Church Etiquette for the Holidays

National Cathedral Photograph

Many people attend services or concerts in churches during the holidays, and the churches are very glad to have visitors and newcomers.  Because some people are not accustomed to church, however, they sometimes behave in ways that are considered irreverent.  Not being a regular church goer, I am as guilty of forgetting or ignorance as anyone else, so I know we all have something to learn about how to show respect to our neighbors and to the house we enter, especially during the holidays.

Even if the customs are not yours, it is good manners to respect them.  This is especially true for historic churches that are open to visitors and for the National Cathedral here in Washington, DC.  It is considered polite to show reverence for the church and its parishioners, even if you do not adhere to that faith.  To save embarrassment or accidental offense to others, here are some reminders.

Doff Your Hat

In winter, people wear hats more frequently.  Men and boys should remove their hats before entering a church (and it should remain off until you are outside), even if you are visiting a historic church as a tourist.  That includes baseball hats and knit caps.  By the way, it is also good manners to remove your hat in an elevator, restaurant, and while indoors, and it is considered inappropriate for a man not to remove his hat during the National Anthem.

If a woman is wearing any type of hat but a formal hat, she should also remove her hat.  A woman is not obliged to remove her formal hat in church (or during the National Anthem, at a concert, or in a restaurant), unless the hat is blocking the view of someone, although she may.  For more hat etiquette, please read this helpful post at http://www.bcvc.net/hats/

Keep a Respectful Silence

Very commonly, I see people holding whispered or hushed conversations while seated in the sanctuary of the church, for example, just before a concert or service.  I have done it myself.  However, I have learned since that it is considered impolite, as other people are often quietly praying at that time, or otherwise mentally preparing themselves for the service.  So silence should be kept.

In the sanctuary, electronic devices should be turned off, including cell phones and hand-held games.

Do Not Take Photographs

In many churches, you may not photograph or videotape a service, including a holiday service or wedding, without permission. In some cases, photography during a service is forbidden.  Often, there will be posted reminders.  If you would like to take photographs of a children’s pageant, service, or the holiday decorations before or after the service, please ask one of the vestry if you may do so before you snap the picture.  Usually flash photography is not permitted.

Mind Your Children

Usually the greatest offenders I see in church are adults, rather than children.  But I have also seen instances where parents allowed their children to run and play in the sanctuary during Christmas services and weddings.

Any baby in arms (who can’t walk) has immunity 🙂 although you would want to leave the sanctuary to comfort your howling baby.  The occasional baby gurgle or babble is expected in church.  However, I would question the value of bringing toddlers and young children to a service or concert that is organized for adults, if the child is too young to attend to and benefit from the sermon, or if they need to be entertained (with crayons or books) in order to remain quiet in the pews with their parents.  (This is only my personal view, not a commonly accepted form of etiquette.)  To me, that just seems to be asking for trouble, and it’s not fair to the children who would understandably become restless and bored.  If there is no children’s program or child care at the church where you can leave your child during a service or concert, consider leaving your children at home in the care of a sitter or relative.  Most churches offer at least one family service during the holidays.

Do Not Eat or Chew Gum

With the exception of Communion, you shouldn’t eat, drink, or chew gum in a sanctuary, or allow your children to do so.  If you need a cough drop, then unwrap it before you enter the sanctuary.  If you need more than one to get through the service, come back to church when you are well!

Miscellaneous Tips

When in doubt, look at what others are doing!  When a prayer is spoken, it is the custom to bow your head.

It’s considered impolite to cross your legs during a service.  You should also dress modestly when visiting a church.

Refrain from resting your feet on the kneelers.

It is considered impolite to leave the sanctuary before being dismissed by the priest, rector, or preacher.  In Catholic and Episcopal churches, it is additionally the custom to wait for the priest (or rector) to depart (commonly down the center aisle), and for the recessional hymn to end, before leaving the pew.

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