An Orthodox church is very different from the churches of other denominations. The most obvious physical difference is in the number of ikons there are around. Ikons are an important component of Orthodox spirituality, and rather than take up lots of space explaining things on this page, if you click HERE you will be taken to a gallery of all the ikons that are in our church, a chance to read more about ikons from those who use them, and an explanation of the various stages of their manufacture.
If you come to the Holy Liturgy, not having been to an Orthodox service before, you will notice some unfamiliar things. One of them that should be explained is the practice of Orthodox people writing the names of the living and the departed, for whom they pray, on pieces of paper, and placing small 'rolls' of bread on these lists, which are then carried up to the altar. These small loaves are called 'Prosphora' and, during the preparation service before the main part of the Liturgy, the Priest will read out the names listed and then carve out a small portion from each Prosphora and add this portion to the bread to be consecrated.
These Prosphora are returned to the back of the church at the end of the Liturgy for people to consume after the service has ended.
The next thing a visitor might notice is that worshippers, on entering the church, will approach an ikon on a stand in the centre of the church, crossing themselves and touching the floor (sometimes several times). They will then do the same to the ikon that depicts Christ, the Crucifixion ikon, the ikon of Mary and the infant Jesus, and sometimes some of the ikons of the saints. What is happening here is very simple. When people meet other people whom they know in the street , there is a greeting. This may be the shaking of a hand, a hug, a kiss or just a smile. In Orthodoxy, ikons are believed to make present to us those depicted in them. Just as we greet one another when we meet, so when we enter the church, we greet Christ, His mother, and the other saints. We do it, of course, with a great sense of awe and unworthiness, and the touching of the ground symbolizes this. Those depicted are not merely greeted, but also venerated.
When venerating the main ikons as they enter the church, worshippers also light candles and put them in a stand near to those ikons. In the lighting of these candles people usually pray silently, often expressing the particular concerns that they bring with them to church.
Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross not only when venerating the main ikons on entering the church, but also frequently during worship. We do this in the sequence: head to waist and right to left. (Other Christians now usually sign left to right, but this seems to have been an innovation of the 14th or 15th century, and as in so many things the Orthodox way of doing things is the original way). The meaning of making the sign of the cross varies. Sometimes it is a gesture to openly receive a blessing, sometimes it is to visibly recognise one is at a particularly special moment of the service, sometimes it is to acknowledge something deeply personal. There are no hard and fast rules about when and where one is to cross oneself, though there are certain points of the service at which it is customary. Crossing oneself is a personal expression of something deeper than words can express, that can only be expressed physically. It is part of the way in which we use our bodies in worship, not just our conscious minds.
Visitors will also notice that Orthodox worship involves the use of incense at various points. The priest (or deacon if there is one present) frequently salutes both the ikons with incense, and also the worshippers, who - being made in the image of God - are also proper recipients of this salutation. The smoke rising from the censer symbolizes our prayer rising to God, and the sweet smell symbolizes the sweetness of heaven, which in worship we experience in so many ways. The Bible refers to the sacrifices that were burned as "a sweet savour (or smell) unto the Lord". Because we believe that in Christ "the Word was made flesh", the body and the senses also have their role in worship. We are not spiritual beings imprisoned in a body, but a unity of body, mind and spirit, each component having its proper part to play in our response to God.
Apart from the elderly and frail, Orthodox Christians stand for the duration of the main part of the Liturgy. (Absolute uniformity of posture will not be found, however, and you will find that in some parts of the service some sit while others remain standing - we are, after all, children in our Father's house, not troops on the parade ground). The fact that standing is the norm is not, it should be noted, because kneeling is regarded as an improper attitude for prayer. Rather, it is because the main Liturgy of the week - on Sunday when we particularly celebrate Christ's resurrection - is one of such joy that kneeling (a sign of contrition) is considered inappropriate. This Sunday practice has set the pattern for other services, and only occasionally (as in part of the first Vespers of the Pentecost season) is kneeling actually required.
At times people will stoop down and touch the ground. This is a sign of repentance and also a sign that the one who stoops is in the presence of someone or something more senior or having great status.