The Liturgical Heritage of the Church Abroad
‘To Serve in My Father’s House’: Reflections on the Service of the Holy Altar
By Bishop Irenei
This document was written in 2011 by then-Archimandrite Irenei, now Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe.[*] As a general primer on the spiritual nature of service in the Holy Altar, it describes the customs of our Church that apply to everyone who serves: acolytes, readers, subdeacons, as well as the higher ranks of the clergy.
I will wash mine hands in innocence:
so will I go round about Thine Altar, O Lord:
that I may hear the voice of Thy praise
and tell of all Thy wondrous works.
O Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy House,
and the place where Thine honour doth dwell.
1. To serve in our Father’s house (cf. John 14.2) is above all else a great and wonderful gift: a divine blessing and heavenly mercy. It is not a worldly act, as if we were coming into any other place to do any other task. Though some actions of divine service may be comparable to those we perform in the world (for example, readying a book, lighting a candle), within the Temple of the living Lord these acts take on utterly new dimensions. We stand, move and act, here, around the throne of the eternal God. The tasks set before us are ordained not by men or even angels, but by the Word of the Lord Himself, who came unto His people to reveal to them the way in which they should worship . We make ready His dwelling place, that being ‘glorified in His saints’ (2 Thessalonians 1.10) the eternal King may be approached by His people.
2. Service in the holy Temple of the Orthodox Church is a direct continuation of service within the ancient Temple that once stood upon Mount Sion. Where at one time, appointed men lit the lamps upon their stands, offered the showbread upon the table, saw to incense offerings and enabled the work of the priesthood, so now the true and fuller Temple of the Body of our Lord is enthroned within the earthly Temple of His Churches, and men are yet appointed to tend to the affairs of these divine dwelling places of the Holy Trinity. As in ancient times, such service is not a right or a thing to be presumed, but a calling from God, a reality of being ‘set aside’ for this duty. And, like in those ancient times, those called to such service are charged to serve the eternal God through tending to the needs of His priests within His holy House; to stand round about the Holy Table as angels round the heavenly Throne, ministering to the needs of those whom God has charged to be His earthly ministers, pastors and shepherds.
3. This is the heart of our calling as servants in the House of our God: to serve His servants, that in fulfilling the due order that God has established, true heavenly worship may be offered here on earth, as He commanded. For it is God Himself Who ordained that the Church be entrusted to His apostles, the bishops, leading as High Priests that sacred clerical hierarchy by which the bloodless sacrifice is made ever present amongst us — and so until the Lord shall come again. It is God, not man, Who has ordained our threefold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon, and Who has called those in these offices to celebrate the divine mysteries, to offer the bloodless sacrifice, to pray for the life and salvation of the whole world.
4. To enable this ministry, the Church has also seen fit to establish orders of those who serve the ministers of her mysteries. Altar servers, readers and subdeacons each fulfil a sacred role in the ministrations of the Church, enabling by their selfless service, rendered unto the priests and the people, that true and right worship by which the heavenly is made known to man .
5. Our hearts, then, are to be shaped by this charge to serve. When we stand within the Holy Altar, our whole attention, our every thought, the entirety of our focus must be on fulfilling this calling. How might we offer ourselves so that the Divine Service might be celebrated peacefully, properly, with due reverence and piety? How might we relieve the practical burden of the bishop, priests and deacons so that their hearts may be allowed the quiet and focus required to fulfil their divine charge of prayer for the people? What might we do so that ‘the works of God may be revealed’ (cf. John 9.3) in the service to hand?
6. From the moment we set foot into the Holy Temple as those called to serve in this way, there is placed upon our shoulders that yoke of Christ which is ‘easy, and light to bear’ (Matthew 11.30). In that moment, we should call to mind the words of Scripture, which proclaim it better to be ‘a door-keeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of sin’ (Psalm 83.10), and henceforth embrace the role of servant with deep love and the true fear of God that makes all men wise. In our service, we draw near to Christ, Who in the fearful hours before His most divine Passion, yet girded Himself with a towel, stooped down and washed the feet of His Apostles (cf. John 13.1-11). The Lord Himself became a servant. In the same way, in our service we draw near to the Bodiless Hosts, who minister day and night at the throne of God (cf. Apocalypse 7.11). It is this very host whom the servers of the Holy Altar represent in the divine services; and when a man serves with piety and true devotion, the faithful see round about the earthly Table, angels who attend to the will and wisdom of the true God. Angels! Let us not think of such servers merely in the shallow terms of ‘acolytes’ or ‘helpers’, but realise that he who serves is called to be a living icon of the angelic hosts, through whom the priests are served and the people edified. In this way, in due order, we rightly and piously serve Him who ordered all creation, from the great to the small, to the accomplishment and revelation of His glory.
