Wednesday, August 2, 2017

My kingdom for a pew. . .

Is there anything more reassuring than a church pew?
Simple. Humble. Sturdy. Two rough-hewn planks, fastened with a handful of nails, permanently fixed to the floor—and open to all. Occasionally padded, often not; not comfortable, exactly, but comforting. An invitation to the weary traveler to sit and hear the Word of God proclaimed; a simple reminder that we follow a humble, crucified carpenter; the perfect symbol that all are equal at the foot of the cross. From the greatest king to the poorest pauper, from the holiest saint to the most desperate sinner, all have sat in these pews before us, pondering their failings and begging for mercy. Despite the advent of stadium-style seating and auditorium-like worship halls, the simple, ancient pew endures—and no wonder, because it is, and always has been, the perfect metaphor for the faith.
Seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down—that is, about the time of the Protestant Reformation.
Except—nothing I just said is even remotely true. In fact, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of all that. Would you like to know the true story of the pew? Okay, then—buckle up. (But not actually, though, because pews don’t have seatbelts.)

It turns out that there’s no evidence of churches having seating of any kind for at least the first 1,400 years or so of Christianity. In other words, Augustine, Athanasius, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin—all those guys very likely lived their whole lives attending churches that were standing-room-only. During ancient Christian worship, parishioners could stand, kneel, or even mill about the nave if they so chose. There’s no record of whether they engaged in stage dives and crowd surfing, so we’re forced to assume they did.
You can read the whole article at your leisure.  Perhaps it is all passe since the move among the leading edge of architecture is not pews at all but individual seats, often like the comfy ones you sit in while watching the big screen -- complete with cup holders and a reclining mechanism.  In any case, the invention of the pew has not been without its problems.  It has contributed even more to the idea that those in the pew are mere spectators, that worship is seen and heard rather than done, and that the ultimate goal of that worship is its useful or entertainment value (in other words, did you learn anything useful or did you enjoy it).

Although I am certain I am in a minority, I have mixed feelings about pews.  On the one hand they appeal to me and to my need to keep things orderly (the German in me?).  It certainly organizes the place where people sit and makes it easier to survey the people, count them, and make for an orderly route to and from the altar.  But the sitting part has definitely become problematic.  I have seen many service folders directing people to stand as able or even kneel as able, meaning the most likely and normal posture of pedagogy, prayer and praise is sitting.  That is a conclusion I am not ready to grant.

In other words, seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down—that is, about the time of the Protestant Reformation. In order to emphasize how not-Catholic we were, we began to jettison everything from our worship: confessions, creeds, communal prayer, a weekly Eucharist—basically everything except long, boring sermons. And when your “come to church” sales pitch is essentially “Listen to me yammer about Jesus for several hours!” the response is predictably going to be “Uh, can I at least sit down for that?”
The problem is not seating, per se, but the idea of my comfort being the chief criterion for determining the value or success of worship.  We sit because we are comfortable sitting and we may not be as comfortable standing or kneeling.  Among some even the Sacrament is distributed in the pews so as to prevent any real need from doing anything but sit.  If my comfort is the key, then the shape of that seating will conform to my comfort level (the plusher the better!).

As I admit willingly, I am jousting with windmills in an impossible effort to dethrone either comfort or seating from the posture of praise.  But it has never stopped me before.  And our cousins in the East have not found it a significant problem to stand for a much longer time than the sacred 59 1/2 minutes sacred to Protestantism.  I will not make a rule of it but neither will I make it subject to your comfort level whether you will sit, stand, kneel, or walk around.  Some things are aided by a certain posture and are identified with an inward spiritual posture.  To give this up for sitting all the time is to give up the very idea that God is greater than I am.  What does confuse me, however, is how the old pews we are stripping out of churches are snapped up, painted, and planted upon porches, in hall ways, and in gardens throughout suburbia.  So perhaps it is not the pew that is the problem.  It could be me!


Anonymous said...

An Eastern perspective the propriety of sitting in church. This part is short and goes to the heart of the issue.

Move the dial to 1:06:20 Eastern perspective the propriety of sitting in church. This part is short and goes to the heart of the issue.

Move the dial to 1:06:20

Anonymous said...

Pews often serve as anchors for kneelers (another item vanishing from modern churches). Used in this way, they kneeler is ever at hand and always in the same position. It is true that with individual chairs, kneeling hassocks can be used, but this seems to be rare.

It seems to me that the move to individual chairs is strongly related to the idea that churches need to have the worship space double as a parish hall and/or a basket ball court. The concept of a space made holy, that is, set aside specifically for worship and no other purpose, is being removed. I fear that the removal is deliberate, an effort to dethrone God.

Fr. D+

William Weedon said...

I admit: I hate pews. Most unchildfriendly thing that the church ever did. And I detest sitting for any length of time (hence, love my standing desk). I honestly have a great deal of difficulty focusing if I can’t move around. When our floors were being redone at St. Paul’s, seeing the great open space that was the nave, I thought: “PERFECT!” Alas, I’m a very minority opinion on this!

John Joseph Flanagan said...

A combination of sitting and standing at various times marks most worship services. I like pews better than individual chairs. ( It must be due to my childhood delight in "sliding" across the pews at great speed). Nevertheless, now I am in the 70 plus crowd, and my wife and I can stand up only so long. If you haven't noticed, many churches have more older members than young ones, some of whom come to church with canes and let's not get rid of the pews. God is practical and kind, and is not impressed by phoney piety from those who wish to stand only.

Anonymous said...

When you consider that the aging and older members are now
becoming the majority of many parishes, then you understand
the need for pews in LCMS congregations. As a previous poster
mentioned there is rhythm during the worship hour between sitting,
standing, kneeling and walking to the chancel for Holy Communion.
Some parishes stand for certain hymns and this adds to the standing
during the liturgy and the Gospel Lesson and prayers.

Pastor Rich Balvanz said...

Interesting to me is how standing is to be pursued among Lutherans but lifting one's hands in prayer and praise is frowned upon. Is that simply too "up" for us?

Carl Vehse said...

What about those church carpets other than red? Where is that allowed in the Lutheran Confessions, huh?

And for the edification of the church, during the postlude, shouldn't the ushers let pews out one at a time starting from the front? This would keep everyone from just getting up at once and clogging the aisles, talking to each other.