QUITE AN etiquette crisis is created during the summer months, when we can least bear it, by the failure of working people who eat their lunches outdoors to observe proper table manners, or tableless manners, to be more precise. Miss Manners has already received a flood of complaints from disgusted pigeons.

A downtown lunch outdoors, as a social event, is not identical to the country picnic. It is not customary, during the weekday lunch hour, to be attended by servants or to bring hampers containing tablecloths, silver and stemmed glasses. What would be charming on one's own grounds, or, as we say, "backyard," would be conspicuous on a street corner. Remember that the first rule of etiquette is to avoid ostentation, and a good rule it is, too, for those of us who can't afford it, anyway.

Most people don't seem to bring any of their household possessions at all to such luncheons, depending, instead, on the generosity of their caterers to supply whatever is necessary to get the menu down. Such generosity is not overwhelming, and Miss Manners advises regular eaters-out to supply themselves with, at a minimum, a firm holder for paper plates and a metal spoon or fork. A jail would issue you as much.

If you cannot manage that, Miss Manners will try to look the other way as you eat, and you will please not try to expect her to come up with a civilized way to pick plastic fork tines out of a tough quiche. The proper way to stir coffee if one has only a flat wooden stick is to fasten the cup's lid on tightly and drop the paper bag containing it onto a soft grassy field.

While menu-sharing is the inviolable rule of holiday picnicking (leading to such idiotic manifestations of hospitality as "Have some of my salad"--"I brought salad, too; you must have some of mine"), it is not a feature of lunch hour picnicking. A proposal such as "Here, have a bite of my tuna fish, and I'll try your bologna" is practically unparalleled for culinary dreariness.

Yes, one may eat with the fingers. No, not the yogurt.

Miss Manners assumes, dreamer that she is, that people of good sense realize the limitations of eating at ground level and restrict their appetites accordingly. Pizza yes, spaghetti no. Occasionally, however, one encounters a food that by definition is easy to eat, but is actually impossible, such as the high-rise, or club sandwich, or the low-slung submarine. The discreet eater jams the pieces of bread together, and then eats the main part of the sandwich by hand while allowing the overflow to settle onto a plate; and then grabs a fork and pretends that whatever has collected there is a salad that has suddenly made a surprise appearance.

Of course one does not litter the landscape. Miss Manners should not have to tell you that. A container is immediately designated for all the little bits of trash generated by a carryout meal, and having things blown away does not count as an excuse.

Remember, also, that biodegradable material is another term for garbage. And the pigeons Miss Manners has interviewed, while admitting to accepting bread crumbs, serve notice that they do not eat mustard from tiny torn plastic bags.

When you have mastered all that, Miss Manners will be ready to listen to the picnickers' complaints about the pigeons.

MISS MANNERS RESPONDS

Q: Recently I visited a Catholic church in my area out of curiosity in connection with an art history course I was taking. I went on my own to see some modern representations of the art and architecture I was studying. I made some effort not to interrupt a wedding or mass. Later, a friend asked me if I had kneeled and crossed myself when entering and leaving. I'm a Protestant, and did not. What is correct? Is the rule "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," or are rituals of devotion performed by a non-believer merely impolite mockery?

A: You will notice that the rule does not state that when in Rome, you must become a Roman Catholic. It is, indeed, improper to mimic the forms of a religion to which you do not belong.

Respect is quite another thing. If your religion does not require you to respect other people and their houses of worship, please convert to another one immediately.

Miss Manners has always been intrigued by the signs in European churches requesting visitors not to engage in "indecent behavior." She remembers when that meant a lady's wearing a short-sleeved dress--but hates to speculate on what it means now.

At any rate, the basics of respect are:

Wearing street clothes, rather than beach-wear, and observing the dress requirements (such as head coverings) of the religion.

Maintaining silence and its equivalent in gestures (no pointing) when there are worshipers present.

Keeping inconspicuous during services. In the case of weddings or funerals, that means keeping away entirely. At regular services, one follows the general or ecumenical movements of the congregation (standing up, bowing the head) but not the specific rituals of the religion.

The basic rule is that God's doors are open to all, but He gets understandably annoyed when people who are trying to talk to Him are interrupted by those who come to assess the furnishings.

Q:I write to you to let off steam, as well as to seek advice.

I have a 9-to-6 job, which I enjoy. However, I have always had a love for the theater. So I joined a theater group in the area which has a fine reputation. Each year the show is a hit and tickets sell out as soon as they go on sale. Being a cast member, I have clout at the box office; however, I must pay full price for the tickets, as proceeds from the show go to charity. There are no "freebies" for anyone.

The problem? People ask me for tickets, or I will mention to friends and acquaintances that I am in the show and then they want tickets. Well, getting reimbursed can often become an ugly nightmare. Granted, I should always get the money up front, but many times tickets will turn up at the last minute, and I will purchase them knowing that there are many people who would only be too pleased to attend the performance.

Many of my fellow thespians have the same complaint. I have lost about $50, but I know of some who are owed more than $200.

Being in a play is fun, but it can also be stressful and, at times, inconvenient. The last thing anyone needs at a time like this is added worries caused by some less than gracious rooters who refuse to pay up. I know that my future policy will be to refrain from purchasing tickets for anyone. But is there anything that can be done to get the money owed to me now? I am quite impoverished, but do want to do the proper and correct thing.

A: You are right. The role of the bill collector, among friends, is not a popular one. But an imaginative actor should be able to make any part sympathetic.

Suppose that, instead of dwelling on your lost $50, you were to reflect upon the meaning of the money to the charity that was the beneficiary of the show. The ticket money so carelessly forgotten by our friends could make the difference between the orphans having or not having their once-a-week treat of dessert after Sunday dinner, to which they look forward all week, for example. Or it could pay for precious life-and-death minutes on a kidney machine. Surely you know how to dramatize the situation, even if the charity you support is the Hungry Actor's Fund.

Now you must improvise a way of conveying this feeling to your audience. There is, of course, a technicality here, in that you have actually paid for the tickets out of your own pocket, and that all the orphans have therefore received their money (unless you also are without living parents). However, the dramatic truth, as opposed to the literal truth, is that the money paid for tickets rightfully belongs to the beneficiary of your munificence.

You rooked thespians must find someone to be the corresponding treasurer of the theatrical company. Choose someone who was smart enough to get his friends' money first. That person should send a cordial letter to the people on each actor's list of deadbeats, saying something like:

"The Thespian Society was honored to have you as patrons, and hopes you enjoyed the production of 'Here We Go Again.' Please forgive us for being late in coordinating our ticket records, but we depend on the volunteer services of our cast members whose time has naturally been limited. You will be pleased to know that your ticket money ($50 for two orchestra seats at $15 and two balcony seats at $10, payable to the Thespian Society at the above address) represents a day at camp for toddlers left homeless by last April's blizzard, who would otherwise be selling matchsticks past midnight."

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.