7. The guidance set out in this small text is not meant to be a practical handbook on how to serve (e.g. how to ready a censer for a priest, how to make a procession, etc.), for such matters are detailed and vary depending on one’s rank of service, the specific Divine Service to hand, and local practice. Our remarks here are focussed, instead, on the general demeanour and attitude of reverent service that ought to prevail in the Temple. It is a sad fact of our weak piety today that a certain casualness and lack of reverence is all too frequent amongst some who serve in the Holy Altar, and in all cases such an attitude diminishes the richness of both our service and the ordered manifestation of God’s grace within His Temple. Our beloved Orthodox Church expects of us due reverence, right piety, and the careful carrying-out of our sacred duties — not laxity, irreverent casualness or the importing of worldly behaviours into divine places. She has given us clear instruction on how to behave, speak and move within the Holy Altar, and this instruction has been carefully handed down to us by our Fathers and Forefathers in the faith. How great a spiritual joy it becomes, then, to attend closely and carefully to that which we have been given, that by unrelenting attentiveness we may better and more rightly serve God’s Throne and minister His love to the Church and the world!
8. The general attitude in the Holy Altar should always be one of intimate formality. What do we mean by this? We mean that there must be a closeness and intimacy, for we draw near to serve the God Who has fashioned us and called us by name (cf. Isaias 43.1), Who calls us not servants but friends (cf. John 15.15); yet our intimacy is always formal, for the same One Who draws us close is the King and Ruler of All, Who fashioned the heavens and the earth (cf. Acts 17.24; Genesis 1.1). He has inscribed our very name in the palm of His hand (cf. Isaias 49.16), even as He commands the heavens with His Word. It is this mixture of intimacy and formality that must define our demeanour in the holy places. Though in the Divine Services we come to know God intimately as Father, and though we — by His grace — come to feel a certain warmth of heart and joy in serving round about His Holy Table, we must always remember that as servants of the Lord’s sacred Altar we are the inheritors of the ancient calling of the tribe of Levi; for when God established the sacred priesthood among His people through the tribe of Aaron (cf. Exodus 28.1-5; 40.12-16; Numbers 3.10), which was singularly blessed with the privilege of serving in the Sanctuary and most sacred Temple, God called also the tribe of Levi to assist Aaron with the care, maintenance and good estate of the holy Temple, saying, ‘Bring the tribe of Levi and present them to Aaron the priest to assist him; they are to perform duties for him and for the whole community at the Tent of Meeting by doing the work of the tabernacle. They are to take care of all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting, fulfilling the obligations of the Israelites by doing the work of the Tabernacle’ (Numbers 3.6-8). In the Altar, inheriting this charge and calling, we stand in the presence of God in a unique way, set apart to minister to the needs of the worship He has appointed for His people. Standing as we do, therefore, in the innermost sanctum of the heavenly King, we must at all times comport ourselves with utmost dignity, seriousness and such intimate formality. The Altar is never a place for casual conversations, informal posture, or any behaviours that are not fitting for the sacred dwelling place of the Most High God.
9. Within the Holy Altar, servers represent, and indeed are, living icons of the holy angels and bodiless hosts who serve round about God’s heavenly Throne. It is important, therefore, at all times to remember this calling and to act, speak and move accordingly.
On prayer through service
10. We are to remember that our role in the Holy Altar is to serve, and that in this role our service is our prayer. The Holy Altar is never a place for private devotional prayer, nor is any other place in the Temple when we are vested for divine service.
11. The servers must therefore always be at attention, their eyes towards the celebrating priest so that they can anticipate his needs, and that he might be able to draw their attention by means of a small gesture, without having to call out a server’s name, etc. It is not appropriate at any time for a server to have his eyes closed in prayer, to have his gaze upon the holy icons rather than the serving clergy, etc.
12. Our service is rightly rendered in maintaining the due order of God’s holy will. Just as in the ancient times both Aaron and Levi were called to duties related to the Sanctuary, yet only Aaron and his descendants (the priests) were to offer sacrifices and prayers for the people, so too are we to maintain the right and distinct duties of those who today serve in God’s Temple.
