Christian worship, since its very beginning, has been all about prayer. In other words, it is about facilitating open conversation with God. Conversely, the world in which we live is mostly about the World in Which We Live – ie the material world and the physical reality which we can see, smell, hear, and touch. It is a fact of being human that the things we perceive with our physical senses influence what our hearts feel and our minds think about.Because of this, the Orthodox Church goes out of Her way to cater for the needs of those who wish to pray, by ensuring that all of the human senses are engaged in ways that either enhance prayer itself, or at least, do not distract one from prayer. The sights, sounds, smells and physical actions one experiences in the Orthodox Church are all part of the endeavour to facilitate prayer.
The Orthodox Church has a dress code based around the concept of non-distraction from prayer. This is why both men and women should come to Church in modest clothing which does not distract others from prayer.
Men are required to dress conservatively – long pants, simple collared shirts and modest footwear are the basics. No hats or head coverings within the Church itself.
Women also are asked to stay on the modest side of dress while visiting the Church. Long skirts or dresses, with simple footwear are appropriate. Makeup is discouraged in general, but especially must not be worn if planning to venerate any of the icons or any other relic by kissing it (lipstick prints which are difficult to clean.) Unlike men, women are not only permitted to wear head coverings, but are actually required to cover their hear when entering an Orthodox Church, since beautiful hair is also a potential source of distraction. A light head scarf is acceptable.
The basic rule of thumb is “keep it neat, tidy and make sure you aren’t going to distract anyone else from prayer.”
Apart from our appearance, our behaviour can go a long way to either enhancing a feeling of reverence and prayerfulness, or it can distract ourselves and others from such profound states of mind.
It is therefore appropriate to stand quietly during the services (generally men stand on the right hand side, women on the left) and to actively focus on prayer. It is not appropriate to be moving around excessively during the services, to carry on conversations, or to stand aloof from the proceedings (eg hands in pockets or hands behind one’s back like a casual observer.) It is, however, appropriate to arrive on time (ie prior to the start of the service), venerate the saints and place candles before their icons, and also to cross oneself and bow at appropriate times during the services.
If you need to leave the Church building during a service for whatever reason, then this should be done unobtrusively and quietly.
Do not attempt to enter the the doors of the Sanctuary. This is for Clergy and Altar Servers, as well as those who are blessed to do so.
Smoking is completely prohibited anywhere in the Church grounds.
When driving in or out of the Church grounds, SLOW DOWN! Not only will it be quieter, but remember that there are children and elderly people present who may not hear or see your car.
Things to expect
If you have never been to an Orthodox Church before, and are used to modern protestant worship, then you will probably feel quite disorientated when exposed to the ancient form of worship that has existed since Apostolic times. Here are some tips on what to expect to see, hear, feel and smell:
1. The choir sings without instrumental accompaniment
2. Readings are always chanted in a particular way (never matter-of-factly or using worldy intonations)
3. The clergy always wear vestments (some of them elaborate) which have deep significance
4. Incense is used often, and is usually dispensed by a deacon using a censer with bells on it
5. Often, the Altar itself is not visible, as it is in the Sanctuary, and sometimes the doors are closed. This too, has significance, since Christians believe that Christ opened the doors of Heaven to the human race, the opening of the curtain and Royal Doors signifies this opening of the doors of Heaven
6. Non-Orthodox are not permitted to take Holy Communion. Orthodox Christians should give Confession prior to having Communion (generally 24 hrs prior.)
7. The Orthodox Church uses leavened bread for the Host, not unleavened wafers like in the Catholic Church, since leaven represents both Rising and Life, both of which connote the Resurrection
8. Orthodox Christians use icons (ie images) as “Gospel in pictures” (ie to explain certain spiritual events and characteristics associated with Christ, the Mother of God and the saints). They are not supposed to be realistic from a material point of view, but they most certainly are realistic from a spiritual point of view. We don’t worship icons, but we do pray for the intercessions and prayers of the persons depicted on them, since they are saints and reside in Heaven (ie they are close to the Lord and have found His favour.)
9. Orthodox Christians are people too! None of us are perfect and we don’t claim to be, but we do believe that the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that Christ founded certainly is perfect. You might see people in the Church doing things they shouldn’t be doing or that you might not agree with – that doesn’t make the Church imperfect. We believe that God loves us all despite our imperfection, and that Jesus come into the world to save sinners like us. You might see people in the Church doing things they shouldn’t be doing or that you might not agree with – that doesn’t make the Church imperfect. We believe that God loves us all despite our imperfection, and that Jesus come into the world to save sinners like us.
What to do if you have questions
Wait until the end of the service and speak to one of the clergy members. They will be instantly recognisable by the way they are clothed. Don’t go home feeling upset or disappointed!