Father, as I said in my last email I had decided to go ahead with my decision to convert to Orthodoxy. But I found a website with some church rules. For instance, how can I make confession at the Saturday night service if the particular parish I will go to doesn’t have one? And is it true that men and women are supposed to sit on different sides of the church? I don’t agree with the latter rule and I don’t see it observed today.
One piece of advice I might offer you at this point is to focus all of your preparation for conversion on the priest at the parish in which you wish to convert.
You will find on the internet all kinds of Orthodox web sites with all kinds of information that can be confusing, especially when it focuses on customs, such as having a men’s side and women’s side, which have nothing to do with salvation. [A few Sundays ago I served Liturgy in a parish in Moscow—even there the congregation was not divided into sides!]
Concerning Confession, each parish has varying schedules. In some parishes, confessions are only heard after Saturday evening services. In other parishes, they are heard after Saturday evening services and before the Sunday Liturgy. In my own parish, I am willing to hear a confession whenever someone approaches me, regardless of when it is—unless, of course, it is during a service. It is strongly advised that, as a means of preparation for the reception of Holy Communion, one participates in the Saturday evening Vigil or Vespers, assuming that it is offered. If the parish does not celebrate this service, however, this may not be possible. And in a place where there is only one Orthodox parish, one should simply do the best one can given the situation in which one finds oneself.
At any rate, while there is much about Orthodoxy on the internet that is spiritually edifying, there is also a great deal that only serves to confuse, especially if what is being said does not reflect the experience of the local parish community to which you will belong. [For example, quite some time ago I read on the internet that it is forbidden for Orthodox priests to celebrate liturgical services while they are wearing scents, such as after shave and scented deodorant. I have never heard of such a thing! Surely the ancient Fathers of the Church had never heard of Right Guard or Joop, and there are no writings which deal with such matters! What is frightening is that someone who was interested in Orthodoxy might read this and be turned away from Orthodoxy as a result.]
This brings up a vital point: the parish community. Every parish has its own unique texture and fabric, so to speak, based on any number of factors: background, location, age, origins, pastoral stability and effectiveness, etc. And one can only truly be a Christian within the context of a living faith community. There are many who would have every community be a clone of every other community which, of course, cannot be possible. There are others who are quite enamoured with certain customs, historical periods, etc. that while they may reflect certain realities in the life of the Orthodox Church are not universal.
An example may help: In my own parish, at the end of every service, we sing two special hymns, one in honor of the Saints of North America, the other in honor of the Holy Cross. Why? Because we have been blessed with relics of four of the ten North American saints and a relic of the Cross, all of which have been placed in two special icons that are highly venerated locally. This is a local tradition which evolved as a result of the presence of such relics, which most parishes do not have. It would be absolutely wrong for one of my parishioners to criticize another parish for not singing these hymns at the end of the services because it is a local custom which came into being as a result of our unique situation.
Hence, I would advise that you take your cue from the head of the parish of which you are a part—the parish priest.