- The servers follow the priest with respect to making the sign of the Cross and bowing, for it is he who leads the prayer of the Altar. When the priest makes the sign of the Cross or bows, all servers should do likewise (unless at that moment engaged in some task that prevents it); and similarly, such movements should not be made apart from the clergy. We do not make the sign of the Cross or bows of our own volition as acts of personal piety within the Holy Altar.
- Following the ancient rule that only the tribe of Aaron spoke prayers within the Sanctuary, only tonsured and ordained clergy (readers, subdeacons, deacons, priests and bishops) sing within the Holy Altar. Servers do not sing along with the clergy in the Altar, or utter prayers along with them — for our task in serving is to enable the priests more readily to pray for us, not to take that yoke upon ourselves! 
- When the priest so instructs, the servers depart the Holy Altar to stand amongst the faithful, to bear the sacred duty of leading them in prayer by example. In the Russian Church Abroad, this customarily happens at the singing of the Creed and of the Our Father. We are to remember that these moments are not merely excursions, but times of unique and precious service. It is essential that we commit to memory the Creed and Our Father in whichever languages it will be sung, so that we can stand amongst the faithful and raise our voices — and theirs — in these solemn and sacred words.
- At other times, the priest may dismiss from the Altar all servers, leaving only the clergy around the Holy Table. This oftentimes happens at the clergy’s receiving of Holy Communion, so that there may be no distractions. We must in such moments remember that our being sent out of the Holy Altar is not a dismissal from our service; rather, we are actively servingthe clergy by removing ourselves from the Altar at such times — and additionally we edify the faithful, in showing them by our standing outside the iconostasis that certain actions are of unique reverence and holiness, worthy of different behaviour.
On stillness and movement within the Altar and Temple
13. We should be still in the Holy Altar, and elsewhere in the Temple, unless actively engaged in some task of service — for stillness is the birthing-place of the true knowledge of God (cf. Psalm 45.10), and in our stillness we enable others’ minds and hearts to remain in quiet prayer, thus ministering to them in their spiritual need. When still, we should stand upright, our stance erect, our hands at our sides. We do not lean against walls, slouch, fold our hands in front of us, cross our legs, etc., for these are all signs of an informality that does not befit our service in the heavenly courts.
- Our posture and our stillness join us to the symbolism of the Temple as a whole. We should remember the guidance of Bishop Anthony of Smolensk: ‘Stand in church silently, peacefully and quietly, taking as your example the candles lit by you, and how they stand before the icons: they do not move from place to place, they do not make noise; they burn with a flame that strives not below, not to the side, but above, to heaven. So should you also stand, striving with hearts aflame with love and prayer toward God.’
- And, lest we think that our composure and presence is merely a matter of formality, let us call to mind the words of the Hierarch Niphont: ‘A reverent presence at the divine services is not only rewarded by the general prayer of the Church, but is saving unto the souls of Christians as well.’ That is, our composure and conduct either leads or distracts the faithful from prayer, and thus our truly pious service leads them towards salvation.
14. Such movement as is required must never be rushed, whether within the Altar itself, or in the Nave when seeing to tasks there. There should on no account be running, or even fast walking, in the Temple: movement should be calm and deliberate.
- When moving about in the holy Temple, motions should be graceful, strides calm and gentle and all movements made with due comportment and grace. Even the motions of basic labour (for example, walking to get a jug of water; taking something to the narthex) are seen by the faithful, and in these and every action we must exemplify by our bodily posture the grace and calm of the presence of God.
- If called upon by a priest or bishop, the server should move to his father’s side without lurching out of his own stillness with a sudden motion. When called, we move calmly to the side of the clergyman, inclining our head slightly so that we may be spoken to in a soft voice.
15. Whenever passing behind the Holy Table, before the High Place, to cross from one side of the Altar to the other, the sign of the precious Cross should be made (while continuing to walk and without bows or turns), with the sole exception to this rule being if one’s hands are occupied carrying a holy item (e.g. the censer). We do not stop to make the sign of the Cross in a protracted way as we pass by the High Place, as this serves to draw attention to ourselves and away from the divine focus of the people’s worship.
- When the Royal Gates are open (or the curtain drawn), movements from one side of the Altar to the other should be kept to a minimum, and only made when necessary — for each crossing draws the attention of the faithful and distracts from their prayer. We do not cross from one side the Altar to the other idly, simply for a better place to stand; nor do we do so in order to attend to some minor item that could as easily be seen to later; nor yet do we cross back and forth multiple times to accomplish some task, when suitable forethought would have allowed us to complete it with only a single crossing. We cross behind the Holy Table only to attend to some matter of direct, immediate importance that cannot await another moment.
