Liturgical Handbook of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad
At what points do Altar servers (including Subdeacons and Readers) bow to each other when serving?
Category: Prostrations, Bows and Kneeling

As a general rule, Altar servers (whether lay servers or tonsured Readers and Subdeacons) do not bow to each other as a liturgical movement when serving. That is to say, when approaching the High Place in a pair to retrieve fans, or candles, etc., at points in the Divine Services where it is appointed to bow to the High Place and then to the Priest, the servers do not then bow to each other. This is a custom that has emerged from other traditions, but it is not part of our practice.

The occasion when servers do bow to each other is at the All-Night Vigil, during the anointing after the Gospel. After the Priests and Deacons have gone forward in their ranks, the servers do so in theirs (Subdeacons together first as a group, then Readers as a group, then lay servers); each group stands in a single row before the Gospel Book (or icon, if it is a feastday) and they make the sign of the Cross and bow twice, together; then they approach the Gospel / icon in rank (seniors first) to kiss it, approach the celebrant Priest (or Bishop) to be anointed, then return to their row before the Gospel. Once the whole group has been anointed and is again in file, facing the Gospel, they all make the sign of the Cross and bow to the Gospel once more, then turn and bow to the Priest / Bishop, and then turn to the side and bow to each other, and then return to their places behind the clergy in order for the next group of servers to approach.

This same pattern applies whenever an object is in the centre of the temple and is approached for veneration by all the ranks of the serving clergy (e.g. the Shroud in Holy Week).

Apart from this, servers to not bow to each other. To be explicit, this means that servers do not bow to each other at the following places (as is sometimes seen in other traditions):

  • When approaching or leaving the High Place in pairs or groups.
  • When standing on the amvon holding the Trikiri and Dikiri for the Bishop.
  • When departing the Altar to the centre of the temple as a pair, to read the Apostle or other assigned readings (no bows at all are performed outside the Altar for readings: the Reader simply takes a blessing inside the Altar with the book, then exits by the north door, walks to his place in the centre of the temple, and stands ready to read — he neither bows nor crosses himself there).

Explanation: The reason that the servers within the Altar (and elsewhere) bow to the presiding cleric but do not bow to each other is because the act of bowing towards the presiding Priest at these moments is one of taking and receiving a blessing. That is, when the servers approach the High Place to, for example, retrieve the fans or other items for a procession, they bow to the Priest in order to receive his blessing to undertake that liturgical act; and when they return with those items at the end, they again bow to him, taking a blessing to depart from that act to other duties. The Altar servers do not bow to each other because they do not take blessings from each other for liturgical service, but only from the presiding Priest (or Bishop).

The servers bow towards each other when venerating the Gospel or icons in the centre of the temple (as described above), because in this moment the bowing is not to receive a blessing, but a veneration of the other servants of the temple. After venerating the Gospel or icon, we turn and venerate each other, acknowledging that every person is a living icon of Christ. This the servers acknowledge also of each other, which is why a bow to one another is made here.

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