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Where Can One Go in an Orthodox Church?

A Brief Discussion of Holy Space

"I have been told that there are certain no-go areas in Orthodox churches and certain things that people are not allowed to touch. Is this the case?—it seems rather odd to us—and what does it signify? We were also told that it does not apply in churches which have not been consecrated/ blessed. A practical point, where is it we cannot go, and what can we not touch?" —E.S., Nottingham.

Essentially what you have been told is correct, although it seems the whole matter has been presented in a rather negative way. Can we start by looking at the thing from the other end? Orthodox Christians consider their churches to be holy places. As it happens, I have just been trying to translate the latest section from "The Whole Armour of Truth" for the next issue of "The Wolf" [actually printed in this issue aboveed.], and in it St Nicolas Varzhansky explains that the word "holy" means "set apart." In the case of our churches they are set apart for God. The regulations about not entering certain areas, or touching certain objects, are then not so much bans or prohibitions but rather safeguards of that holiness, that "set apartedness."

In our modern society, we tend always to see things subjectively and self-centredly; we are trained from childhood to do this. We therefore think of our rights, and when we meet something like the Orthodox practice in this instance, we find the matter odd, because our first thought is that our rights have been eroded. This is why I suggested that we look at the thing from the other end. In churches that have been set apart for God, we have no "rights," everything that is allowed us is a mercy from God, even to enter there in the first place. This is why on entering church, even the narthex, Orthodox Christians make three deep reverences, remembering their unworthiness to enter therein, that they are entering upon holy ground.

Thus, when we speak of these traditions as prohibitions, we are simply using a kind of short-hand—essentially, rather than speaking of prohibitions, we would better say that we have no blessing to enter there or to touch that.

You say that you were told this was not so in unconsecrated churches, and this is quite untrue. In fact, here in the Orthodox diaspora in the West, perhaps the majority of the churches are not consecrated. The faithful still treat them with reverence, because the Divine services are chanted there and because the Holy Eucharist and the other Mysteries of the Church are celebrated there; the holy icons are venerated there. Naturally, in a church which has been consecrated, one would be even more attentive to reverence, but I have not heard of the fact of a church's not being blessed being any excuse not to show the customary reverence. Such an idea borders on impiety, and it will also train us in impiety (see St. Luke 16: 10).

I remember that back in 1967, the day before St Seraphim's chapel was going to be blessed in the old station at Walsingham, we were putting some final touches to the icon screen, and thinking that the church was not yet blessed and it would be alright, I went through the Royal Doors. I was given to understand,—and though he did not speak English in no uncertain terms,—by Archbishop Nikodem that this was not to be done, and to this day I have not forgotten his reaction! I was certainly not given the impression that this was "alright" because the church had not yet been blessed.

I cannot hope to give you a complete catalogue of the "prohibitions," but will list some, and hopefully in time, as you grow in Orthodoxy, you will be instructed in the others. It seems from the very fact that the matter has arisen this area of instruction is not being completely neglected.

Properly, although this ruling is not often strictly kept today, the catechumens do not go further than the narthex, because the nave itself is symbolic of the Church on earth and the catechumens are not yet members of the Church. In most churches, for pastoral and missionary reasons, they are allowed into the nave, and we follow this practice here at Brookwood, expelling them to the narthex only at the expulsion of the catechumens in the Liturgy.

The laity stand in the nave, and do not enter the sanctuary. Oftentimes one hears that only men are permitted to enter the sanctuary—this is again another "short-hand version," which only approximates to the truth. More properly only those whose ministry requires them to enter the sanctuary, or those who have received a blessing to enter there, are permitted to enter. In general, but not exclusively, this means that women do not enter there.

Even in the nave area, the faithful should be careful not to stand on the Ambon, the raised area immediately in front of the Royal Doors. This is because this area represents the Judgment Seat and we only stand there to receive the Holy Mysteries, remembering both that in doing so we participate in the royal priesthood of all believers, and that we shall have to give an account for our reception of the Mysteries at the Judgment. Thus if one needs to walk across, say in lighting the lamps before the iconostas icons, one comes down from the Soleas (the raised area on either side), rather than walking across the Ambon. Also, the faithful should not walk across the church in front of the principal celebrant if the sacred rite requires that he be standing in the nave—always walk round behind him.

Those who are blessed to enter the sanctuary should make three deep reverences when doing so (prostrations if they are appointed on that day). Except for the bishop, all enter through the deacon's (side) doors, unless they are required to enter through the Royal Doors during the sacred rites and when vested. Even then only the priests and deacons (and in some practices the subdeacons too) are permitted to enter through the central doors. In crossing from one side to the other in the sanctuary, we always go behind (to the east) of the Holy Table itself, unless again the rites themselves demand that one of the ministers walk across in front of the Table, such as during a censing of the Holy Table. Again only those who are at least subdeacons would be permitted to do this, and even they do not walk across that area or stand there unless it is required by the liturgy.

Only subdeacons are permitted to touch the Holy Table or the sacred vessels (excepting only the occasion when, in the Russian practice, the faithful kiss the foot of the chalice immediately after receiving Holy Communion). This applies at all times, both within the Divine Services and at all other times. Only the deacons and priests touch or carry the Antimension or the Holy Gifts themselves. No one, who is not at least a subdeacon, is thus permitted to take anything from, or place anything on, the Holy Table, and the sacred artifacts kept there are only touched by the faithful when they are offered for their veneration by the priest, for instance the Gospel Book during Mattins of the Resurrection on Sundays, and the Cross at the end of the Liturgy. This fact should draw our attention to the importance of these blessings, and we should always venerate the Gospel and Cross on these occasions with reverence.

On occasion, either because of the changing festivals or because of the necessity of keeping them clean, the altar hangings have to be changed. On these occasions, it is for the subdeacons or higher clergy to divest the altar and re-vest it with the hangings.

Lastly, you should bear three things in mind. First, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Secondly, although I have tried to give you indications about the general practice of the Church, there may be local variations in practice. And thirdly and most importantly, remember that everything in our Church is done with a blessing, and so on occasion it may be that your pastor gives you a particular blessing to do something which might not otherwise be generally allowed. In this regard too, remember that even those things which are customary in church are never begun without a blessing. For instance, deacons, subdeacons, readers and servers wear vestments, but they never put these on or take them off (even though it is customary and needful for them to wear them) without first obtaining the priest's blessing. The priest himself, before vesting turns to the High Place and makes three reverences before he puts on his own vestments. If such care is taken in those things which are customary at every service, this should give us to understand that any departures from normal practice are extraordinary and should never be taken for granted. In every situation it is spiritually wise to ask a blessing. In fact this brings us back to one of the first points in this rather rambling letter: that we should regard the seeming prohibitions not as such but as our not having a blessing. And this is the essence of the matter.

From the "Points of Correspondence" section of The Shepherd, Vol. XV, No. 3 (Dec 94), 17-20.