16. At certain times we do not move at all: during the Six Psalms (during which we stand perfectly still, not even making the sign of the Cross — for in this moment we hear the words that portend our standing before the Throne at the Last Judgement); during the reading of the Gospel (i.e. if we have not gone out into the Nave with the procession), and during the Anaphora (from ‘Mercy of Peace…’ to the blessing after the commemoration of the Hierarchy).
On silence and appropriate speech
17. There must be no speaking in the Holy Altar unless for a purpose directly related to the Divine Service being celebrated, and such words should be kept to a necessary minimum — for we are about God’s Altar not for our personal fellowship or fraternal conversation, but to serve the Throne of the Most High God in reverence and wise fear.
- We should remember at all times the words of our venerable Father, St Ephrem the Syrian, who said: ‘Imagine that someone, while standing before a king and conversing with him, at the summons of a servant like unto himself leaves the king and begins to converse with that servant; such also is he who engages in conversation and gives himself over to distraction during the Divine Service.’
- Likewise, we should remember the admonition of St Tikhon of Zadonsk: ‘More than anything else, beware of laughter and conversations, for whoever laughs or converses while standing in church does not render honour to the holy place, and tempts others and prevents them from praying.’
18. As all conversations within the Holy Temple, and the Altar in particular, should be words exchanged in the ministry of divine worship, they should always be exchanged with the due formality of Church order. We do not begin a comment to a priest without prefacing it, ‘Father, …’ or ‘Forgive me, Father, …’; nor do we answer merely with ‘Yes’, or ‘No’, but ‘Yes, Father’, and ‘No, Father’, etc.
19. Similarly, our words, when necessary, should be orderly and formal, as befits conversation in the sacred Temple. We should always avoid informality: for example, we answer, ‘Yes, Father’, not ‘Alright, I see’, or ‘Aha, okay! I understand!’
20. Silence is always preferable to words, unless the latter are required. We must think before we speak: are the words I am preparing to utter necessary? Is now an opportune time to ask my question? Does it really need to be asked? Similarly, when spoken to, we should keep our answers brief and to the point.
- If it is not necessary to speak in response to a query, favour silence! For example, if we are asked to bring a certain book to a priest, or to ready a candle, we can simply incline our head gently and slightly in affirmation, and then go about our requested task without the need for any words in reply, which might further interrupt the silence of the Altar.
- Apart from an inclining of the head in affirmation, as described above, our spoken words should not otherwise be accompanied by gestures — for example: vigorous nods, movements of the hands, etc. — unless these are required to convey a point. We should remain standing calmly and still, even when speaking.
21. We never speak across the Holy Table, across the Temple, or from without the iconostasis to those within, or vice-versa: in all cases, we approach directly the person to whom we must speak and address him quietly. We never speak through the doors of the iconostasis: we speak either within or without, on the same side as our interlocutor.
22. If we require to interrupt a deacon, priest or bishop from his service to ask a question, we must first ensure it is an opportune moment; then we should approach, close by and to one side, in silence, and wait for him to turn to us. If we are not noticed after a moment, we may ask for attention by saying, ‘Forgive me, Father’ [or ‘Master’], and waiting for him to turn to us. If still the priest does not answer, we should not repeat our interruption, but assume that this is not an opportune moment and step away, waiting for the priest to call us to him when he is ready. Only in the case of emergencies or truly urgent matters should we repeat our interruption of the clergy’s focus, remembering that the priests are called to pray for the people, and at times may suffer in that prayer if interrupted from it — and so they may wish to speak at a more opportune moment.
- There are certain periods during which it is never appropriate to interrupt or speak to a serving deacon or priest, including to ask for a blessing: during the entry prayers or while a priest is vesting (for he says prayers silently with the donning of each portion of his vestments); during the proskomedia, until after the particles have been removed from the fourth and fifth prosphora for the living and the departed; whenever he is censing, within the Altar or without; during his consuming the Holy Gifts; during the Six Psalms; etc. During such times we do not stand close by the priest, waiting for him to finish and speak to us or bless us; rather, we stand apart, or go about other tasks as may be appropriate, until the priest is finished with his work, and then we approach him.
On the right fulfillment of our duties
23. When a deacon, priest or bishop instructs us to do something, this is thereafter our task and responsibility, which we must fulfil diligently and completely. If a task is asked of us, we must not expect another server to do it, nor should we pass along to another server a task that has been assigned to us.
