10 Commandments of Church Exploration|
Churches, particularly Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, have this weird hang-up that works in favour of explorers. Having developed their faiths, cultures and traditions in an age when they were the official churches to which everyone belonged, by law, the big churches have not yet adjusted to the fact that church attendance is now the exception rather than the rule. The Catholic Church, in particular, has a great deal of trouble admitting to itself that not all people are Catholics "catholic", after all, means universal, and the Church is founded on the idea that it serves all souls. Officially, all churches, even the ones that have never been dominant, like the Baptists and the Adventists, don't so much wonder if strangers wandering through their doors are members of their faiths as if strangers wandering through their doors are members of their faiths yet.
This attitude makes churches very hesitant about blatantly refusing admission. It does happen, of course. Some churches exclude people for not being dressed well enough one Toronto church won't allow women wearing pants to attend, and I don't think they mean it in a sexy way. Some churches exclude those who have never gone bobbing for angels by posting that they are open to "all baptized people". But most churches prefer to simply hint at who is welcome and who is not, by posting their signs all in one language, by posting pictures of the minister and congregation ("if you look like us, come on in"), or by rushing up to any undesirable elements and asking if they can be helped. Refuse to acknowledge these impolite hints and walk right in. If they don't want you in their undoubtedly tax-exempt public house of worship, make them come right out and say it. In my opinion, this isn't being impolite the reason they can't actually tell you that you're not welcome is that it goes against everything they believe that they believe. By calling their bluff, you're challenging them to live up to their self-imposed code, and thus doing them a philosophical favour. (This justification has worked for me, anyhow.)
That said, if you're there to explore, there's no reason to draw any more attention to yourself than absolutely necessary, so here are 10 pieces of advice that I've pretended are commandments:
1. Thou Shalt Dress Nicely. While most churches don't really expect everyone to show up in their Sunday best anymore, it's a good idea to look semi-respectable. Shorts and short skirts are inappropriate, and jeans may also draw some attention in more formal churches. A t-shirt is fine, but a dress shirt is better, and dress shoes will also help. If you wear a hat, take it off when you come inside. Wearing a crucifix necklace could help but isn't necessary.
2. Thou Shalt Not Bring The Gang. You can't show up to explore a church with eighteen of your closest friends in fact, unless you're able to go as a mixed-gender couple or a family, you're probably better off going by yourself. People do not go to church with groups of their friends.
3. Thou Shalt Observe The Forms. A few subtle gestures and postures can go a long way, so do what everyone else does. This may involve standing, bowing, curtseying, kneeling or genuflecting. Genuflecting (literally "bending the knee") is a solemn curtsey practiced by Anglicans and Catholics. Catholics cross themselves. Everybody bows their head. It will not normally be necessary to yell "Hallelujah" or to speak in tongues.
4. Thou Shalt Be Honest. Don't claim to be more religious than you are, or claim to be of a different faith than you are. Not only can this lead to a long, complicated string of lies (when, for example, you're quizzed about how your regular minister is doing), it's simply not necessary.
5. Thou Shalt Not Try To Come Off Like A Regular. You can occasionally blend in at a cathedral, a shrine or a big church, but most small parish churches are attended regularly by only two or three dozen families. All the people there know each other well, so don't try and act like you're just dropping in for your regular weekly batch of praying. Have some other reason for being there.
6. Thou Shalt Be Patient. While churches are rarely well populated, exploring churches occasionally requires one to interact with the faithful, and this requires serious patience. Oh god does it require patience! Patience to the point where you'll want to throw up. But try not to. If you ask about the church, you'll have to hear about every past pastor and what he died of. If you ask for a quick tour, you'll be given an hour-long lecture on the symbolism of each the church's 9,418 seemingly identical depictions of Mary and Jesus. If you are so foolish as to ask to have any matter pertaining to religion explained to you, well, make sure you have a comfortable chair. Endure it. You never know when someone will suddenly whip out a key ring and show you something wonderful.
7. Thou Shalt Smile. I know you're nervous, I know you think nuns are creepy, I know you're frustrated about all those locked doors, but hoist those mouth corners aloft nonetheless. People smile at each other in church. It's just the way it's done.
8. Thou Shalt Take Pictures Subtly. Many churches have rules against photography, for one reason or another, but they're usually willing to let non-flash photography slide.
9. Thou Shalt Not Steal or Damage Anything. Anyone who vandalizes or steals from a church should go directly to hell, as they've pushed churches one step closer to installing retinal scanners and facial recognition systems.
10. Thou Shalt Behave Respectfully. Behave as if you are appropriately impressed by everything, even if you aren't. Don't lean against reliquaries or tie your shoes on a statue. Don't play with the holy water. Take off your hat. Turn off your cellphone. Use your best manners. Save the laughter until you leave. Whatever you think of religion, you have to admit that churches are among the last remaining places on Earth where visitors are made to feel welcome even if they aren't there to spend money. Respect is due.