Orthodox Churches -- OK to just step inside and have a look?

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m currently living in Russia in a hopefully not-entirely-vain attempt to learn the language. There are nothing loads of beautiful orthodox churches about, to the point that I literally cannot take a walk into an unfamiliar part of town without finding at least one or two to snap pictures of on the way.

The biggest and most famous, of course, are tourist attractions rather than working churches in any real sense; if I want to go into St. Isaac’s, I’ll pay my rubles and get my ticket. But there are lots that are really churches, complete with babushkas crossing themselves as they step outside. These, while not as famous as the “big names,” are beautiful nevertheless, and I’d often love to step inside for a moment and have a quiet look before going on my way.

I’m not religious myself, and certainly not Orthodox, but I do my best to respect others’ beliefs when they’re not actually causing me any problems. So, to the Orthodox dopers here: is it acceptable for me to step inside a working Orthodox church, have a seat, quietly admire for a few minutes, and respectfully and politely step back out?

As long as you are respectful, and not visiting during a service - if the doors are unlocked you can step in and look around. You should ask before taking pictures, out of respect. A small donation is a nice gesture but not required.

You could probably even sit in on a service, but don’t take communion. (I’m not sure how the orthodox churches there do that anyway - when I attend masses and other church ceremonies I skip communion because I’m not christian, just there for amateur anthropological research and the experience.

Not in Russia, but in other European countries . . . if the doors are unlocked you can go right in, unless there’s a sign saying not to. Even if there’s a service going on. And there may also be a sign prohibiting photography or use of a flash. But I’ve seen tourists using a flash during the service . . . which I consider very rude.

My impression is that churches in most mainstream Christian denominations – and those of the Orthodox Church will tell you that they are the original main stream, out which others, including the Catholic Church diverged – are happy to have people visit their churches and attend their services.

I asked a friend who is Orthodox, and here’s what she said:

I’ve visited a number of Orthodox churches in Serbia, whose church is very close to the Russian Orthodox church. There was no issue with people visiting during services, outside of services and even during weddings. My Serbian tour guide never suggested I cover my head, either.

I’ve wandered into Orthodox churches on numerous occasions. Never had a problem. In fact, some Greek Orthodox monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem once interrupted my wandering to show me a piece of the “true cross”. Never been to Russia, but spent a lot of time in other Orthodox-majority countries in Eastern Europe.

I’m an atheist Jew. Just be respectful and you should be golden.

You should probably follow the same dress code that tourists in Italy are expected to follow when sightseeing in Catholic churches. Basically, it’s no sleeveless tops, no short shorts (I’m not sure how they define “short shorts”, so I always wore long pants), and no skirts shorter than knee length. I can’t imagine any of that being a problem in Russia at this time of year.

Also, don’t make the mistake I did at another monastery outside Moscow; I heard some gorgeous a cappella choral music coming out of the chapel and walked in to investigate, and nearly ran smack-dab into the dead body lying on a board surrounded by flowers and candles. Yep, I crashed an Orthodox funeral.

(In all cases, though, I think generally if you are respectful and stay in the fringes, you’ll be fine.)

And well, the other half of my reply got eaten. But basically, we were given the same advice when visting Zagorsk (a monastery outside Moscow) - wear long sleeves, women should wear long skirts and cover their heads, etc. When we got there (it was June), we found many young Russian women attired in Spandex bike shorts and tank tops.

Also, my group leader decided to ask an elderly lady about the holiday during which we were there (something about the Trinity), and she said “you know, Trinity! You know what the Trinity is, don’t you? Jesus, Mary, Joseph…”

So yes, YMMV quite a bit.

We wandered into an Orthodox church in Bulgaria during a wedding ceremony. On the way out we were even offered some sweetmeats by members of the wedding party although we were complete strangers.

orthodox types are rather happy when people show an interest. having a seat is a bit difficult as chairs/benches tend to be on the sides of the church.

people do move around a bit during services, walking in and out won’t look too out of place and there is usually a candle selling person (during most services) who can help you out if you have any questions about coming into the church. although there is a lot of movement during the service there are parts where moving around is frowned on. that is where the candle person could come in handy.

hopefully the choir will be a good one. the music in the russian church is fantastic.

Thanks everyone. I figured it was probably all right, but I wanted to be sure I erred safely on the side of giving no offense. Observing a service does sound interesting, if I could haul myself out of bed at a suitable time of day. Would there be any particular dress code? (I do have a suit with me, but it’s been in my suitcase for a month and I don’t think I’ve seen any dry cleaners here yet…)

I have safely visited a few small Orthodox churches in Russia, and a couple of the big tourist objects. I was wearing casual clothing, but long sleeved. Just stay respectful as mentioned, or you might run into trouble ;).

My mom is Russian Orthodox and attends a small, ornate church right here in the US. I’m not of her religion, but on occasion I’ll attend a service (or part of one, they’re loooong) with a friend just so they can get a gander at the absolute barbaric splendor of that house of worship. They’re always deeply impressed. … I would say dress for church, and that doesn’t mean shorts or big styrofoam bras stuffed under teeny skin-tight t-shirts (ladies) - or baggy man-pries and an oversized t-shirt with a lewd saying on it (men).

When visiting an Orthodox Church in Greece, all the women in our group wearing either shorts or short skirts were given long skirts with elasticated waists to wear . As you can imagine, it wasn’t much of a fashion parade!