24. Similarly, when a priest asks another server for something (e.g. to make ready a censer), we should not interject ourselves into that task which has been assigned to another. We should remain still, allowing other servers to go about their requested duties and attentively awaiting our own instructions.
On entering the Holy Temple and Altar (without a stikhar)
25. Our entrance into the Holy Temple — and most especially the Altar — must be made with deep reverence, piety and order, in accordance with the admonition of St Philaret of Moscow: ‘If on coming to the house of a king thou wouldst be apprehensive and concerned not to do anything incompatible with the dignity of the place, then with what reverence oughtest thou to enter into the house of the King of Heaven!’
26. When entering the Holy Temple, our first action should be the veneration of the principal icons of the church. If it is the season of Great Lent, three prostrations are to be made immediately on entering the Temple, in the narthex. Entering the holy Temple should be preceded by the making of the sign of the Cross three times, with bows, outside the door.
27. After venerating the main icons of the Nave, those who wish to serve should enter the Holy Altar. Before entering through one of the Deacon’s Doors, one should make the sign of the precious Cross at the door and kiss the icon of the Archangel on the door itself, then enter. We must enter the Altar suitably attired, having already removed any jackets or coats, ties, hats, etc., and already set aside in the Nave any personal items (briefcases, bags, and so on), which should not be brought into the Altar. (It should be noted that only black or dark brown shoes should be worn in the Altar, not trainers/sneakers.)
28. Immediately on entering the holy Altar, the Holy Table must be venerated — before greeting any clergy (including a bishop) or taking any blessings — for this is the Throne of the King on which there always resides the true Body and precious Blood of the Lord. On Saturdays, Sundays, Great Feasts and at other appointed times, this is done without prostrations: we make the sign of the Precious Cross three times, facing the Holy Table, each time with a bow from the waist and touching our right hand to the floor. On weekdays or at other appointed times, we venerate the Holy Table with three full prostrations. There must be nothing in our hands when we venerate with prostrations. On no account are we to touch the Holy Table, for we remember the sacredness of the Ark which none could touch and live, save those whom God had appointed (cf. 1 Paralipomenon 13.10) .
- With each bow or prostration, we say, ‘O God, cleanse me, a sinner’, or ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’, quietly to ourselves.
29. Following our veneration of the Holy Table, we at once take the divine blessing from the senior-most cleric in the Altar. We take a blessing only from the most senior priest, not from all priests.
- If some priests are vested and others are not, we take the blessing of the most senior vestedpriest, even if he is junior to another priest who is not vested. If for some reason a junior vested priest has been given the blessing to be the chief celebrant at the Holy Table, ahead of other vested priests who are his senior, we take our blessing of this chief celebrant.
- If a bishop is present in the Holy Altar, we take our blessing from him, whether he is vested or not. If two or more bishops are present in the Altar, we take our blessing from the senior hierarch, and then by widespread local custom we also take a blessing from the other bishop(s). This order remains, irrespective of which hierarchs may be vested. We do not take a blessing from the priest(s) if a bishop is present, for the priests by office bestow the bishop’s blessing, and if he is present there is no reason to take from another what the Chief Pastor can bestow himself.
- If a bishop is present in the Temple, but not in the Altar, we take a blessing from the priest in the Altar on entering therein, and then from the bishop when he enters.
30. Once we have received the divine blessing an received permission to serve, we go to collect our stikhar or go about our other business.
On entering the Holy Altar (with a stikhar already in hand)
31. If we already have our stikhar in hand before entering the Holy Altar, we follow the same procedure as above, carrying our stikhar with us in our left hand.
- The stikhar must be folded neatly, with the cross visible on the top and the yoke (the shoulders and opening for the head and neck) facing our body, for we make ready to place upon our shoulders the yoke of Christ, and to bear it in His service (cf. Matthew 11.30).
32. We continue to hold the stikhar in our left hand as we make our three bows in veneration of the Holy Table. If it is a day on which we make prostrations, the stikhar should be handed to another server or set aside so that our hands are empty for the prostrations. We do not, however, set our stikhar down upon a stool or seat, as this is not fitting for holy vestments.
33. Once we have venerated the Holy Table, we approach the senior-most priest (as described above) to take the divine blessing. With the folded stikhar in our left hand and our right hand laid upon it, open and palm up, we say, ‘Master, bless the stikhar’. After he has blessed, the priest will lay his hand upon ours: we kiss his hand and then the cross of our stikhar.
