What is proper “behavior” in Church? Here are some gentle reminders about Church etiquette.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PUNCTUALITY
The time to arrive at Church is before the service starts. If you arrive after the Divine Liturgy begins, try to enter the Church quietly and observe what is happening. If the Epistle or Gospel is being read or the Little or Great Entrance 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. Try not to interrupt the Liturgy by your entrance. The best way to avoid this situation is to arrive on time.
ENTERING THE CHURCH
There are certain times during the Liturgy when you should not enter the Church. You may enter the Church at most times except when the Priest has left the Altar and is facing either the congregation or the Altar. You should also not enter the Church during the reading of Epistle or the Gospel.
When you enter the temple it is customary to venerate the holy icons. Usually there are icons in the narthex and/or at the entrance of the nave, and many temples have icon stands at the front near the iconostasion as well. Newcomers to the Church are often confused or perplexed about venerating icons. In a very traditional temple there will be an icon 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 south (right) side of the temple. Crossing over at the rear of the temple, 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 (north) side of the temple. In many Byzantine temples 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 two reverences (sign of the cross followed by a bow), sign of the cross a third time followed by kissing the icon, then a final reverence (sign of the cross followed by a bow).
When venerating (kissing) an icon, pay attention to where you kiss. It is not proper to kiss an icon on the face; after all, you wouldn’t go up and kiss the Lord or His Mother on the lips, would you? Rather, you would kiss their hand. Pay attention to what you are doing. When you approach an icon to venerate it, kiss the Gospel, scroll, or hand cross in the hand of the person depicted, or kiss the hand or foot. In fact, the hands and feet on some icons are covered with metal for just this purpose and so as not to damage the icon itself. As you venerate an icon, show the proper respect due to the person depicted; the same respect you would show them in person. Remember blot off that lipstick first!
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 when coming into the Church. There are times, though, when candles should not be lit. It is not proper to light candles during the Epistle and Gospel readings, during the Little or Great Entrances, the sermon and most of the times when the faithful are standing.
DURING CHURCH SERVICES COMMUNICATE WITH GOD…ONLY
Wait until coffee hour to say “Hi” to friends and family members. It is not appropriate to greet people and have conversations during the services. Talk to God while in church through you prayers, hymns and thanksgiving. He is waiting to hear from you.
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 like a restaurant where we come and go as we please.
ATTIRE – USING GOOD JUDGMENT
Remember the time when people put on their “Sunday best” to go to church? In fact, dress clothes were often referred to as ‘Sunday clothes.” This is not all that common today; in fact all too often the dress in our temples has become too casual. In all the areas of our lives, we should offer Christ our best; and the same is true of our dress. We should offer Christ our “Sunday best,” not our everyday or common wear. And we should dress modestly, not in a flashy way that would bring attention to ourselves – and certainly not in a provocative or alluring way. Our dress should always be becoming to a Christian – especially in the temple. Here are some general guidelines:
Children: Only young children (under 10) can wear shorts to the services – and then only dress shorts. Athletic shoes, cut-offs, spandex shorts, etc., are never appropriate for wear in the temple (for children or adults!). Shoes or sandals should be clean and tied. No one should wear a T-shirt with any kind of writing on it.
Women: Dresses should be modest. No tank tops (or dresses with only straps at the shoulders), no short skirts (mini-skirts), and no skin-tight dresses. Dresses should have backs and should not be low-cut in the front. If women wear pants to the services, they should be dress pants (not jeans or leggings). Shorts of any type are inappropriate.
Men: Men should also dress modestly. Coats and ties are not mandatory, but certainly always appropriate. Shirts should have collars and be buttoned to the collar (the actual collar button may be undone, but two or three buttons undone is inappropriate). Trousers should be clean. Blue (or black, or khaki, etc.) jeans are usually too casual for wear at the services (especially those with patches or holes).
Again, shorts of any type are inappropriate. If you are going someplace after the services where you need to dress casually, bring a change of clothing with you and change after the fellowship hour. Remember to use your best judgment and good taste when dressing for the services. After all, you do not need to be seen by everyone else – you go to meet and worship God.
In some Orthodox cultures, crossing one’s legs is taboo and considered to be very disrespectful. In our North American there are no real taboos concerning crossing one’s legs, and we tend to do so to get comfortable when sitting. Should we cross our legs in the temple during services? No. Not because it is wrong to ever cross your legs, but because it is too casual, and too relaxed, for being in the temple. Just think about it, when you get settled into your favorite chair at home, you lean back, cross your legs, and then your mind can wander anywhere it wants to.
Remember, sitting in the temple is a concession to human weakness; not the normative posture for prayer. Crossing your legs is an even further surrender to laxity. You surely do not want to get too relaxed and let your mind wander off too much. In fact, when you sit in the temple, sit attentively – and not too comfortably. When sitting in the temple, keep your feet flat on the floor, ready to stand at attention (which, after all, is precisely what “Let us be attentive!” means).
The rule is, cross yourself with your fingers and hand – but do not cross your legs!
TO CROSS OR NOT TO CROSS
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 according to personal piety, and not an issue of dogma. But there are times when it is specifically proper to cross yourself and times when you should not. Here is a brief list of when to cross and when not to cross.
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 temple; when passing in front of the holy Altar Table.
Not to Cross: At the chalice before or after taking Communion (you might hit the chalice with your hand); when the bishop or priest blesses saying, Peace be with all (merely bow slightly and receive the blessing).
SNACKS FOR CHILDREN
You can always tell where the young children have been sitting in the temple. The telltale signs are graham cracker crumbs, cheerios, and animal crackers. Parents sometimes bring snacks or juice along for children during the services. Such activity is disrespectful of the sacred services and disruptive to others in attendance. At the very most, a bottle may be brought for very small children and babies. Eating snacks (or even whole meals) is totally inappropriate. If a child has an immediate need for nourishment, they should be fed before the services, or taken outside the temple to eat a snack. If a child did eat something during the service, parents should clean up any mess before leaving the temple. Children who are going to receive Holy Communion should learn to fast Sunday mornings by the age of seven. By the way, chewing gum is a NO-NO during Liturgy for everyone.
We all know that sometimes our little ones may not be able to sit for over an hour during services or may need to be fed or changed. If your son or daughter goes into one of those moments, please be courteous to others in the church and remove your child and yourself to the nursery. This room was designed to allow you a place to go and calm your baby and allows others to continue in the Liturgy.
KISS – DON’T SHAKE – THE PRIEST’S HAND…
Did you know that the proper way to greet a bishop or priest is to ask his blessing and kiss his right hand? How do you do this? Traditionally, one approaches the bishop or priest with the right hand over the left hand and says, “Master (if a bishop, or ‘Father’ if a priest), bless.” In the Byzantine 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.
It is not appropriate to merely shake the hand of the bishop or priest, because, after all, they are not “just one of the boys.” When you kiss their hands, just as when you kiss an icon, you show reverence and respect for their holy office which is to be an iconographic icon of Christ, the one High Priest. Moreover, they are the ones who bless and sanctify you, and who offer the Holy Gifts on your behalf in the Divine Liturgy. So, the next time you greet your bishop or priest, do not shake his hand, ask for his blessing.