Learning Etiquette and Protocol in the Orthodox Church

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Recently, I attended the wake and Trisagion service for His Grace, Bishop Athanasius (Akunda), of blessed memory.

In that first sentence are at least four items of Orthodox Christian etiquette and protocol that, if you’ve been an Orthodox Christian for a long time, you may not notice, or, if you haven’t, may trip you up.

  1. What is a Trisagion service? Aren’t the Trisagion prayers the ones you say at the start of almost all prayers?
  2. “His Grace”? Is that how you designate a bishop? All bishops? All jurisdictions?
  3. Last name in parentheses? Why?
  4. What does “of blessed memory” mean? Who gets that appellation and who doesn’t?

Adventures of a Neurotic Reader

(Please note that I mean no disrespect by using the event of His Grace’s wake as an object lesson. I would hope that this post will serve to help others along the path to holiness.)

I entered the church (a parish I’d never been in) by the front doors. Seven people took up most of the space in the tiny narthex, and all were eyeing me in my cassock. Two men stood at the doors to the nave, waiting to open them for me or anyone else who came in. Glancing around the room, I noticed a table with a memorial booklet and some paper icon cards. I fumbled with these while the doormen continued to watch.

Remembering where I was, I looked for Icon stands. My parish’s narthex icons are (strangely) inside the nave, and every church I’ve been to is a little different, but I didn’t want to cause scandal by barging into the nave without venerating the icons. They were wedged into the corners of the little room, and I had to pass the doormen twice to get to them both.

The pews were about half full, so I slipped into one in the back and removed my coat. A chanter was reading scripture from the cleros.
It was about ten minutes past the scheduled time for the service. Never having been to a Trisagion service, I didn’t know if it had begun. (It hadn’t.) Just then someone else in a cassock, entered, went to the front of the church, venerated the icon of Christ that was near the coffin and then venerated the body of His Grace. Good grief! I’d totally ignored the whole reason we were there!

As someone coming into the church later in life (i.e. a “convert”), you learn almost everything by watching what others do in various situations. You quickly get to understand when to make the sign of the cross, when to make a metania, whether or not to turn as the the priest or deacon censes the nave—but some situations don’t come up that often. For instance, I’d never attended a wake in an Orthodox church . . . or in a Greek Orthodox church . . . or for a bishop. Which things that I know from prior experience apply and which don’t?

To be fair, I thought the “last kiss” was only done at the funeral, but after venerating his grace’s body, I went and sat back in my pew. Oh, no, I did it again. Watching others who had now come in, after veneration of the body they went and greeted the friends and family who were in the front pew. I had totally snubbed them!

After the Service

I tried to follow along with the Trisagion service to see how it differed from other services I’ve been in, but being Greek practice, everything sounded different from what I’m used to, which is Slavic. I can’t remember what order the various components are in for any given service anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

When the service ended, everyone filed up to venerate the body one more time and to greet the friends and family. (Now that I think of it, it was probably only those who had arrived during the service.) I went up and this time greeted His Grace’s father. He was wearing a cassock. He must be a deacon, because he was greeting other men who looked like deacons with that cheek-kiss-and-then-both-kiss-each-other’s-hand greeting. I’ve never done that. Since you can’t tell a deacon in a cassock from a reader in a cassock, he’s going to think I’m a deacon, and naturally do that.

He did. I went along as best I could. We spoke briefly, and I hardly understood a word he said through his thick Kenyan accent, but he exuded a peace and joy which he had, undoubtedly, passed on to his son. I wish I had known Bishop Athanasius.

There was a priest who had been serving, who I wanted to meet. The way priests are greeted is the most inconsistent thing I have encountered in the Orthodox Church. Ideally, you approach with your hands cupped and say “Father, bless.” He puts his hand in yours, you kiss it, he blesses you, and you enter into your conversation. I’ve found that some priests will extend their hand a little to indicate that you should proceed this way. Others extend their hand like they’re looking for a handshake. Some give no indication at all. It’s hard to know what to do.

The Moral of the Story

As a layman, it’s fairly easy to blend in or, if you mess something up, to explain that you’re new. As a member of the minor clergy, that’s a lot more difficult. The only advice I can offer here is, don’t be like me. Don’t be a clueless reader. Make sure you’re comfortable in liturgical and non-liturgical church settings before you’re ordained into the minor orders.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dn Michael Abrahamson says:

    Your advice is sound, Reader Paul. Perhaps I can add something helpful. As a reader there is no obligation for you to represent yourself as such when visiting other parishes where you do not serve. A cassock is a liturgical garment used for a specific purpose while serving. While many who are ordained to major orders wear them out in public, this is not a requirement. It is even less so for those in minor orders. You can avoid some of the self-imposed pressure to act correctly if you don’t feel responsible for representing yourself as clergy. Put simply, go in your civies. 😉

    It is always good advice to educate ourselves about proper church etiquette. It’s also good to remember that the state of our heart is far more important than how we present ourselves outwardly. Your advice to “not be like me” may be applicable in terms of not putting yourself in a position where you represent yourself as clueless clergy, but I would say the opposite in terms of your self-reflection and desire to improve and not be the cause of scandal for others. We would all do well to follow your example in that regard.


    1. You are, of course, correct, Dn. Michael, that the pressure in this case was completely self-imposed. I knew that there was no necessity in a Greek church to wear a cassock as a Reader, and probably should have gone with that.

      As for the cassock being “a liturgical garment used for a specific purpose while serving,” there doesn’t seem to be universal agreement on even this. When I was made a reader, one of the first resources I found on what this actually entails was a pamphlet entitled “A Guide for Readers in the Orthodox Church”, from All Saints of North America Orthodox Church (OCA) in Ontario, written by Fr. Geoffrey Korz. In it, Fr. Korz states, “While a Reader would ideally wear clerical attire at all times, it is at minimum necessary that a Reader should wear a cassock on Church grounds, and at any Church functions off Church grounds.” I’ve tended to use this as my default.

      Other directives I have found on this are even self-contradictory. From an unsigned document, “Handbook for Readers in the Orthodox Church: Russian Tradition”—”The cassock should be donned before entering the church, and should be removed after the Reader has finished his duties inside the church. . . The Slavic tradition is that a tonsured reader should wear his cassock any time he is on church grounds. When visiting another church in the Slavic tradition, you should be prepared to wear your cassock.”

      Of course the highest directive is that the cassock should be worn in accordance with the blessing of your priest, which means I end up asking, “Should I wear my cassock to this?” more often than seems necessary.

      Thank you for your encouragement and words of wisdom. They, and you, are appreciated.


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