34. We then remove ourselves to the vestry to don our stikhar. We do not put on our vestments in the Holy Altar (which is rightly the vesting place only of the priests) .
On entering the Holy Altar with no priest present
35. The Holy Altar should only be entered without a priest present if we have previously received a blessing to enter the Altar on a given occasion without him — for example, if we have been blessed to arrive before a service to light the lamps, or to arrive at an appointed time to clean. No matter how often we may otherwise serve in a given Temple, we are nonetheless never to enter the Holy Altar without a priest present, unless we have been specifically blessed to do so.
36. If, having received such a blessing, we enter the Holy Altar and there is not yet any priest present, we follow precisely the same procedure as above, save that we await taking a blessing until the arrival of a priest. All other steps (e.g. the veneration of the icons, Holy Table, etc.) remain the same.
37. Once we have completed those tasks which we have been assigned to do in the Altar without the priest being present, we depart the Altar and remain in the Nave. We do not remain idly in the Holy Altar.
On taking leave of the Holy Altar
38. When our service has ended and the time has come for us to take our leave of the Holy Altar and depart, we first approach the senior-most priest with our hands before us, and ask his blessing to divest (saying simply, ‘Father, bless’).
39. We remove our stikhar in the vestry, not in the Altar proper.
40. Once our stikhar has been removed, hung tidily and we are ready to depart, we venerate the Holy Table with three low bows or three prostrations (according to the day and season), and then depart in peace.
On the general life and conduct of an Altar server
41. Those who serve in the Holy Altar are expected to be present for the Divine Services, whether or not they are serving. Like the priests, whom the law of the Church requires ‘must serve the Divine Liturgy every Sunday and feast day’ , so servers are expected to attend services every Sunday and Feast Day, unless absent for a reason worthy of a blessing. In this way our hearts and minds are shaped by the divine ministrations of the Liturgy, and we are strengthened for our service and the whole of our lives. Similarly, in this way the faithful see that those who serve round about God’s Holy Table maintain a full devotion to Him, even on those occasions when they are not serving — and so by our way of life, the Body of Christ is edified.
42. The tradition of the Church, from the time of the Holy Apostles, has always been for service to be attached to a place, and in our service that place is our parish. Just as from the first rank of tonsure — i.e., to the rank of Reader — one is blessed to serve not generally but in a specific Temple , so the server is expected to worship, pray and serve at his home parish unless given a specific blessing to go elsewhere. We are not to jaunt about between parishes as our mood so inclines us, but to attend all services at our home parish unless given a blessing by our priest or bishop to serve him elsewhere, or otherwise attend another Temple for a given reason.
- Similarly, we are to remember that we serve God through the office of His priests — we do not serve or become attached to personalities. If our usual priest is called away to another place by his bishop and replacement clergy are provided for a divine service, weekend or season, we are not entitled to skip the services or worship elsewhere on grounds that ‘our priest’ is away. This is a debasement of our calling to serve, and a scandal to the faithful who see a man more attached to worldly relationships than the service of the living God.
43. Though our specific service at the Holy Table ends when we leave the Altar, nevertheless those who serve in the Altar carry about with them their ministerial calling at all times. Servers must live upright lives in accordance with the Church canons, customs and commandments, regularly confessing to their spiritual father and struggling with faith and love to live the virtues.
Serving with the fullness of joy
44. Above all else, let us remember that to serve in our Father’s house is first and foremost a divine gift, and one which should stir in our hearts the greatest joy. If God were to take account of our sins, who would be able to stand — not only in the holy places, but even upon the bare earth? Yet through His mercy and love, we are raised up from our sin and despite our unworthiness are placed in His holy Temple, where we are able to say with the psalmist, ‘I will wash mine hands in innocence: so will I go round about Thine Altar, O Lord, that I may hear the voice of Thy praise and tell of all Thy wondrous works’ (Psalm 25.6-8). Let our hearts be filled with love, therefore! Let us cry out with the same psalm, ‘O Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy House, and the place where Thine honour doth dwell’ (ibid.).
45. May God reward your service, and may His Church rejoice in your labours, and may our hearts be lifted up by your prayers!
