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 usand 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-handessentially, 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
The laity stand in the nave, and do not enter the sanctuary. Oftentimes one hears that
only men are permitted to enter the sanctuarythis 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
navealways 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
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.