There are a number of times we may be in other people’s religious spaces. Sometimes that’s for happy reasons – weddings, for example, or supporting a friend who’s making a commitment in a particular faith. Sometimes it’s for sadder ones, like a funeral. Sometimes it’s because we’re a tourist in a place, and we’d like to see a particular religious building or temple or shrine, but it’s also an active place of worship.
Here are my personal guidelines and things I think about.
From time to time, we may want to be at a religious service that’s not our own. (And actually, in the broader Pagan community, many of us do this a lot: we go to rituals in Pagan traditions or Pagan religions that aren’t ours too.)
There’s a great book called How To Be A Perfect Stranger by Stuart M Matlins and Arthur J Magida that is widely available in many libraries that covers basic etiquette suitable for things like attending a wedding, a funeral, or similar life event services in someone else’s religion.
Often, there will also be information provided by that particular religious community, either in printed form, in the program for that particular service, or by asking. Google is your friend here – try searching on the name of the religion, and terms like ‘guest’ or ‘etiquette’.
Many larger religious communities have some sort of prayer book or guide or missal (the term for it varies widely) – for situations like a funeral or wedding, the program probably has guidance if they know there will be a lot of people from outside that religious community attending.
As a general rule, I assume I should behave respectfully (stand and sit when other people do, bow my head, not talk or disrupt the service.) Even if other people are talking – some religious gatherings want that sort of thing – as a guest I’m probably better off being quieter unless I’m really sure what’s appropriate. Quiet is less likely to be the wrong choice.
I generally say the things in the ritual with which I agree, and keep silent on the ones where I don’t (and if I’m not sure, I don’t say anything.) I try to scope out what’s going to be said that I might need to reply to in advance, and any songs or other things like that that I might want to participate in. Again, if in doubt, I do the respectful silence thing.
Finally, I don’t participate in specific ritual pieces in that religion which require additional training or commitment in that religion.
For example, in Roman Catholicism (which is my previous religion), communion is a sacrament meant to be taken by Catholics who have received First Communion and who are in good standing with the Church. I’ve done the first, but I’m no longer the second, so I don’t take communion.
In other Christian denominations, communion is seen as an act of community, of breaking bread together, of being people together in a common setting. In some of those cases, I might consider it (but I’d want to check and do my research on what applies in that setting.)
Before you attend:
Here are some good things to figure out before you go.
- What do people in this particular religion or community call the people who are leading services? (Is that ‘Father’? ‘Pastor’? Their first name? Something else?)
- What’s the appropriate clothing? And specifically, do you need to cover your shoulders/head/knees? (A rectangular shawl in a light-weight fabric is very helpful if you’re not sure.)
- Think for a moment about how you’ll react if there’s a piece in the service that has people go to the front (for a blessing or communion – usually stepping into the aisle and then slipping back into the seating when everyone has gone by works.)
- Likewise think about how you’ll react if something is shared (food, drink, blessing) that you’re not sure you want to take part in.
- Is there someone who isn’t one of the main people involved who can help you with questions? (This might be a friend from that or a similar religious practice, or someone from that particular religious community or whatever.)
Being a visitor:
Other times in our life we might be visiting a new place, and want to see a site of interest that’s also a religious site. When that’s the case, there are some additional considerations. Here’s what I think through.
1) What does the religion do about the site?
Generally, if a place is open to tourists, I assume that it’s something the people in that religion and that space have given careful consideration to, and choose to do, for a variety of reasons.
Those might be spiritual reasons (a particular religious reason for openness), or more generally about sharing their faith or practices with others, or the fact that tourist money helps keep the roof from not leaking. Most places it’s likely a combination.
2) Does my visit disrupt use of the site
Is the way in which I am being a tourist/not a member of that religion interfering with the practice of the religion by the people who practice it?
A few months ago, I was in Baltimore with an appointment in the afternoon across the street from their basilica. They do their morning mass at 8am, and the tour starts at 9, when there’s nothing else in the building until the evening. So it’s a time when they can show off a (lovely) historical building, talk about the Catholic history of Baltimore (fascinating) and get good will for the building, maybe a bit in donations, and so on.
I generally prefer to avoid times when active services are going on, because even if it’s nominally allowed, that feels a lot more rude to me. (In settings where there’s a set specific service, that is: if it’s a shrine where things are left all day, that’s a bit different.)
3) Am I being respectful?
Am I doing useful things to be respectful of the space and its primary intended use?
This includes things like “It is rude to go into churches not wearing suitable clothes” and wearing what’s considered suitable for that space. (Many churches in western Europe, for example, want you to have clothing that covers your shoulders and your knees – no sleeveless shirts, no short skirts or shorts)
It includes being respectful about my reasons for being there (personally, if it’s just “Oooh, pretty” that’s probably not enough for me, but a desire to learn about the history of the space, what that space has meant for that religious community, the history and meaning of whatever art, etc. is much more comfortable for me.)
It includes me understanding enough about the space and religion to understand what might be seen as problematic or disruptive or whatever. (Are photos appropriate? Are some kinds of photos okay and not others? Etc.)
Doing things that disrupted the ability of the people who are using it fully as a religious space is something I consider extremely problematic – that’s like your loud talking example, or taking photos in a way that disrupted spiritual practices, or whatever.
4) Might something else be better?
If there’s spaces I’d like to see but are not generally open to the public deliberately (i.e. not a place with facilities for tourists, like tours or open hours or other things), then this is what asking is for.
There can be totally reasonable reasons for wanting to see Random Small Church – maybe a grandparent or other ancestor or whatever was active there in their youth, or was buried there, or whatever, or you’re doing some other sort of research that makes it relevant. But generally staff are glad to help then.
Portions of this essay come from a post I made in a discussion about visiting religious sites as a tourist in a country.
Written December 26, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.