INTRODUCTORY NOTE: This text was written in 2010 by then-Archimandrite Irenei, initially as a spiritual reflection on the nature of service in the Holy Altar for servers of St Tikhon’s orphanage parish (the former orphanage chapel and home of St John the Wonderworker), and was expanded in 2011 for broader use and published on Monachos.net, prior to being adopted by various seminaries for courses of instruction. [Return to text]
NOTE 2: For the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers are clear that the worship we have been instructed to offer has its origin in heaven and manifests in the world the heavenly worship of the Lord. So again Exodus 12-13, 25-31; Apocalypse 4-5; as well as Daniel 7, etc. [Return to text]
NOTE 3: An exception to this rule may be made if the priest blesses servers to sing at certain moments—which sometimes happens, for example, at the kontakion after ‘Both now…’ before the Trisagion in the Divine Liturgy; or at the singing of ‘Christ is Risen…’ during Pascha. [Return to text]
NOTE 4: Similarly, servers must never touch the Table of Oblation (proskomedie), as this too is a table specifically blessed and set apart for the work of the clergy. Only subdeacons, deacons, priests and bishops may rightly touch the Table of Oblation or the items placed upon it; though in certain instances a priest may bless a server to touch certain items on the Table of Oblation if there are not ample clergy in the higher ranks to perform required tasks (e.g. the laying out of zapivka for the serving bishop)—but such blessings are to be specific, and do not constitute a general ‘rule’ allowing servers to touch the Table of Oblation. Under no circumstances should anyone but the deacon or priest touch the holy vessels which reside upon this table (e.g. the chalice, diskos, spoons, spears, etc.). [Return to text]
NOTE 5: In point of fact, the Altar is not the appointed vesting place for anyone at all, and all vesting is to be done in the vestry (save for the bishop, who is vested on his cathedra in the centre of the Temple). However, by widespread custom (and as is particularly necessary in smaller parishes without a separate vestry), clergy vest in the Altar, to either the north or south side of the Holy Table—and if a parish Temple is so designed that there is no vestry or side area at all, even servers may don their stikhar in the Altar. Where it is possible to avoid this, however, we should always favour the more dignified custom of vesting separately from the Altar itself. [Return to text]
NOTE 6: That is, according to the regulations of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (Руководственные правила для Священнослужителей [1956 года], Пар. 17). [Return to text]
NOTE 7: See the Rite of the Tonsure of a Reader, in which the bishop offers the following benediction: ‘Blessed is the Lord! Lo, the servant of God, N., is become a Reader of the most holy Church of [Dedication and Place]…’. [Return to text]
Notes on Using this Handbook
This Handbook is structured by thematic sections, each of which groups together a selection of questions and answers in as concise yet thorough a manner as possible.
This Handbook is specifically intended to convey the full liturgical ritual and practice of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in its inherited Synodal form. While some notes are given as to how this practice differs from variations that are seen routinely elsewhere, its main purpose is not to compare various styles of service but carefully to articulate the unique liturgical heritage of our Church Abroad.
(18 May 2019): Added several new entries: Under the Hierarchical Services section, 'How does the Greeting of the Bishop take place?'; 'How is the Bishop’s service book held for him during the Divine Services, and what are the responsibilities of the book-bearer?'; 'At the Little Entrance of a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, in what manner do the clergy re-enter the Holy Altar?' Under the Readers, Reading and Texts section: 'When multiple readings of the Apostle or Gospel are appointed (or when a single reading is repeated in a second language), how are the second and subsequent readings introduced?'; 'When reading the Apostle or Gospel, how are the sainted authors to be named?'; and 'What editions / translations of the Divine Services are to be used?'
(Bright Week 2019): Added a new Handbook section, 'Readers and Reading in the Church', with two initial entries.
Please select a category below to continue.
Clergy Vesting and Entrance Prayers
This section contains entries relating to the Clergy's entrance into the Temple at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy (entrance prayers, etc.), as well as practices relating to the donning of vestments, which vestments are worn at which times, etc.
This section contains instruction on all matters relating the the performance of the Proskomedia (service of preparation prior to the Divine Liturgy).
The Divine Liturgy
This section contains instruction and guidance on all practices relating to the celebrations of the Divine Liturgies of St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great (for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, see the separate Lenten Services section of this Handbook).
This section contains rubrics, notes and practical guidance relating to Hierarchical Services (at which one or more Bishops preside), and also contains more general instruction on comportment of Services when a Bishop is present (even when not serving).
Concelebrations of Multiple Priests
This section contains guidance on the peculiarities and variations to the Divine Services when they are concelebrated together by more than one Priest.
Diaconal Rubrics and Services
This section contains guidance for Deacons, and for Priests at services where a Deacon is serving. It also contains more general guidance for Diaconal practices.
