I wrote the following after attending a service in a church that I wasn’t used to. It was originally intended to be published in the church magazine at my own church, but following some heavy opposition from my parents, I refrained. But here it is below, in full.
“A guide to visiting strange Episcopal Churches for young people
(Annotations based on personal experience.)
When entering a church with which you are unfamiliar there will be two reactions you will receive. Firstly, the look of disbelief from those that greet you. The ‘Are you lost?’ goes unspoken, but is obvious in their faces anyway.
Well, no. I am not lost. I know exactly where I am. What’s more I know when to stand up, when to sit down, which books to use and I can recite most of the service. Which is the joy of being in a church that hasn’t changed its order of service during my lifetime.
The second reaction you will receive is the look over your shoulder. Do not be alarmed, they have not simply decided you don’t exist. They are merely looking for the parent or grandparent who has dragged you along in an attempt to encourage you to join an organised religion.
I haven’t been dragged to church in a long time, but I can understand this reaction. Of all of my friends my own age, I am the only practising Christian. It occurs to me I need more friends.
When your expected guardian does not appear, smile and introduce yourself. Explain that you are here for the service. Try to do it without mentioning the truth.
The truth is that I happened to wake up early enough for once to actually make it to church. Yes, I am usually still asleep on a Sunday morning at ten o clock. I’m a student, I need a lot of sleep. If it wasn’t for my parents waking me up, I’d miss Sunday School. Which would be awkward considering I teach it.
Find yourself a seat in the church. Try not to sit too near to the front, you will look over eager. Similarly, try not to seat to close to the back as you will look as though you are hiding. Find an empty pew in the middle of the congregation. Unfortunately, this is usually not hard to do, due to a severe decline in church attendees over the last fifty years. Try not to feel morose about this. It is likely no one will sit next to you, although several people will come over to welcome you to the service ❲and check you’re not an errant grandchild❳. Do not be alarmed by this, much like on public transportation, your age serves as an intimidation factor.
This is particularly true if you’re wearing a leather jacket. I’ve no idea why.
If someone does sit next to you, it is likely because they didn’t check to see if the pew was empty when they sat down. Smile at them as well and busy yourself reading the notices.
Try not to compare their notices to the ones your own church provides. I find myself doing this and mentally keeping score of which church seems the more successful. This week I was amazed to find that they have a rota for who produces the pew leaflets. Fascinating.
You will often be the youngest person in the congregation. The majority of the congregation will be over fifty. There will be no one there of your age to talk to. Whilst this may also be the norm at your usual church, the congregation there have likely watched you grow up and are much easier to talk to as a result.
I find this to be almost always the case. Today’s church had no youth population, a fact that was later apologised over to me by one of the congregation during coffee.
You will be cold. Bring a coat. Yes, it is summer outside and yes, you look a little ridiculous bundled up in your scarf. You will look more ridiculous with hypothermia.
It is a truth universally accepted that Episcopal Churches are cold. I don’t know why this is, whether it’s due to high ceilings and stone walls, or simply because no one can remember how the boiler works. It was to my great amusement today that I noted that many of the congregation members had brought blankets.
You may be taken by surprise by the service order. This is because although the words are almost always the same, some churches like to vary the orders in which they are said just to keep people on their toes.
I always find this very suspicious, but that is because I am the sort of Episcopalian who finds anything new or different suspicious. This includes new hymns, new rectors, the use of projectors or electronic keyboards in church and even new altar cloths. We are a traditional lot.
You will be taken by surprise by the mass setting. No one uses the same setting as you do. Follow along as best you can, it will not be easy for the uninitiated.
Or at least if another church does, I’ve yet to visit them.
Pretend to read the order of service. Just because you can recite it doesn’t mean you should. People will look at you strangely.
I do this frequently. Mostly just to see if anyone will notice that my order of service is sitting unopened in the pew next to me.
Listen to the sermon. You may learn something. Or you may not. It varies greatly. If you do find yourself disagreeing strongly with the rector try to not let it show on your face. Avoid the temptation to look around the church to see if the rest of the congregation is on your side. You may have just caught the rector on a bad Sunday.
I hope it was a bad Sunday. I really do.
Sing the hymns. If you are lucky the church you are visiting is using a hymn book you are familiar with and have provided you with a copy to use. If you are unlucky the church will use a variety of hymn books and move liberally between them. Watch the rest of the congregation and attempt to mimic them. If the worst comes to it, hum.
Admittedly my own church has been guilty of this, but we do at least warn people before hand.
Add to the collection plate and go up for communion. If the Lord’s Prayer is a different version than you are used to, follow the rest of the congregation. Do not stubbornly mutter your preferred version under your breath.
I am also highly suspicious of modern versions of the Lord’s Prayer.
When the service ends wait for people to begin dispersing before you get up. They may have processions you are not used to or notices or extra hymns or any number of things. Getting up in the middle of these would be embarrassing.
Try not to shift restlessly either, which I am abominably bad at. I have a short attention span.
Return your books. Smile at people. Hope they invite you for coffee afterwards. If they do, go for coffee.
If they don’t it is because you failed to not seem intimidating. It is not because they aren’t having coffee. We’re Episcopalians, we always have coffee.
Shake the rector’s hand, even if you disagreed with them.
Don’t roll your eyes.
Drink your coffee or tea. Eat a biscuit, no matter how stale it is. Donate to their coffee tin. Answer the same question seventeen times.
Yes, I’m local. No, I don’t normally go here. Christ Church, Falkirk. No, I don’t know your friend from Falkirk.
Attempt to make conversation with people a great many years your senior. This will be hard. You have no shared life experiences and almost nothing in common beyond the church. Nod sympathetically when they tell you that the congregation used to be much bigger. Agree that it’s a shame. Tell them how many you have in your own congregation. This will inevitably come up. When they ask if you have a Sunday School, try to not sound proud when you tell them you do.
Unfortunately, I usually fail in this endeavour. Six children may not seem like many, but in the modern Episcopal Church, six is a blessing six times over. I am very proud.
Get up to leave. Thank them for their company and say that you hope to visit again when time allows.
Lie, if you have to. Be non-committal at least.
Leave. Feel homesick for the way things are done at your own church.
The great advantage of the Episcopal Church in Scotland is that we are varied in our solidarity. You can walk into any church and find that there are certain constants: the words in the service, the colour of the altar cloths, the availability of tea and biscuits and the way that young people are viewed. Each church is uniquely different and often the one that suits you best is the one you grew up in. But our variety allows to reach a wide range of people, our variety is what keeps us going.
Accept the empty spaces in pews. It is not what it used to be. That is okay. But also accept that the empty spaces are quickly becoming your responsibility. When asked, talk openly about your church and your religion. Do your best to rise up to the challenging looks and the derisive comments. Reach out to your brothers and sisters in faith. Not just to those in the Anglican Communion, but to all be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or otherwise. It is a hard world to have a faith of any kind in, so band together with those who do. No matter how suspicious you may regard them, try to embrace new ideas. Pray, if you feel you can. Hope, if you think you have the heart for it. Shy away from teachings of hate, your life isn’t long enough for the effort hate requires. Love freely, love honestly and love openly. Do not be ashamed of who you are.
And remember that the most important part of visiting a different Episcopal Church, no matter how strange it may turn out to be, is the feeling of familiarity and community when you step in the door. Despite your age, you do belong here.”