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For an insufficiently churched person or the one who is poorly informed about the history of the Orthodox Church it is often hard to tell an Old Believers’ church from a Nikonian one. Sometimes a passerby enters a church and tries to perform some prayer and ritual actions according to the “new style” (for instance, he or she rushes to kiss all the icons around), but it turns out that it is an Old Believers’ church and such customs are not appreciated here. This may result in an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation. Of course, you may ask the doorkeeper or the person selling the candles about the religious affiliation of the church, but still it could be helpful to know about some characteristic features of an Old Believers’ church.
The external architecture of an Old Believers’ church is in most cases not different from the architecture of Nikonian, Uniate and other churches. It may be built in the tradition of ancient Novgorod or in the Neo-Russian style, with the elements of classicism, or it may be just a very small building or an improvised church in a wooden cabin.
The Non-priested Old Believers’churches are sometimes different, for in many cases (mostly in the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine) they have neither an altar apse, nor an altar (sanctuary) itself.
The eastern part of such churches does not have a protruding part and ends with a simple wall. But you cannot always notice it at once. You can only see for sure if a church has a sanctuary or not when you get inside. In Russia and some other places the Non-priested Old Believers continue to build churches with apses following the ancient tradition.
As for the inner appearance, all Non-priested Old Believers’ churches lack an altar. The iconostasis covers the wall but not the sanctuary. The altar table is placed upon the soleas. In some Non-priested churches a large Cross (traditionally placed beyond the altar table) is placed in the middle of the soleas, in front of the Holy Doors.
The Doors into the altar perform only a decorative function and are always closed. However the majority of the Non-priested churches have neither the Holy Doors nor the deacons’ doors. There are some Non-priested churches built in the ancient times which have sanctuaries, but they are used as auxiliary premises: baptisteries, small prayer rooms, repositories of icons and books.
On all Old Believers’ churches eight-pointed crosses with no decorations are installed. If there is some a cross of some other configuration, including the ones with “crescent” or “ancor”, etc., this church is not an Old Believers’ one. The reason for this is not that the Old Believers do not accept the four-pointed and other forms of Cross, but that due to the persecution of the eight-pointed Cross by Nikonians it achieved a preferential position in the Old Faith.
When you find yourself in an Old Believers’ church, have a look around. In the Old Believers’ churches during the Services the electric lights are commonly not used (except for the choir-place). The natural plant oil burns in the lamps before the icons and in the chandeliers.
The candles to be used in the Old Believers’ churches are made of pure beeswax of natural color. The use of colored candles — red, white, green, etc. is not allowed.
Icons of a certain type also constitute an important feature of an Old Believers’ church. They are copper-casted or painted by hand in the so-called “canonical” style.
The Nikonian and Uniate churches often have images in Italian style characteristic for the European painting since the epoch of Renaissance, but they are not allowed into the Old Believers’ churches.
If there are icons of famous Nikonian saints, like Tsar Nicolas II, Matrona, or Seraphim of Sarov, the church is definitely not the Old Believers’ one. If there are no such icons, have a closer look at the headwear of the holy monks and bishops depicted on the icons. If they wear black or white klobuks in a form of a “bucket”, the church is unequivocally not the Old Believers’ one. Such klobuks became fashionable after the reforms of Patriarch Nikon, the monks and bishops of the Ancient Russian church had very different headwear.
In an Old Believers’ church you can also see podruchniks — special mats to make the prostrations (bowing with your hands and head to the ground). Podruchniks are laid together in neat piles upon the benches of an Old Believers’ church.
Contrary to the popular belief that there are never any chairs or seats in the Old Believers’ churches (typical for Catholic, Uniate and many Nikonian churches), in fact many (but not all) Old Believers’ churches in the Baltic states have benches.
If there is a Divine Service in the church, it is easy to distinguish an Old Believers’ church by its characteristic singing in unison. Chords, triads and any harmonic frets are forbidden in the Old Believers’ worship. Also you can get some information about the religious affiliation of a church from believers’ clothing characterized by special austerity.