Sunday 6 April 2014

Church attendance manual (1): arriving late

Upon arriving late for church, it is important to follow the appropriate Liturgical Rules for latecomers. These rules vary from church to church. There is no single "Christian rule" for late arrivals. In fact, the lack of uniformity on this matter has been a major obstacle to ecumenical relationships. To follow the Pentecostal Rule upon arrival at a Catholic mass, or the Anglican Rule upon arrival at a Presbyterian service, would generally be considered a serious liturgical indiscretion.

In 1948 the World Council of Churches proposed to establish a Commission on Late Arrivals. However, plans were abandoned when it became apparent that the representative churches were unable to agree on a definition of the word "late". A prominent Greek Orthodox delegate argued that "lateness" designates arrival more than twenty minutes after the specified starting time; while several Presbyterian theologians insisted that "lateness" technically refers to any arrival less than three minutes prior to starting time. These thorny and intractable questions of definition perhaps belong more to the philosophy of time than to liturgical studies, and as a result I make no attempt to resolve them here. The following ecumenical manual has been prepared simply as a general guide to the differing Liturgical Rules for late arrivals in various church traditions. It is hoped that this manual will lay the foundation for further study in this field, and that it will prove useful as a practical aid for those emergencies of punctuality that can strike even the most conscientious of churchgoers.

Roman Catholic
What to do: Make your way to a seat promptly but discreetly. Before joining in the liturgy you must do a quick spiritual catch-up. This involves several seconds of kneeling. Anywhere between five and eight seconds is acceptable (less than five seconds would be disrespectful; more than eight would be a mark of pride or fanaticism). Under no circumstances may you join in the liturgy until this catch-up has been performed.
What to think: "Honestly though, it really doesn't matter if I'm late as long as the priest is on time."

What to do: Same as the above, except that the spiritual catch-up is performed in an attitude of mild-mannered English contrition. You are not only catching up, but are also expressing regret for having behaved in a discreditable way.
What to think: "I am ashamed for being late, but not as ashamed as I look."

What to do: If you enter while someone is saying a prayer, you should stand just inside the doorway like a soldier at attention. You may not relax this posture until the prayer is ended, at which time you should march briskly all the way to the front row and sit down, head held high. You are not Catholic; you have nothing to be ashamed of.
What to think: "Even lateness can be a virtue when it is done decently and in order."

What to do: It is easy to make yourself inconspicuous as long as you arrive during those parts of the service (i.e., nearly all of it) in which everyone is milling about. Kiss the icon as quick as you can and try to blend in. Maintain a deadpan expression so as not to attract attention. If for any reason you have to enter while everybody is standing still and paying attention – during the Gospel reading, for example – it is probably better to stay outside and smoke another cigarette while you wait for the milling-about to resume.
What to think: "I wonder if Michael and Eleni will be coming for lunch today. I forgot to check if we have enough wine. I ought to stop by for a few bottles on the way home. Four bottles, just to be safe."

What to do: Stroll in, look around amicably, give somebody a high-five, greet a few people and exchange remarks about sports while you are looking around for a seat. Sit down, put your feet up, and check your phone for messages before joining in the next song.
What to think: "I wonder if anyone will notice if I stick my gum under this chair."

African American church 
What to do: Park your car. Sit there for a few moments contemplating the looks you will receive when you come in late. Think about what you've done. What would your mother say if she could see you now? Then start the engine and drive straight home again.
What to think: "I will probably go to hell for this."

Messy Church
What to do: If the other kids have taken all the crayons, reach across and grab the ones you want. You can also push one of the smaller kids out of his chair if you want to sit there. But don't try pushing Jack's little brother or he might start trying to bite you again.
What to think: "If that girl doesn't give me the blue crayon, I'm going to kick her in the shins. My picture of Jesus is going to be the best."

What to do: The important thing is to demonstrate your spiritual vitality as you make your way to your seat. Sing with boisterous abandon as you walk, give your arms a little wave, shoot a few joy-of-the-Lord smiles at other worshippers as you pass them in the aisle. Upon taking your seat, it is also permissible to speak loudly in tongues for a few seconds, or to call out hallelujah, as a way of formally announcing your arrival.
What to think: "I'm only late because I was doing something even more spiritual before I got here."

What to do: Whatever you feel like. There is no difference between this church service and any other gathering of like-minded individuals. 
What to think: "I think that woman is looking askance at me. Is it because I'm arriving forty minutes late? Some of these people still haven't freed themselves from their old institutional hangups. I'm sick of being treated like this. I really need to find a more inclusive community."

Fresh expressions
What to do: Come on in, pour yourself a coffee, give someone a hug, find an armchair, make yourself comfortable, update your Facebook status on your phone. Then greet everyone and begin to lead the service.
What to think: "I am late in order to challenge stereotypes and to get people out of their comfort zones."


Anonymous said...

Hilarious! Likeall good satire it hides more than a kernel of truth.

Anonymous said...

Great job. I'm a perpetually late evangelical. I'm happy to say I feel zero judgment from my co-parishioners. (I realize not everyone will thing this is a good thing.

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