Over the past few months I have had several conversations with members of our St Nicholas Cathedral family about the state of our church etiquette. I have heard comments ranging from “They shouldn’t be dressed like that,” to “The children are distracting.” It can be difficult attending divine worship in a Cathedral filled with so many faithful. With each member of our Church, standards on these issues vary, and sometimes they vary drastically. To help us ‘get on the same page’ when it comes to church etiquette, I offer the following thoughts.
Proper Dress - When it comes to how we dress for church, some prefer formal suits and dresses, while others see nothing wrong with shorts and t-shirts. Neither is ‘right vs wrong’ per se. Some cultures even have ‘designated attire’ for attending Church. We do not have designated outfits nor do we expect everyone to own, let alone wear, a formal suit. What is important for us to always remember is that we must dress modestly in life. The idea of modesty should not be limited to attending church services. That is where I think I noticed the biggest difference in the past few decades. Our society has lost the idea of modesty, and that has affected the way many of us dress for church. PROPER DRESS FOR CHURCH SHOULD BE MODEST. I will purposely not define modest, except to say, our clothing should never be a distraction to others. Our common faith and spiritual unity should inspire us not to be a scandal or a distraction to other members of our Church family. So, when you attend Church services please think of those around you when you choose your clothing, and avoid being the focus of attention.
Proper Timing - We have developed a very bad habit of arriving late for Church and leaving early. The Church fathers established the services of the Church to help us grow closer to God, and when we miss the beginning and end, we actually degrade our relationship with Him. The prayers flow from beginning to end, especially in the Divine Liturgy. When we arrive late and leave early, our prayers are incomplete. Speaking of Divine Liturgy specifically, we must remember the entire Divine Liturgy is prayer, and we show disrespect to God when we arrive ‘just in time’ for Holy Communion, and then make it worse when we leave ‘right after’ before the prayers of thanksgiving. When you come to Church PLAN TO ARRIVE AT THE BEGINNING AND REMAIN UNTIL THE END of any service. I know some services are longer and others, but we also remember time spent in the Church services is time spent with God, which is always a blessing.
Proper Behavior - I am sorry to say, there are many times during the services that, from the Holy Altar, I can hear conversations that are taking place in the Narthex. Attending Church is a communal experience, but that should not mean we enter the Narthex and begin chatting like we are in the kafeneion. The Narthex is the beginning of our prayer for any service we are attending. We should enter quietly, make our offering to the Church, light our candles and venerate the Holy Icons. None of these behaviors require chatting about the most recent sports game etc. We are here to worship God, not gossip. Unfortunately, many times this chatting continues as we enter the Cathedral and lasts throughout the divine services. This is not only disrespectful to God, it is a distraction to others in the Church. If we want to say anything while we are in Church, then we should say/sing the hymns. When we are in the Church WE MUST BE REVERENT AND PARTICIPATE in the prayers and hymns of the services.
Children in the Church - For me, this is the most important thought about our church etiquette. Our children watch our every behavior. If we are chatting and not engaging in the services, they will chat and not engage. If we arrive late and leave early, they will do the same, or often worse. OUR CHILDREN MUST FEEL WELCOME AT ALL TIMES. Sometimes that means we will hear some crying and see some fidgeting. That’s what kids do, and so long as our children are behaving ‘age appropriately’ they should never be taken outside. Together we will teach our children to love being in Church.
I share these thoughts with you not to scold you, but to encourage you to a deeper appreciation of our Orthodox Christian worship. Being in Church is at the core of our spirituality, because being in Church is being with God. Church etiquette isn't about the law, it is about helping each other spend the proper time in prayer with each other and God.