Behind the Iconostasis: Who May Enter Beyond It, and How We Copts May Have Gotten It Wrong

Iconostasis St Mary Atlanta Coptic Church

I was really surprised recently about hearing of many Coptic church members who decided to stop attending a particular church because the priest does not allow anyone among the laity to go beyond the iconostasis, as we Copts are (unfortunately) accustomed to.

Another situation came up recently as well, whereby a particular rank of the minor orders (I presume a chanter) was very upset by a request of the deacons (and I use this term loosely, referring to the minor orders of our church), that none should leave their position in the choir section of the church and stand behind the iconostasis during the service, unless they are engaging in a liturgical purpose, or unless otherwise they have received permission. Again I was greatly saddened to be reminded of a fact I had known but didn’t want to dwell on: most in the Coptic Church have forgotten where we should stand (and shouldn’t stand) in the church, and why that is the case.

What are we to think of this? Is the priest correct? Does he have any basis for his rule? What about the deacon? Should several deacons be allowed to rest or stand during the service behind the iconostasis?

To answer these questions, we can find clues in the history of Coptic Church architecture,  and also by turning to the Eastern Orthodox and see if they all together retain certain traditions relevant to this discussion which may evince the longstanding traditional stance on this matter.

Current Coptic Church architecture

Currently, Coptic churches look something like the image you will find below, where you will find three main sections:

  • nave (where the congregants typically stand),
  • chorus (where the deacons typically stand, in front of the congregation),
  • sanctuary (where one can find the altar). The chorus and the sanctuary are typically separated by a wall or other sort of separation in which is placed icons, and beautifully arrayed all around. This separation is today known as the iconostasis. (By the way, this is not regarded as a partition so much as it is considered an entry way; thus, this is not a substitute for the veil of the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament in the sense of absolute separation, but rather it simply resembles the same place one would have found such veil, which has been torn apart since Christ’s act of salvation and heaven is now open to us whereas before it was not.) (Note also that this term “iconostasis” is not the preferred term among many Eastern Orthodox. See the following for more information: “The Origins of the Iconostasis” by Julian Walter.)
church and temple

Forgive the misspellings. This is taken from “The Church the House of God,” written by Fr. Tadros Malaty

(Looking at the picture above, you will notice how the Church is modeled similarly as the first house of worship architected by God himself—the Tabernacle. For example, where before there was a laver of water for ritual cleansing at the entrance, today there is the baptistry for spiritual rebirth before being permitted “entry” into the Church. Another important feature relevant to this post is that no one was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies except for the high priest; the New Testament equivalent of the Holy of Holies is the altar/sanctuary, beyond the iconastasis.)

The sanctuary today in the Coptic Church is often separated into three sections: the main sanctuary in the middle, where the altar stands, flanked by two side rooms adjacent to the main sanctuary, where you will not normally find an actual altar. The iconostasis has three doors (or open entryways covered by curtains) by which one may enter into any of these three sections.

This three-part segmentation of the sanctuary is what has led to the Copts forgetting that this entire segment of the church is called the sanctuary, not just the portion in the middle. People are confused even more by the fact that in Arabic the room on the left is often called the “men’s altar” and the room on the right the “women’s altar,” because men and women are accustomed to standing there during liturgical services. This practice is unfortunately a break from early tradition, and a deviation from the practice and rubrics maintained by other apostolic churches (Orthodox and Catholic).

I am sure many Copts who are reading this post by now are starting to feel a bit jaded by the implied notion that men and women should not be standing there during the service. Often they will say that the reason they stand there is so that they can “focus more” on the service. Deacons and laity alike are often found congregating in the side chambers of the sanctuary for extended lengths of time for this purpose (although many others simply do it because they are “tired” and want to take a break from focusing on liturgy and focus on something else.)

The answer to focusing more is not traversing the sanctuary, but instead other means should be employed to eliminate or reduce those things which distract us from focus in our church (cry rooms, standing in the first row, people learning that they should not be speaking at all during the service and only standing and praying reverently, our own personal spiritual acuity, etc.) Before breaking with tradition we should do everything we can to accommodate keeping the tradition first.

How does this compare with the Eastern Orthodox Church?

