Project Canterbury

An Aid for Churchmen Episcopal and Orthodox
Toward a Mutual Understanding, by Means of a Brief Comparison of the Rites and Ceremonies of the Orthodox Church
with those of the Episcopal (Anglican Church)

By the Rev. H. Henry Spoer, B.D., Ph.D.
Sometime Lecturer at the Lichfield Theological College, England

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Morehouse, 1930.
London: Mowbray, 1930.

Chapter II. The Interior of an Orthodox Church

In order to follow a brief account of the rites and ceremonies of the Orthodox Church it is necessary to picture the general arrangement of the church building. Its most striking feature is the iconostasis, the screen, which extends across the church, separating the sanctuary from the nave. It may be said to resemble a rood screen, although, as to its position, it is the direct descendant of the altar-rails such as we have in our Western churches. These have developed, by degrees, into the screen as we now see it, and which, during the century following the period of the iconoclastic controversy (784-843) was greatly enlarged for the accommodation of the sacred pictures which became more numerous and more prominent than ever before. The space behind it is divided into two parts, which, though not as a rule separately enclosed, are approached by separate doors in the screen.

The Beautiful, or Holy, or Royal Door (or Doors) in the middle, gives direct access to the altar, which, in the Eastern Church, is called the Holy Table. A smaller door to the north is the Servers' Door and leads to the chapel of the prothesis where the sacred elements are prepared upon a credence table standing in the northeast corner. The door to the south opens upon the diakonikon or place of the deacons, where the sacred vessels and the vestments are kept.

The Royal Door is used only during the Service, and only by the officiants, and is not entered by anyone under the rank of deacon. It has two wings, with spaces above and below closed by curtains, drawn from within at special moments during the celebration of the Liturgy.

The screen is surmounted by a cross, and above the door is a picture of the Last Supper. Upon the wings of the door are pictures of the Annunciation, often of the four Evangelists, and, to the right and left, respectively, of our Lord and the Blessed Virgin and Child. Beyond the picture of our Lord is that of St. John Baptist, and beyond that of the Virgin and Child is that of the Patron of the Church. The north and south doors are decorated with pictures of St. Stephen and of St. Michael. There may be other decorations, such as pictures of the prophets, evangelists, scenes in the life of our Lord, etc., according to space, without any prescribed order or position.

There is but one Holy Table in each church and only one Celebration is allowed in the day. It stands free from the wall and a circumambulatory procession takes place on Good Friday during the Service of Lamentation. The dome above is often decorated with a painting of the Pantocrator, Christ Triumphant.

In a cathedral, the episcopal throne is placed behind the Holy Table, with seats to the right and left for the priests. Upon the Holy Table, or immediately behind it, is the figure of Christ upon the cross, and, as a rule, the figures of the Blessed Virgin and of St. John to right and left. These figures are cut out in the flat, but are never carved in the round, as, in order to avoid the use of images, no figure is permitted in the church which can cast a shadow. It should be remembered that, except at certain points in the Celebration of the Liturgy, all that takes place behind the iconostasis is concealed from view.

The floor of the sanctuary, bema, which is raised, as a rule, by one step above the nave, projects a few feet beyond the iconostasis, forming a platform which is called the solion. Here, south of the Royal Door, is a second episcopal throne, while toward the Servers' Door is a desk used for the reading of the Scriptures and of parts of certain services. It is here that the deacon chants the litanies and prayers, and the faithful receive the Holy Communion. Here also, at either end, stands the choir. No instrumental music is permitted. This is the normal arrangement of the interior of an Orthodox church. In the Russian churches the choir is often placed in a gallery, whereas those of the Greek, Syrian, Rumanian, and Serbian Churches in the Diaspora seem to adhere more generally to the rule of dividing the singers in two parts, placed in front of the iconostasis at the north and south ends.

That part of the church which is west of the solion is included in the naos, or nave, without any division such as is formed, in our own churches, by the choir.

The nave is without seats, stalls near the wall being provided for those unable to stand. The narthex, a porch or vestibule, separates the nave from the outer doors, and is used for parts of the Baptismal and Burial Services and, in monastic churches, for the saying of the Hours.

It will be observed that the deacon takes an important share in the Services. In the Eastern Church there is a permanent diaconate, and it is assumed that a deacon is always present to assist the priest. Otherwise his part is commonly taken by another priest, or, if necessary, by the celebrant.

Standing, rather than kneeling, is the attitude of prayer, and the hands are not clasped, but extended. In specially solemn parts of the Liturgy the worshippers sometimes kneel, but that this is not a universal observance is evident from the fact that the Office of Vespers for Whitsunday is known as the "Service of Kneeling," because on this occasion the worshippers are directed to kneel. Members of the Orthodox Church, the Russians especially, make many prostrations and salutations, but while they are encouraged to show reverence upon all occasions, and especially before the Blessed Sacrament, there is a strict rule against prostration at the moment of receiving the Holy Communion, lest it should be said that they adore bread and wine as they do God.

Project Canterbury