and that He – and only He – will grant us True Life.

Every candle that we light should be a time of prayer in which we reflect upon the salvation that the Lord has worked for us and also a time of recommitment, where we renew our Baptismal vow that we, as children of God, are called to “Let our light so shine before men, that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in Heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)

In lighting our candles, the first thing we should do is make an offering for this candle. Everything that we have is from God and our first step is to offer back to Him for all of His many blessings. While we have a suggested donation amount listed by the candles, how much we give should be left to each person and their ability to offer. After making an offering, next we can venerate the icons that guard the sandbox and lift our prayers to God on high. Next, we can light the candle, remembering all of our loved ones who are sick or who have passed into the next life, or who we want to pray for, and ask God to have mercy on them.

Lastly, as we place the candle in the sand, we can quietly say “Lord have mercy,” repenting for our own sinfulness while at the same time “re-igniting” our own flame and recommitting our whole life to God. Thus we begin again to live as light, helping others see the Way in a world of darkness.

“Let us stand aright! Let us stand with fear! Let us attend!”

The traditional posture for prayer and worship in the Orthodox Church is standing.  In “Orthodox countries” there are usually no pews in the churches, and this is the case at Annunciation as well. We do have benches along the walls for those who are elderly, pregnant, or ill, or those who, for some other reason, are unable to stand.

Knowing when to sit, stand, kneel, or bow, is fairly simple – just take a look around you and follow what others are doing. The only time this is not appropriate would be if you are not an Orthodox Christian and everyone else is getting in line for Holy Communion.

If you need to sit during the Divine Liturgy, please remember to stand at these times:

  • When the Liturgy begins and the priest gives the blessing
  • During the Little and Great Entrances
  • When the priest is censing the icons and the faithful
  • During the Gospel reading
  • At the Anaphora (the consecration of the Eucharist)
  • For Holy Communion
  • At the final Blessing
  • Whenever a bishop is visiting, out of respect we follow his example and stand and sit when he does.

When sitting, please do not cross your legs.

A Brief Explanation

To stand before God and His holy saints during the church services is the proper posture for the faithful.  It is hard work, “the work of the people” – liturgy (λειτουργία) – as it takes energy and strength to stand for any amount of time.  But consider this: Does a servant sit before his master?  As we are all servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one seated on the throne of glory, we stand, worshipping Him.

The entire life of an Orthodox Christian, according to the Scriptures should be one of continuous Spiritual uprightness and attentiveness toward God.  The Apostle Paul says: “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith” (I Corinthians 16:13);  “Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth” (Ephesians 6:14);  “Stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved” (Philippians 4:1).

How this Helps us Become Holy

If a Christian must always be standing on guard spiritually, then even more so should one stand physically during the divine services which serve as an expression and an example for our lives.  For, if the spirit of the one praying strives toward the Highest, will it not also lift up the body which is subject to it? 

Standing during church services also helps us to be humble servants, ready, attentive and willing to serve God. The faithful, standing and becoming fatigued during services, become offerings to God, as the Apostle says: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).

In our modern culture, we greet one another with a handshake. The exception to this is when we greet a member of the clergy. It’s not appropriate to shake a bishop’s or priest’s hand, but rather to and ask for a blessing and then kiss it with reverence. We kiss his hand because we are honoring Christ, whom he represents and from Whom we are receiving a blessing.

The proper way to do this is to approach the bishop or priest with right hand over left, palms facing up, and then bow while saying, “Master, bless” to the bishop, or “Father, bless” to the priest. If either places his hand in yours while blessing you, this is an appropriate time to kiss his hand.

Regarding how often to get a blessing from the bishop or priest, a good rule of thumb is upon first seeing them, then when saying goodbye.

Greet one another with a holy kiss. (Romans 16:16)

The Orthodox Church teaches that it is proper to venerate (not worship) the holy icons as pronounced by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 787 A.D. The acceptable way to do this is to kiss either the hands or feet of  Our Lord or of the saint depicted in the icon, or the scroll, the Gospel book, or the hand cross a saint is holding, Please do not wear lipstick when coming to church – we do lots of kissing and even the best lipstick does not hold up to being rubbed off on people and holy objects. Lipstick can also destroy hand-painted icons and metallic gilding.