Liturgical peculiarities related to the Divine Services of the Great Fast (and additional lenten periods), includings its special services and rites.
General Comportment in the Altar
This section contains general guidance on how Clergy and servers are to comport themsevles in the Altar, as well as instructions on more general activities therein that are not specific to any one Divine Service.
Prostrations, Bows and Kneeling
This section contains specific guidance regarding the practice of making prostrations, as well as kneeling, during the Divine Services and at other times within the Temple.
Readers, Reading in the Church, and Texts and Translations
This section contains guidance for tonsured Readers, as well as all (whether tonsured or lay) who are blessed to read during the Divine Services.
Monastics and Monasteries
This section contains instructions relevant to monastics during the Divine Services, as well as to all others serving together with monastics or in monasteries.
The Orthodox Church, as inheritor of the faith of the Apostles, receives anew in every generation the customs of ecclesiastical life handed down to us through generations and centuries. Maintaining a life of liturgical worship revealed from heaven and bestowed upon creation by divine mercy, she guards with extraordinary diligence the liturgical life by which she draws man into the Life of God.
Our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia has inherited her immediate liturgical customs not merely from instructors or interpreters of tradition, but from living saints who themselves received these customs as handed down by their forebears, and guarded them as a ‘pearl of great price’ (Matthew 13.45, 46) in the midst of a world of constant renovationism and reform. These sacred customs made their way out of Russia at the time of the atheistic apostasy of the twentieth-century and were carefully preserved in the lands of the Diaspora, where they continued to sanctify peoples and lands as they had for centuries.
Today, with the atheistic regime that ignited that exodus mercifully crushed under foot by God’s command, and the Russian Orthodox Church once again fully reunited in fraternal love, the need diligently to retain our attentiveness to liturgical life is as important as it always has been, since God first revealed to His people the manner of offering sacrifice to Him, the shape of the temple and of worship, and gave the divine commandments that still order and shape our prayer. It is always the case that in times of general peace, attentiveness to the details of Christian obedience wanes; and so in the present moment of God-provided calm we must make an extra effort to understand, implement, and pass along the fulness of our liturgical tradition in its every detail, scrupulously and without excuse, so that the present generation and the next will encounter in our temples — as in our hearts — the fulness of the Orthodox Christian faith, unbent by modernity and ever true to the inheritance we have received.
The present Handbook is a small offering intended to aid in this necessary work. Described herein, following a ‘question-and-answer’ format, are a collection of precious gems of our liturgical tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. This text is not meant as a full liturgical primer or manual: it is assumed that the reader, be he a priest or a deacon or of another clerical rank, already knows how to serve the Divine Services in a fundamental way, and so these pages do not describe the essentials of how to serve. Rather, what are collected here are instructions relating to liturgical practices in one way or another specific to the heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, sometimes because these particular elements differ from the practice of the other Local Orthdox Churches or regional traditions; and sometimes because the practices, while also applicable more generally, are routinely witnessed being modified or performed incorrectly, and thus require the proper forms to be reiterated.
It should be noted that the internal integrity of our liturgical practice is in no way a judgement, positive or negative, on the liturgical expressions found elsewhere in the Orthodox world, but instead a simple confession of the sanctity of the heritage we have received and which we maintain; and at the same time, that the validity of variant forms of liturgical practice as found elsewhere in Orthodoxy do not justify a modification or abandonment of our own discrete customs. We maintain what our Fathers have taught us, as we have received it; all servants of the Altar in the temples of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia should strive to the fulness of their ability to maintain our unique customs in their fulness, abandoning nothing and introducing nothing.
We note also that there are slight variations of smaller practical matters between Dioceses of the Church Outside of Russia; we try to note these where appropriate, always with the assumption that all clergy will serve precisely in the manner prescribed by their local Ruling Hierarch. The contents of this Handbook serve as an absolute point of reference for all clergy of the Diocese of Great Britain and Western Europe.
Finally, we intend to expand this Handbook from time to time as certain questions may present themselves as especially pressing for serving clergy, and we invite questions to be posed on customs not yet treated in these pages.
May God bless all His clergy with an abundance of love and a heartfelt dedication to the beauty of the Divine Services of His worship!
BISHOP IRENEI, 2018
A central handbook for liturgical service in the unique Imperial heritage of the Russian Church Abroad. An ever-expanding resource for all clergy and servers.
Information on the nature of service within the Holy Altar, and how the unique role of Altar Servers (whether tonsured or not) plays a central role in the liturgical offering of the Church.
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