Basic rules of visiting orthodox church for sightseeing and attending the service.
One of the things most visitors notice in Moscow and Russia is multitude of orthodox cathedrals and temples. In Russian all of them are called simply a “church” — церковь [zerkov’]. When someone local talks about going to church, they usually mean going to where services take place and not the congregation.
Many of those churches are historical buildings constructed hundreds of years ago. In soviet times almost all churches were closed and religion of any kind was banned from practicing. Many church buildings were destroyed or used for purposes that had nothing to do with religion. There was a small number of churches that never stopped having services even during soviet times. After USSR collapsed in the 90s, most of churches, closed in soviet times, were reopened, restored or rebuilt. All orthodox churches have unique architecture and beautiful paintings inside.
Expats ask frequently if they can visit orthodox church.
The answer to this is simple — yes, you can go to orthodox church regardless of your religious beliefs. Many churches, monasteries in addition to its original purposes serve as heritage and historical sites and open to the public. You can go to any church however, regardless of whether is’s historical place or just a church with regular services, if you follow few simple rules, listed below.
Men must enter with heir head uncovered. Hats, hoods of all types must be taken off before entering.
Women must have their heads covered. Many woman use headscarf type of thing to cover their head before entering a church. In some places you can buy headscarf or kerchief at the entrance, but not everywhere, so better have your own if you are going to visit many places.
Revealing outfits are not welcomed. Shorts, short squirts or any other outfits that reveal larger parts your body are not welcomed and if you are wearing something that makes you look half naked, you will be asked to leave.
You can buy and light a candle, however by the church rules you can not order a service, unless you were baptized in Russian Orthodox Church or one of its subsidiaries.
Photography policy depends on a place. If it’s an official historic sight visited by many tourists, most likely you will be allowed to take photographs without special permission. In non-tourist churches you can ask staff if you can take photographs. Sometimes there are clear signs on the door indicating whether or not taking pictures is allowed. If in doubt, ask service staff, but they very likely will direct you to the priest for permission. Be aware that no one, not a single person will speak English or any other foreign language in any church you go to, so having Russian assistance would be real helpful. If allowed to photograph, do not take pictures of people in the church and it is advised not to use flash.
You can go to any orthodox church service, no one will ask any questions. There are two daily services: morning starting from 8am-9am and evening staring 5pm-6pm. Exact time depends on a specific church and there can be two services in the morning, especially on weekends. There can be special services in between main services (those are happening primarily in the morning). For big church holidays there will be special schedule of services. Normally schedule and exact timing of services, holidays and events is available on a special board at the entrance.
During the service you can enjoy choir singing.
In addition to basic rules of visiting orthodox church, there are specific suggestions on behavior during the church service.
Stand somewhere in the corner or by the wall. The thing is that Orthodox Service rituals are very complicated. Unlike many other Christian denominations in orthodox church the congregation should standing during the service. Congregation will get on their knees several times, or sing or do other things. If you do not know what to do and what is going on, and you stand in the middle of a crowd, you will look awkward. Also people move very often and you do not wanna be on their way. Several times during the service priest will go around the cathedral with censer to fume the place with olibanum. Look what other people do when this happens and do the same.
Avoid talking during the service. If you need to say something, whisper or talk real quietly. In off-service time you can talk, but it is advised to bring voice down as well.
Switch off sell phones, talking on a phone is banned in all churches, also many people have loud and funny ringtones not appropriate for a church and this also disrupts the service.
Photographing in churches during the service is strictly prohibited.