Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Church Etiquette

Dear Friends,

I’ll never forget the young guy who had stopped off on his way to our church to buy a breakfast burrito, sat down in a pew and scarfed it down during the worship songs. The odor of beef and onions cooked in lard became the liturgical incense that filled the church that morning. Then there was the woman who would come in, sit down and noisily kick off her shoes complaining to all around her that her feet hurt. Those same people had the manners to not complain back to her that her feet smelled. A young woman in her twenties, brought by her parents, would often wear very tight tee shirts and very, very revealing pairs of shorts that definitely upset the wives in the congregation but didn’t seem to upset the husbands.

For years the young married couple came to our church every Sunday. When the worship songs started, he began to play games on his phone. When the sermon started, he put his phone away and his wife took out hers and used Google to “fact-check” everything I said in the sermon. If I said that “Jesus was God,” she would come up to me after the service and school me on all of the sites she found that denied the deity of Jesus. 

I visited the church of a pastor friend one time where a woman took out her knitting as soon as the sermon started. I was wearing my clerical collar and on my own best behavior which was the only reason I didn't strangle her as the clickety-clank of the aluminum knitting needles reverberated in the sanctuary. For those of us in my generation, we remember a time that, no matter our behavior anywhere else, our manners in church were impeccable. 

After I recently came across The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette And Manual Of Politeness published in 1875, I marveled at how much society has changed, just within my own lifetime. As I thought about the extraordinary changes in our churches, I realized that in this 1875 book, while the language is old-fashioned, much of it still describes the attitudes and behavior of people when I was young. You may, as I did, enjoy reading the chapter on Manners In Church:

It is not, in this book, a question, what you must believe, but how you must act. If your conscience permits you to visit other churches than your own, your first duty, whilst in them, is not to sneer or scoff at any of its forms, and to follow the service as closely as you can.

To remove your hat upon entering the edifice devoted to the worship of a Higher Power, is a sign of respect never to be omitted. Many men will omit in foreign churches this custom so expressive and touching, and by the omission make others believe them irreverent and foolish, even though they may act from mere thoughtlessness.

Enter with your thoughts fixed upon high and holy subjects, and your face will show your devotion, even if you are ignorant of the forms of that particular church.

If you are with a lady, in a Catholic church, offer her the holy water with your hand ungloved, for the church requires all the ceremonies to be performed with the bare hand.

Pass up the aisle with your companion until you reach the pew you are to occupy, then step before her, open the door, and hold it open while she enters the pew. Then follow her, closing the door after you. 

If others around you do not pay what you think a proper attention to the services, do not, by scornful glances or whispered remarks, notice their omissions. Strive, by your own devotion, to forget those near you.

You may offer a book or fan to a stranger near you, if unprovided themselves, whether they be young or old, lady or gentleman.

Remain kneeling as long as those around you do so. Do not, if your own devotion is not satisfied by your attitude, throw scornful glances upon those who remain seated, or merely bow their heads. Above all never sign to them, or speak, reminding them of the position most suitable for the service. Keep your own position, but do not think you have the right to dictate to others. I have heard young persons addressing, with words of reproach, old men, and lame ones, whose infirmities forbade them to kneel or stand in church, but who were as good Christians as their presumptuous advisers.

I know that it often is an effort to remain silent when those in another pew talk incessantly in a low tone or whisper, or sing in a loud tone, out of all time or tune, or read the wrong responses in a voice of thunder; but, while you carefully avoid such faults yourself, you must pass them over in others, without remark.

If, when abroad, you visit a church to see the pictures or monuments within its walls, and not for worship, choose the hours when there is no service being read. Even if you are alone, or merely with a guide, speak low, walk slowly, and keep an air of quiet respect in the edifice devoted to the service of God.

In church, as in every other position in life, the most unselfish man is the most perfect gentleman; so, if you wish to retain your position as a well-bred man, you will, in a crowded church, offer your seat to any lady, or old man, who may be standing.


In today’s culture of self-centeredness, rage, rudeness and “cancellation,” this 333 page Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette And Manual Of Politeness reminds us of a time when people read etiquette books in their personal quest to be more kind, thoughtful and considerate. We can laugh at the old-fashioned, out-of-date behavior in 1875 but think for a moment what society would be like if we had a 2023 Manual of Politeness for Ladies and Gentlemen that we actually followed today!

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