if you're hanging with your breath seeking peace
January 8, 2011 3:07 PM   Subscribe

What's the protocol on randomly visiting a church?

From this YouTube Video How to be alone at 45 seconds, she suggests that And there's prayer, and mediation, no-one will think less if you're hanging with your breath seeking peace and salvation.

I would like to sit in these beautiful places, and just think, just be, but I don't have a Christian background (nor any other religious experience) and I don't really want to connect with the clergy, not yet anyway. I just want to sit, and seek peace. Is this okay? Do I knock if the door is shut or just go away? Is it okay to take a picture? Or to make notes/sketches in a little moleskin?

Could you please tell me for each type of church, temple, place of worship, what the polite thing to do is (remove shoes, wear a scarf, cover knees, curtsey or not at the doorway)? Assume a total lack of knowledge (seriously).

Oh, bonus points, south east Queensland places of worship.
posted by b33j to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For an Orthodox church, which have sublime liturgies perfect for meditation, I always wear a scarf around my neck. If I see other women covering their heads, I use it as a headcovering, but in many churches no one does this anymore. It's hard to take notes because most people stand, but in a large church you can get away with sitting in the pews on the edges. Come early and talk to the priest or deacon, they might give you a tour in the dim candlelight and then you can take pictures. I did this recently. Some churches have significant icons or relics that they will show you.

I recommend standing near the choir. Some will let you join in singing if you can read music, but others it's just a good way to keep track of what's going on. When people go to take Communion, don't partake. Some people might offer you blessed bread after Communion, which you can take. After the service everyone will go greet the priest. You don't have to do this, but when you do, you kiss the cross and his hand. I didn't do this the first couple of times I went.
posted by melissam at 3:14 PM on January 8, 2011

Don't know about outside if the US, but when I was a kid church doors were open. Just open, as in walk in and sit down. Not during services, that is. Ten o'clock Tuesday morning, just sit in a pew and look at the stained glass. That stopped a long, long time ago.
posted by fixedgear at 3:23 PM on January 8, 2011

Also, for Orthodox churches, you might look into going to a vespers evening service, since they are often more meditative and less overwhelming because there are fewer people.
posted by melissam at 3:24 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't mean during services, I mean just whenever.
posted by b33j at 3:25 PM on January 8, 2011

And also, does another word follow orthodox like russian, greek, catholic?
posted by b33j at 3:26 PM on January 8, 2011

I've done this at Catholic churches and Protestant ones (Episcopalian, Congregational, Unitarian, once maybe a Lutheran church) and it's never been a problem to go when services weren't happening (assuming the church is unlocked, of course). There have nearly always been a few other people there, sitting quietly, thinking/praying. I'm not a Christian and no one's ever challenged my right to be there, or even talked to me if I looked like I didn't want to be talked to.

It might be...unusual to be seen taking photos if the building isn't historic, but as long as you're discreet and and disturb anyone else, it probably wouldn't be a problem.
posted by rtha at 3:26 PM on January 8, 2011

...and *don't* disturb anyone else, that is.
posted by rtha at 3:27 PM on January 8, 2011

Ah, Orthodoxy has two forms: Eastern and Oriental. Both are interesting and I've had many beautiful experiences at both. Some Eastern churches include Greek, Romanian, and Russian. Oriental includes Coptic, Ethiopian, and Armenian. But there are many more.

Perhaps email a local priest and ask if you could have a tour? Some might even have meditation time, as mine does, which is not a service.

Also, often the hour before vespers is reserved for that.
posted by melissam at 3:30 PM on January 8, 2011

About a year and a half ago, a friend and I decided to spend nearly every Sunday during the summer, "church-hopping." Both of us studied religion, but both of us come from a Muslim-ish background. While we know the basics of Christianity, and I'd been in cathedrals and things, I'd never really sat in on a regular Sunday service just to listen and experience it. We went to about 7 or 8 different churches. They were so, so very different. Some casual, some with people wearing their Sunday best, and ladies rarely without hats. Some were solemn, some were very active and quite emotional. Some had people that noticed us and asked us lots of questions and gave us lots of brochures. Some barely noticed we were even there. Every Sunday was a totally different learning experience.

Here's what I noticed were kind of uniform in pretty much all of them:
- they start on time. try to get there a few minutes early.
- grab a seat in one of the back rows - this we discovered, was kind of code for "hi, i'm new, i'm kind of just checking things out."
- pick up a program (often times at the entrance, on a table, or people handing them out)
- follow the lead of other people - stand when they stand, sit when they sit.
- on hymns - sing if you'd like. or mumble them to yourself. or just read along. all three appeared to be ok.
- don't take communion
- i would probably not take a picture or take notes during a service - before or after are likely fine for notes, and ask someone if you can take a picture, even if it's before or after.