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, you will find it to appear very similar to Coptic churches. They have a nave, and also often (although not always) have an elevated section like the Coptic “chorus” section (which they call the “chancel”).

russian church

Key rubrics are as follows:

  • None of the laity are permitted beyond the iconostasis
  • There are two side doors (like we have in the Coptic Church) in the iconostasis, and they are specifically named “Deacon’s Doors” because this is the only place deacons are allowed to enter through to get to the sanctuary.
  • Deacons are not allowed in the sanctuary unless they are serving a particular liturgical purpose
  • Only priests and bishops were allowed to enter through the center doors to go to the sanctuary. These doors are called the “royal doors” or “beautiful gates.” (Note, these are doors, and not a veil as in the Old Testament. Even though in most Coptic Churches there is a curtain there instead of actual doors or a gate, the curtain is simply a covering and not to be seen as a veil, as Christ tore the veil by His sacrifice, making Paradise accessible once again. Unfortunately, many use the term “veil” when describing this part of our church).
  • The priest may make an exception for someone to go beyond the iconostasis for a purpose. This is often the case for nuns, although they have no clerical rank.
  • The chancel is reserved for only the choir and the clergy.

Coptic Church architecture development over time

As you look at the pictures further below, notice that in the development of Coptic Church architecture over time the three-part segmentation of the sanctuary was not present, and by design it did not contemplate the congregants standing to the left and right of the sanctuary. The congregants were always meant to stand in the nave, and the sanctuary was for the clergy. Here are some key highlights as you look at the pictorial progression of our church architectural history.

  • We did not always have the three-segment sanctuary structure as we see today. This is a later development.
  • We did not always have the chorus section either
  • Only two main sections existed during the early periods of Coptic church architecture: the sanctuary, and the nave. It was understood that the sanctuary was meant for the clergy and deacons, and the laity were to stand in the nave
  • It is not until around the 7th–12th century where the chorus comes into existence. Still, this was seen as “creating a clearer separation between the area reserved for the laity and that reserved for the clergy,” as the prolific author Gawdat Gabra explains. Even though we see a three-part segmentation beginning around this time, the chorus was understand as a way to further demarcate the line between laity and clergy—the line between nave and sanctuary—marked by the iconostasis.
  • Only in the last millennia do you find the three-part segmentation of the sanctuary, and at some time after that the clear line separating clergy and laity areas blurred to its current form.

(The series of images below are taken from Gawdat Gabra’s book, “Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia”)

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For comparison and contrast, take a look at how the church in the ancient Syrian Monastery (belonging to the Coptic Church) is designed. There is no place for the congregants or anyone to stand to the right and left of the sanctuary as it is today (as far as I can tell), and the doors to the right and left of the main sanctuary are referred to by Fr. Tadros Malaty as deacon’s doors used for processions, reinforcing the notion that the side doors are only for the deacons and the main central door is only for the priests and bishops. It seems therefore that the way the Eastern Orthodox Churches understand the sanctuary and who may enter beyond the iconostasis is more in line with this design and the traditional early designs and rubrics of Coptic churches.

Example of church at Syrian Monastery

Forgive the misspellings. This is taken from “The Church the House of God,” written by Fr. Tadros Malaty

CONCLUSION

In the end, if our bishops agree on us parting from tradition, since our salvation is not really at stake, then out of obedience (although with reluctance by some of us) we should comply. If congregants are to stand in the sanctuary side chambers, then at the least do not turn it into a social gathering or use it as a means of relaxing or losing focus on prayer.

As for deacons, I hardly see any excuse for them to leave their service obligation and stand in the side chamber, aside from certain very limited exceptions. If you’re a chanter, which most of us are, taking a “break” from chanting to “focus” in the side chamber is like a doctor walking away from his line of patients there to see him so he can go and focus more on researching the latest in medical news. It’s good that you desire focus but you can’t lose sight of your duties, and your duties come first. Deacons are servants to aid the priests in serving the church’s needs. Standing in the side chamber is a dereliction of one’s duties. And let’s be honest: about 9 times out of 10, when I ask a young person why they are standing inside the side chamber, they tell me it’s because they’re tired (and many of them are just sitting, playing on their phone or talking with someone; many times I’ve seen deacons sleeping there too). Either way, whether a deacon wants to focus more or distract themselves to help the time pass, if they’re not prepared to serve during the whole liturgy, why dress at all?

