by Carrie Willard
I feel like for as long as I’ve been a parent, and probably longer, there have been articles floating around the Internet about children in church: how to get them there, how to keep them there, what to do with them once they’re there, what they should wear, which parts of the service they should or should not be present in the sanctuary, and whether there should be aquarium-style “cry rooms” to hold them. For every derriere in the pews, there seems to be an opinion about the youngest saints among us, and their behavior in church. I’ve read these articles with interest and sometimes disgust, nodding my head at times, cringing more often than not, and sometimes rushing to close my browser window in a pained huff.
For all of the opinions that are loudly exclaimed about children, I haven’t seen much about adults’ behavior in houses of worship. In my handful of decades in church, I’ve seen everything from the benign-but-weird (adult male, upper-middle class, clipping his fingernails in the back pew) to the mildly rude (talking, and not sotto voce, through the entire sermon) to truly harmful, shaming behavior. As a clergy spouse, I’ve been the recipient of complaints about teenagers wearing jeans to church and damaging the pews (horrors!) and my husband blocking the faces of the children’s choir as he stood at the altar for the Great Thanksgiving. Most of these behaviors are merely mildly annoying, but when they hurt other people, the Holy Spirit whispers in my Mama Bear ear, and I get just irritated enough to do something about it.
I’ve seen truly beautiful moments happen in church and because of church, too, of course. I’ve seen little children dancing in the aisles, and knowing smiles exchanged when babies’ voices bubble up in the congregation. I’ve wept through weddings and funerals, and most of all at baptisms. The community that is built in worship extends beyond the walls of the church, and I’ve seen extreme generosity and love blossom from these beloved people. These moments make me want to invite people to church.
What gives me pause about extending an invitation isn’t my own natural shyness or embarrassment about church. It’s my fear that my friends, my invited guests, will be treated poorly. If you think these fears are irrational, you need look no further than the Houston Chronicle, which ran a piece a few months ago about a woman in a Houston suburb and what she wore to church. Another member of the church took a photo of this woman’s dress, and posted it on social media outlets, querying her followers about the appropriateness of the woman’s dress. The Chronicle published the photo with an article about the social media maelstrom that followed, and then asked its readers whether they thought the dress was appropriate.
I read the article and fumed. This was a prime example of Adults Behaving Badly. This goes beyond a breach of etiquette and creates a harmful, shaming atmosphere, in the place where people need to feel safe and loved. What Would Jesus Do?
I wrote the following letter to the editor:
To the Editor of the Chronicle:
I am writing in reference to the article titled “Pearland woman asks if dress is too sexy for church,” which ran on August 27, 2015. The article described a photo which was reportedly taken in a Pearland church and then widely disseminated on social media with a survey about whether the woman who was the subject of the photo was dressed appropriately for church. The woman who shared, and presumably took, the photo, was not the subject in question. Rather, she was asking about someone else’s attire. The article featured the photo in question.
Instead of asking the questions of why this photo was distributed so widely, and why it has captured our collective attention, the Chronicle instead polled its readers about whether the woman’s dress was appropriate church attire.
I see several problems with this approach. Instead of asking the questions of why someone’s dress is appropriate, I would have liked the Chronicle to examine why one worshipper’s attire is important or even relevant to other worshippers’ experience, much less how it might be relevant to your general reading audience. Furthermore, the piece makes the Chronicle an active participant in the shaming culture surrounding women’s dress.
I believe that all people should be welcome in church, regardless of their appearance. I believe that we are made in the image of God. I believe that church should not be a place of shaming or gossip, but a place of inclusion, love, welcome, and peace.
On that note, I invite your readers to come sit by me at church on Sunday, at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. We welcome all, in the name of Jesus, who welcomed the broken, fallen, messy outcasts.
The Chronicle didn’t publish my letter, but I started my own social media mini-maelstrom by sharing my concerns and, with the help of my friend JoAnne, creating the hashtag #sitbyme. I love it, because it’s welcoming, and also a tiny little snarky throwback to that wonderful Steel Magnolias scene when Clairee says to Truvy, apparently paraphrasing Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “If you can’t say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me.”
Would you like to come to church, but you’re not sure where to sit? #sitbyme. Are you uncomfortable because you don’t know which books are for singing and which are for praying? #sitbyme. If you don’t know what to wear or what to say or where to begin, please #sitbyme. If you’ve never set foot in a church or you’ve been coming here practically your whole life, then #sitbyme. Do you confuse the nave with the sanctuary? You’re not alone: you can definitely #sitbyme. Even if you sing off-tune, or yes, even if you trim your fingernails at church, you are more than welcome to #sitbyme.
I’ve had a few people take me up on it. I love company in the pews, and with two little boys as my constant companions, I usually have good snacks and stickers to share. And if you’re ever in Houston, I hope you’ll find Palmer and come #sitbyme.
Carrie Willard is a piano teacher, recovering lawyer, and food and cooking enthusiast living in Houston, Texas, with her husband and two young sons. She is the wife, daughter, sister and sister-in-law of Episcopal priests. This article is abridged from a post published in June 2015 on her blog, The Contessa-Curessa Project, at curessa.wordpress.com.