Thanks for asking this - you're making me want to take up church-hopping again! :-)
posted by raztaj at 3:30 PM on January 8, 2011

I stayed at a monastery once for 5 days. I was doing a "self-directed retreat." Mostly I was unplugging from the internet, cell phone, and TV. I was left to my own devisings. I hung out in a chapel, napped in a meditation room (it was comfy), and did a lot of reading and writing in my little cell/room. It cost like $40 a night and was pretty darn cool. A google search is all I did to find the place I stayed at.

Also, I'm not religious and even if I were that wouldn't have been my religion. It was just a nice quiet place to hang.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:33 PM on January 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Where I live (Montreal) parish churches tend to be locked up unless a service is going on. The exceptions are several major downtown churches – the cathedrals and several churches that have cultural or historical importance, which are almost always open in the daytime. Some of these are tourist attractions but some are not, and seem to be simply regarded as city churches with general applicabiity where it isn't surprising for anyone to go in and just sit quietly for a bit.

I've gone into some of these churches and discreetly taken pictures – not with flash – and never had a problem with this. Sitting quietly writing in a notebook would probably trouble no one. If you behaviour is based on the assumption that everyone who's there is looking for some peace and quiet too, you should be fine.

For Catholics there's a bit of obligatory mumbo-jumbo about holy water, genuflecting and so on, on entering a church. Nobody expects a nonbeliever to do these things and I suspect many Catholics don't do it any more either.

I don't think there is any dress code for most churches now.
posted by zadcat at 3:36 PM on January 8, 2011

If you go to a synagogue on Shabbos (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) don't write; it falls under the definition of work, which you are not supposed to be doing on Shabbos.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:57 PM on January 8, 2011

If you want to take pictures, ask the priest or the pastor first. Otherwise, just walk in and so long as you are behaving peacefully and not bothering anyone, you should be welcome.
posted by pickypicky at 4:05 PM on January 8, 2011

When I was touring South America I visited a lot of Catholic churches. As I recall, I just went in, looked around, quietly took pictures, etc., and (1) no one seemed to care and (2) other people sometimes did the same thing. I think, but am not sure, that doors were open.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:29 PM on January 8, 2011

This would be catholic, protestant, anglican churches - if the door is open you just walk in, you can walk around, you can sit down, you can take pictures (not during services) and as long as you don't disturb anybody and are respectful of the fact that it's a place of worship you'll be fine. Especially in catholic churches you may want to make sure your clothing is appropriate. My nan taught us to dip our fingers in holy water and to courtesy towards the altar on entering churches but they were all catholic churches and it was almost 30 years ago in a catholic part if the world so not sure this would still be appropriate and probably never was expected of non catholics.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:29 PM on January 8, 2011

Have you tried Googling churches in your area? Many will have a website that tells you (mixed in with info about regular services and hiring it for a wedding) if they are shut most of the time or open at specific times for people to drop by and sit quietly (or talk to someone on staff). If they have a website that doesn't provide this information, you can email and ask. "You have a lovely church. Is there a time during the week when the doors are open for people seeking a quiet hour of contemplation?" This is not an unusual question at all. It's in the job description of the clergy to be available for people to ask questions--including (for some, especially) people who are not regular attendees.
posted by K.P. at 4:34 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a practicing and believing Protestant Christian, with no denominational affiliation who has spent time in an alarmingly high number of different church services, I can say that raztaj is right on the money, except for the notes part. That may be because any church where people aren't taking notes isn't the sort of place I go back to, generally.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:00 PM on January 8, 2011

I wouldn't worry about having to connect with the clergy. They may greet you in some churches and ask if they can help you with anything, but if you simply tell them you're just looking to sit and contemplate for a bit, they ought to leave you alone to your thoughts. Most would be happy to give you a tour or answer any questions too.
posted by zachlipton at 5:04 PM on January 8, 2011

You may find the book How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, Fourth Edition [link is Amazon US] to be helpful in your journeys. It's North American focused, but if you can get hold of a copy you might enjoy reading it to provide some background information on the places you end up.
posted by librarylis at 5:47 PM on January 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

If the Church is unlocked, just go in and sit down, nobody will bother you in most places. I even took pictures of the beautiful stained glass windows in the Catholic church my father attended as a child, and nobody bothered me. My non-religious son and wife visited some old churches in New Orleans and took pictures, it was fine. Old churches are peaceful, interesting and often quite beautiful. Go ahead and explore.
posted by mermayd at 6:20 PM on January 8, 2011

A couple of things I haven't seen mentioned, if you go to a service/Mass:

1. If/when the Collection Plate for donations/tithing comes around, don't feel compelled to contribute. If you want to, great - but it's not mandatory.