So, while I may palate (albeit reluctantly) the laity standing behind the iconostasis, I cannot accept a reason (but for some exceptional circumstance) that deacons should stand there other than to serve the priest at the altar.

_______________________________

SOURCES/FURTHER RESOURCES:

“The Church the House of God,” by Fr. Tadros Malaty

The Origins of the Iconostasis, by Julian Walter (Eastern Churches Review, Vol. Ill, No. 3. 1971)

“Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia,” by Gawdat Gabra. All the church architecture images (aside from those linked to Fr. Tadros Malaty) were taken from this book.

Note: the main image at the top of this post is an image of the sanctuary from behind the iconostasis, facing WEST. This is the inside of the sanctuary, with all three segments visible: what is known by the Copts as the “women’s altar” on the left, “men’s altar” on the right, and main sanctuary in the middle.

13 thoughts on “Behind the Iconostasis: Who May Enter Beyond It, and How We Copts May Have Gotten It Wrong

  1. very well said, and many eo have the 3 room architecture like the Copts but yes only deacons and laity are allowed there to perform liturgical functions.

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  2. Beloved in Christ,

    Thanks for posting this. At my parish I do not allow anyone who is not serving in the sanctuary to enter. I have explained to my congregation that the sanctuary is a space primarily for clergy (so not for men, per se), and that it must be treated as the holy of holies, as it were. What we often lack in the Coptic Church is explaining why we should or should not do things. Generally speaking, I think when people receive a sound explanation they are willing to accept something even if they have not been accustomed to it.

    In Christ,
    Fr. Pimen

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    • Dear Fr. Pimen,

      Thank you Your Reverence for sharing your thoughts. I am very happy to hear about the rite being applied in your parish, and am comforted by the manner Your Reverence approaches subjects that could otherwise be deemed offensive. May we learn to apply Your Reverence’s wisdom and not simply say no, but give people the courtesy of an explanation to deepen their spirituality when confronting and abiding by the rules they are taught.

      Pray for me father.

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  3. Well researched John! But I just want to note that not all thinkers in Eastern Orthodoxy agree with the practice of treating the sanctuary as a special, clergy-only zone. It’s certainly an old practice, but that doesn’t make it Orthodox. (As St. Cyprian said, “Antiquity is not truth.”) Here was what Fr. Alexander Schmemann said on this issue – I should warn that his comments below are controversial, but I think his incredible insight in liturgical theology means that when he speaks so strongly about something we should take note.

    “While it is true that contemporary liturgical piety perceives the sanctuary as something self-contained, accessible only to the “initiated” – a particularly “holy” place with its own brand of “sanctity,” as if to emphasise the “profane” category to which the laity standing outside it belong – it is also not difficult to show that this perception is relatively recent, false and, most importantly, profoundly harmful for the Church. It serves only to continually nourish that “clericalism” – so utterly alien to Orthodoxy – that reduces the laity to the status of second-class citizens, defined primarily in negative terms as those who “do not have the right” to enter certain places, to touch certain things or to take part in certain activities.” ~ The Eucharist, p. 20

    That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enforce the rules about going in and out of the sanctuary (at least during the liturgy). But there is a very serious danger in taking customs like this as revealing some sort of theological truth about the “profaneness” of the laity. Everyone who eats the Eucharist has entered the Holy of Holies! We mustn’t confuse ourselves into thinking that because – for the sake of church order – laypeople can’t enter certain parts of the Church, they are somehow less holy or “sacred” than the clergy.

    Would love to hear your thoughts 🙂

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    • What an insightful addition to this discourse you’ve provided. I very much respect the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann! It’s definitely making me think. My initial thoughts are as follows:

      I agree with you wholeheartedly that if the distinction of the proper place for clergy and laity is based on a notion of laity being profane and clergy being holy, that would not be proper. Moreover, while the sanctuary is reminiscent of the Holy of Holies, us Christians who abide by God’s commandments have the benefit of passing beyond the the veil of the Temple which was torn when Christ was crucified; in the New Testament we have “boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).

