How to avoid embarrassing your hosts

Published September 1, 1999

THESE DAYS, people increasingly are being invited – through family, friend or business contact to a wedding, funeral or other religious service of a religion not your own. These books tell what to expect and how to behave to avoid embarrassing yourself or your host. In the kind of diverse, multicultural society in which we live today, the idea for such a book merits high applause, even though there may be weaknesses in execution. It has an interesting history. It was first published a few years ago in the U.S. by a firm called Jewish Lights Publishing which, presumably in an attempt to sound more inclusive, has become Skylight Paths Publishing. Now, a North American edition – the one reviewed here – has appeared in Canada under the Northstone (Wood Lake) imprint, complete with a panel of Canadian consultants and including Canadian statistics and information. A total of 38 faith groups, plus sub-groups, are covered in the two volumes. Volume 1 deals with the mainline Christian denominations and more visible groups like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. The second volume covers smaller Christian and other less well-known non-Christian bodies. The customs of each are presented in a standard format: history and beliefs, the basic service, holy days and festivals, life cycle events (birth, initiation, marriage, funerals), and home celebrations. Within each is advice about appropriate attire and behaviour, description of the ceremony and whether or not gifts are acceptable, along with what to do about food.[pullquote]As a check on my own impression of the two volumes, I asked some interchurch/interfaith contacts to look at chapters related to their own group. All agreed the books are a valuable contribution to cross-cultural understanding, but each found a few surprises:- Roman Catholic: It’s not really inaccurate, but the church described seems much more conservative than what I recognize. – Islam: In Canada, Muslims face northeast (toward Mecca), not southeast as the book says. Also, the book says it is all right to refuse food at a reception, whereas this would really be a grave discourtesy. – Mennonite: As a General Conference of Mennonite Brethren member, I was surprised to discover that we don’t take up a collection! When it comes to the section on Anglicans, I was surprised to have to look under “E” for “Episcopalian and Anglican.” Surely in a Canadian edition it should be the other way around! In the list of worship books, we’re told “the Book of Alternative Services may be used,” but there is no mention of the Canadian Book of Common Prayer, which differs substantially from the BCP used by the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. One final nit-pick: the word “sanctuary” seems increasingly being used to denote the whole worship space of a religious group, but those of us in the liturgical tradition limit the word to the area immediately around the altar. Couldn’t we find a more universal word? Overall, though the reader might trip over small variations, these two volumes offer a valuable reference resource, enabling the guest at worship to feel comfortable, participate as fully as conscience allows, avoid violating another’s religious principles, while enriching one’s own spiritual understanding. You may even start by looking up a specific reference and end up reading the whole book.


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