2. If they have a Coffee Hour afterwards, that's also not mandatory. But if you choose to go, it'd be a great chance to talk to parishioners and/or the pastoral staff. And sometimes there's more than coffee and doughnuts; my church serves a full on lunch after the service!
posted by spinifex23 at 8:24 PM on January 8, 2011

Do I knock if the door is shut or just go away?

Don't give up immediately if the large front doors are locked. Sometimes the smaller side doors will be open. But if they're all locked, knocking probably won't get you anywhere since no one will be inside.

Most Roman Catholic churches will have times for "Eucharistic Adoration" when the church will be open for people to sit quietly (it's not a service). The schedule might be listed on their website, or on the bulletin, or you can call the office and ask.
posted by martianna at 8:37 PM on January 8, 2011

Great answers, thanks, very helpful. It's going to take some time for me to sort through this. I appreciate your time.
posted by b33j at 9:02 PM on January 8, 2011

All the notes above are on point. I'd add that, if you're looking to go without people asking questions, you will in general have more luck the larger / more prominent the church is in the community.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:52 PM on January 8, 2011

Oh look what I found already (and didn't think to look before). This one is open 10am to 2pm for prayer and reflection (and has Gothic architecture).
posted by b33j at 10:01 PM on January 8, 2011

You might be interested in the reviews at Ship of Fools, though they are of services rather than of visits to churches at other times.
posted by paduasoy at 3:59 AM on January 9, 2011

Lots of people seem to go and wander round churches just to have a look, talking quietly amongst themselves. I've never heard of anyone having a problem with that, let alone having a problem with someone sitting to have a think.

Most of the clergy I've encountered are extremely welcoming and remarkably good at judging an appropriate level of interaction. If you find yourself talking to the vicar (unlikely, from my experience), you can probably have a nice chat about how lovely the wall hangings are and how peaceful the church is, without any pressure to spill your personal problems, or show up for services, or accept Jesus as your personal saviour.

For that matter, if at some point you did feel like talking about anything personal or spiritual, I'd expect a vicar to be a pretty good person to chat to, whether you're religious or not. They always seem very pleasant and professional and courteous.

Nearly all the churches I have had cause to wander in have been Protestant; I don't know much about Catholic churches or very evangelical ones, so YMMV in that case.
posted by emilyw at 6:48 AM on January 9, 2011

I was raised Catholic (now an atheist). I just wanted to interject here that I don't think it's necessary or appropriate in a Catholic church to use the holy water or genuflect if you aren't a believer (what people above are calling a "curtsy" is actually called "genuflecting"). The big no-no, however, is taking Communion if you aren't Catholic.

In my experience, though, Christian churches are frequently desperate for new members and are very welcoming to anyone who stops by as long as you aren't loud or disruptive. Women rarely cover their heads these days in church, but men are still expected to take their hats off; other than that, things are pretty casual. One thing you might consider, though, is that in more fundamentalist or mega-churches, someone is likely to approach you and try to chat you up in the hopes that you'll join. If you give anyone your phone number or address, they're likely to call or visit you. So I wouldn't fill out any "visitor" forms while you're there unless you don't mind being contacted.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 7:57 AM on January 9, 2011

First of all, a reminder to other commenters that the OP isn't strictly asking for etiquette DURING services, as the OP seems to be more so looking to visit houses of worship when there are NOT services going on.

If there's a big tourist-destination cathedral in your area, this may be the way to go; they'll be a little more likely to have the doors open during not-worship hours. Granted, this increases the likelihood that you'll have company, but not by that much unless you're talking about a HUGELY famous spot (say, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York).

I don't call myself Catholic anymore, but I do still sometimes drop in at St. Patrick's for similar purposes. I prefer going when there isn't a mass because I feel like I'm intruding on a service if I'm not staying there for it. As for etiquette, in the more "destination" spots like this, the powers that be are going to be used to non-members of whatever faith coming by and will sort of expect that they won't know any particular rules "by heart," and will usually have some basic code of conduct they'll ask for posted at the door (keeping quiet, not disturbing others, not running, basic stuff). I would imagine they would do the same if their codes were a bit stricter (i.e., if they would rather people take shoes off, they'd post a sign by the door).

But the thing to bear in mind is that they want to welcome in people that they don't know and who don't know about them. sometimes they can get a little enthusiastic about it -- I once stopped in at a Buddhist temple in San Francisco, and when I meekly poked my head in asking if I could just look around, the couple that was there tending the place grinned broadly and eagerly and waved me in, and then ushered me over to the altar and thrust a joss stick in my hands and so somehow I ended up making an offering of incense to the Buddha without intending to -- but it's going to be a very rare situation to find a house of worship that doesn't want to welcome people.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:40 AM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

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