      However, I believe this rule is about imbuing a sense of sanctity for the altar which reminds us of Paradise, and also a sense of order. If the altar is likened to the throne of Christ in Paradise, then the deacons are rightfully considered like the angels, and the priests can be considered reminiscent of the highest ranks of angels, or like the 24 priests around the throne of God (or a plethora of other analogies). One can find many references in the Bible and many others in the afterlife experiences of Orthodox Christians that make it clear that Paradise is very orderly, with everyone having their own designated proper place, and the closest to Christ’s throne are the ones who have been closest to God in life. The angels are the ones around the throne of God, and so forth and so on. This all gives a sense of awe to the mystery of Paradise and the glory owed to God, and the honor deserved by the holiest followers of God.

      Hence, to me this arrangement is a beautiful theological expression about Paradise, but not so necessary as to be regarded as affecting one’s salvation. Nonetheless, due to the beauty of the spiritual contemplation offered by this tradition, and also due to its antiquity, I wish I saw it practiced more commonly in the Coptic Church. There’s also an argument to be made about conformity with the Eastern Orthodox Church on traditions we once had but have lost and caused even more distinction between us. I’m a huge fan of returning to practices that are ancient, that were once followed, and that have spiritual depth deserving of their return. I’ve seen too many beautiful practices chipped away, or blindly followed without realizing their depth.

      God bles you and thanks so much for sharing.

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      • Indeed, thank you, Sam, for sharing the writing of Fr. Alexander Schmemann if blessed memory. I think that one of the issues we face regarding this in the Cootic Church is an abuse of the space of the sanctuary such that many men in particular walk in and out freely. During a service this is very disruptin and unnecessary. I think what Fr. Alexander says here could be applied to the matter of allowing laity (including women) into the sanctuary when they have a task to take care of outside of the services themselves. Personally this would not trouble me at all. After all, they have partaken of the Pure Body and Orecious blood of Christ, and nothing is more holy than that! It’s during the services that people waltzing in and out is especially troubling. Some would still insist that in the context of the divine services the sanctuary is a space of clergy. But, of course, I could be, as I usually am, wrong.

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  4. Hey John, i do want to make one extra difference with the chorus between EO and OO or at least Copts… the EO are permitted to approach the iconostasis and venerate the icons, though many will also have a smaller “iconostasis” or icons before the chorus…

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    • But not during services right? Or are you saying that during a liturgy a person can walk up to the iconostasis, take a blessing, and then stand in their place in the congregation?

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  5. Very good presentation. I will add some more differences to give some extra clarity from the EO side: The Chorus/Chanters in the EO Churches are not seated in pews placed directly in front of the Iconostasis Icons like in most Coptic parishes. They are placed to the far right & left next to the Bishop’s Throne, not blocking the Iconostasis. Typically, people should not approach the Iconostasis during the services, but if they did, they would not be squeezing between pews turned sideways and chanters. There are sometimes Icons put on veneration stands closer to the pews for that purpose also. Also the preferred term for the area in front of the Iconostasis for us is Solea, and the 2 side rooms are called Diakonikon, which are used for the Altar supplies & vestments and for doing special tasks for the services only. They are never designated for seating people in EO Churches, but we also suffer with the same problem of some men who abuse the Altar and walk in and out with no reverence. And people never receive Holy Communion inside those side rooms either, unlike in Coptic practice. Our chanters are not usually the Altar Servers at the same time, so there is far less in & out of the Altar for our chanters. We also have Altar Curtains and some Churches (esp. Monasteries) use both Curtain & Doors. Concerning the Beautiful Gate (Middle Altar Door), there are even special rubrics for the Priests as to when they are allowed to enter/exit from that door, otherwise they also use the side doors (or Deacon doors). Even the area directly in front of the Altar Table is reserved only for Bishops, Priests and Deacons (not to be confused with the general “deacon” term used in the Coptic tradition). One practice that I admire much in the Coptic tradition is removing the shoes before entering the Altar, or wearing the taleeg (designated footwear) that is only worn during services and inside the Altar. I know that Coptic symbolism refers to Moses & the Unburnt Bush, but I have yet to find early Patristic reference for that tradition. Sorry for the long explanation! (Fr. Mark)

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    • Dear father, I cannot thank Your Reverence enough for taking the time to enlighten us with your knowledge and perspective. Thank you so much for the intriguing details which you have added to this discussion.

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  6. Pingback: My Intriguing Visit to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church—A First-Time Coptic Visitor’s Perspective | ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MEETS WORLD

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