Things we do in Church - Removing Shoes
These few thoughts on things we do (Church rites or ritual) and why we do them appeared in our monthly British Orthodox Church South Coast Newsletter mostly through 2009. I thought I would post them in here in case they proved of any help to a wider audience. Please feel free to comment and, of course, to disagree and correct where needed.
We are beginning with one very simple matter - shoes. According to the canons of the Coptic Orthodox Church shoes should be removed for prayers in Church and must be removed to receive Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ. (Likewise the clergy must remove shoes to enter the altar and stand at the Holy Table). Indeed it is customary throughout the Oriental Orthodox Churches to remove shoes on entering Church, even with notices at the entrance informing people that they should remove their shoes in the porch and place them in the shoe racks provided. Many a time I have waded through a sea of shoes when entering Church - I still live in hope of leaving with a better pair than those with which I entered but no-one ever seems to want my run down shoes instead of their own! Removing shoes is a very ancient aspect of worship going at least as far back as the Book of Exodus (3:1-6) and Moses's encounter with God at the burning bush when he was told "Take off thy shoes from off thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." Joshua was told likewise at his holy encounter: "Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said...What saith my lord unto his servant? And the captain of the Lord's host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so." (Joshua 5:14&15)
The Church, this place where we pray together, in the company of all the saints and the angels and the very presence of God Himself, is holy ground. To receive Holy Communion is to encounter God even more than Moses' encounter at the burning bush so, yes, we remove our shoes if we would receive God. This is an act of respect and reverence. It may seem simple, even ridiculously simple but don't be fooled - the apparently simple things are often profound and powerful. Like so much else in our rites and rituals this outward or external act affects us internally. Our entering Church "is full of markers which speak of transition from street to altar. You are put in transit as you enter and you respond with all the gestures of somebody undergoing a profound change. You sign in by marking yourself with a cross... just one of a whole forest of symbols which establish that house for what it is." (David Martin) Another such symbol is taking your shoes from off your feet.To remove shoes on entering Church, to remove shoes to pray - especially to remove shoes to receive the Body and Blood of Christ... something so apparently simple as taking off our shoes is an act of true faith, humility and devotion.
On a practical note there is no objection to you then putting on some warm socks. The requirement is to remove shoes, to remove the common footwear worn outside the Church. Freezing feet are not an integral part of the requirement! Many clergy have 'sanctuary socks' or 'sanctuary slippers' they wear only in Church and to enter the altar or sanctuary. Similarly members of the congregation may have similar footwear they keep and use exclusively for Church, socks or slippers set apart for this purpose.