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Mind Your Manners: Church etiquette


By Stephne Goddard

My goodness, I never thought that last week’s article would have prompted so many (positive) comments and questions. Thank you all. Actually, I have received several letters over the past few weeks concerning poor manners at church, even one from a visitor to our island.

So this week, I am now committed to addressing the congregation.

In one sense, we should not be surprised at the lack of proper manners and dress at church. After all, we live in a society where people pierce their body parts – eyebrows, noses and tongues – just like the farmers do with their animals (although even the animals are spared tongue piercing.

More and more, I see casual attire at weddings and funerals, which were always considered to be “dress-up” events. Many people have lost all sense of basic politeness, like holding the door open for someone, especially a lady, or offering a seat, especially to an expectant mother or an elderly person. I was raised by good, diligent parents and family members to be a lady, so you may call me old-fashioned or a prude if you like.
Very seldom these days are the words “please” and “thank you” heard. So, we should not be surprised if such a lack of manners overflows into our churches or other houses of worship.

So while it may not be surprising, that is not good reason enough for us to condone it or lower ourselves to it. With regard to church, or whatever our place of worship may be, each of us should strive for good “church manners” and parents especially should make sure they are teaching their children good manners and show them good examples.
Manners are a direct result of the holy word, for the Bible says, “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile. Let him eschew evil, and do good. Let him seek peace, and ensue it.” 1 Peter 3:10-11.

First, let us start at how we prepare for Church. People should dress appropriately. In our society, we still consider jacket and tie for men and formal dresses for women appropriate attire for weddings, for special parties (even the office Christmas party) and certainly for meeting dignitaries. We should then dress in the same way to meet our Lord. We must still be neat, clean and properly attired. In deciding what to wear, we should be thinking, “I am dressing to meet my Lord and to participate in the mystery of my salvation.”

Do not dress in a dull or depressing fashion, but at the same time, crazy clothing or careless dressing is not appropriate here. Keep your body covered in such a way as to keep everyone’s mind on holy things. So cover up your underwear and dress respectfully. Enough said on that. I can’t speak for God, but I certainly do not want to see four inches of briefs or a thong peeking above a pair of low slung jeans while kneeling to pray. Pull up those pants, lower the dress hems, put on a shirt, take off the sunglasses and leave the graphic tee shirts that read “Wuh Gine On?” at home.

Next, leave home with time to arrive at church before Church begins, preferably about five or ten minutes. It is rude to arrive after the service has started. As with any other function, we should always be punctual.

When arriving at Church, discard any chewing gum in a proper manner. There must be a special place in purgatory for those who stick gum underneath the pew. Those who leave their cigarette butts everywhere will probably end up in the same place. Gum chewing and cracking and snapping is noisy, distracting and just plain rude. Plus, it should never ever be allowed to mix with the communion wafers. As far as mints and other hard candy, it’s okay to keep one in your mouth, but please refrain from unwrapping all ten pieces of your favourite sweets during the sermon. Cellophane wrap is equally noisy and distracting for those who are paying attention to the sermon.

When entering the Church, be sure to make the sign of the cross; this gesture reminds us of our baptism. Before entering the pew, be sure to genuflect, an important act of reverence to the presence of our Lord. Also, please turn off the cell phones and the beepers; everyone not only can give some undivided attention to God, but also spare everyone else the distraction of a phone ringing during Church.

In worshiping, participate in the songs and prayers, follow the readings and listen attentively to the homily. I am always surprised at those “pillars of salt” who never open their mouths to sing or pray, or the pew potatoes who read the bulletin during the homily. Everyone should joyfully and reverently participate in the Church. Bow your head during prayer. Prayer means bowing one’s head, and not spying on everyone else to see if they are bowing their heads.

Before leaving home, parents should make sure the children go to the bathroom. People going in and out of the pews during Church is distracting. Granted, there are legitimate reasons for having to use the bathroom during Church. My pet peeve is the continual stream of adults and children who repeatedly jump up and down to go to the bathroom during the sermon. Use the bathroom before you go in, and if you must go again, quietly slip out when everyone is standing up and singing.

Parents need to supervise their children. Jesus loves the little children, but they do need our help. If a child is fussy, then the parent should quickly take the child to the outside and let the child calm down before returning. Children should not be allowed to rattle keys, drop toys, kick the pews, take off their shoes and socks, or run in the aisles. These behaviours are distracting to the other people.

When receiving holy Communion, always do so reverently. We should be very conscious that we are receiving our Lord. If receiving on the hand, the hands must be clean and held like a throne for the Lord. After receiving, one should consume the Sacred Host before turning around to go back to the pew. Holy Communion must not be reminiscent of a cafeteria line experience, but rather of an encounter with the Lord.

After Communion, each person must give thanks for the precious gift received and allow the grace to fill our souls. How tragic it is to see people leave Church right after Communion, not because of an emergency, but because they want to get out of the parking lot first. I can only think of Judas, who was the first person ever to leave Church early. To give the Lord one hour – and usually less – for the holy sacrifice of the Church is really not much of a sacrifice. I wonder how these same people would feel if someone left their own home in the middle of the meal without even saying thank you.

Finally, after the Church has concluded with the blessing, wait until the priest has proceeded down the aisle before leaving the pew. The congregation should disperse only after the recessional hymn has concluded. However, before leaving the pew, check for all your belongings, if not, someone else has to attend to them. Don’t litter. After the service, pick up your sweet wrappers, crumpled bulletins, and the
20 collection envelopes that you allowed your children to scribble on during the service. Don’t leave a mess for the ushers, who are volunteers, to clean.

Going to Church is indeed a social time, a time to gather with other members of the faith community to sing, worship and give thanks.

Manners make life more pleasant for everyone, the one who practises them, and those on the receiving end. We need to restore good manners in our society, so that we can live in peace and perform the duties of our roles.

While I am sure that this list is not exhaustive, I also do not want to seem cynical or condescending, but only teach proper respect for the Church, or whatever your place of worship may be.

Yes, we live in a very carefree and informal world where many people have forgotten proper manners and discipline. As my grandfather, the late Barry Springer, used to say “See you in Church”.

(Stephne Goddard is a training consultant and one of the island’s leading authorities on etiquette.)

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