Christianity: Eastern Orthodox


Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Religious Buildings

The term ‘church’ refers to a number of buildings in which Christians participate in congregational prayer, worship and other practices. Typical Eastern churches are in the shape of a square, octagon, circle or a cross (from a bird’s-eye view), covered by a dome. A common feature of Eastern churches is the embellished interior and, at times, the exterior of the building. Nearly all churches feature iconographical images and scenes that follow a theological scheme. An area called a ‘sanctuary’ is divided from the rest of the church by a screen known as an ‘iconostasis’. This screen is usually made of wood and covered in iconography. The is usually not permitted beyond the iconostasis. Every Eastern Church is dedicated to either God, a saint or one of the feast days. This association is often featured in the name of the church, for example, the Church of Saint Andrew or Saint Basil’s Cathedral.


A cathedral is the principal, formal church that administers over a set area due to housing the official ‘seat’ of the residential bishop. In places with a sizable Eastern population, there is usually one cathedral per city. Cathedrals are often the meeting place for the local of Eastern leaders, but also serve a number of purposes for laypeople, like offering daily services, a place for celebrating the sacraments (especially baptism and weddings) and a meeting place for socialising and other community activities.

Parish Church

A parish church acts as the religious centre for a parish (a church territory). This church is where members of the Eastern tradition who reside within the parish go for receiving sacraments. The parish church also acts as the meeting place for congregational prayer, weekly services and religious education. In many parts of the world, the parish church plays an important role in community activities and non-religious use.


Most Eastern churches welcome visitors interested in attending a regular or special service. Such visitors are expected to be respectful through modest dress and considerate speech. While non-Eastern followers are allowed to participate in services, most churches limit participation in the sacraments to church members or professed Christians. For instance, non-Christians would not typically partake in communion.

There may also be points of etiquette related to seating. Some churches may maintain seating separation between the baptised and non-baptised. Some churches may also have a separate place for women to sit, known as the gynaikeion. Depending on the church, women are permitted to sit in either the gynaikeion, the left side of the church building or may sit among men in the pews. In many churches during a weekly ceremony, people are expected to stand for most of the service.

Handling Religious Texts

In the Eastern tradition, there are a number of expectations related to the handling of the Bible. If the Bible is worn out but still legible, it is common for people to donate the book to the church. If the book is beyond repair, it is expected that the text is burned followed by burying the ashes in a church cemetery. This process is usually preceded with a liturgy for the burial.



Icons are adorned and elaborate paintings of saints, particular narratives, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Icons are often displayed in Eastern churches and in the homes of many Eastern followers. Icons are seen as sacred or sacramental objects that can evoke the energies (or grace) of God, the presence of the Virgin Mary or the saint that it depicts. Veneration towards icons is always to the figure represented, never the image itself. God is only ever represented as Jesus Christ in icons; his incarnation as the Father and the Holy Spirit (two of three parts of the Holy Trinity) are never materially represented.


Relics are the clothing, vestments or portions of the earthly remains of Eastern saints. Particles of relics are also often embedded in altar tables, holy oil and other objects. These objects are venerated due to the belief that the relics of the saints continue to influence and exert supernatural power after their death.


Candles and the symbolism of light frequently appear in Eastern , both in church and private homes. In both settings, candles are often found underneath icons of saints. Candles may also be used during certain ceremonies, such as baptism.

Holy Water

Holy water is water that has been blessed by a bishop or priest. The typical usage of holy water is to sanctify or bless objects, protect people from supernatural evil and as a symbolic reminder of baptism. It is also common for a cup (known as a font) of holy water to be featured at the entrance point of a church, free for anyone to use should they need it.


Incense is an important liturgical implement that is often used in Eastern practices. For instance, it is common for incense to be burned constantly in the church building as part of the experiential component of religious practice. Incense is also used to honour and bless icons both in the church and in the home.

Holy Oil

Holy oil, also known as chrism, is regarded as one of the most sacred elements in the Eastern tradition. The oil itself is a fragrant mixture of elements such as oil, balsamic myrrh and, in some cases, the ash of burnt icons. Holy oil can only be made and consecrated by the most senior bishop of the region.


In the Eastern tradition, there is no formal dress code for laypersons. However, there are general people follow when entering a church. It is commonly expected that one dresses modestly by covering the shoulders, chest and knees. Some churches may provide long skirts, pants and jackets so that visitors may be dressed according to custom. People also typically take their hat off when entering a church. Women may be required or may choose to wear a headcovering during a service.

Some people may wear and use a knotted prayer rope. The person usually moves the prayer rope in their hands, touching each bead as they recite a prayer. Another common article of clothing is a necklace of the cross. The choice to wear a cross varies depending on personal preference and the tradition of Eastern the person follows. Those who wear a cross usually do so as a sign of their commitment to Christianity.

Dietary Practices

In general, there are no strict rules around daily diets. More broadly, there are prescribed seasons of fasting. For example, the forty days of Lent is meant to be a time of abstinence from various foods and drinks, usually all meats, dairy products and eggs. Not all Eastern strictly adhere to fasting practices. In some cases, people may simply observe the holy days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as fast days.

Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.

Guaranteed secure stripe badge

A unified, searchable interface answering your questions on the world's cultures and religions

Sign up for free