Monday, August 31, 2020

Lecture Halls or Churches. . .

CFW Walther once complained that the churches of America looked more like lecture halls than churches, places that appealed to a cerebral Christianity but not places where the people of God met before His Word and Supper.  If that was true long ago, it is still true.  Americans build our churches with a focus toward the stage at which the action takes place and provide comfortable seating complete with cup holders so that everyone can enjoy the show.  Though music is a big part of the typical Protestant service, most of it is warm up to the main event.  The sermon is still king although I am not sure you can call it a sermon in the way that term was once used.  These are more inspirational talks built upon a tidbit of Scripture stolen from its context and used to encourage the people to believe that cares for them and wants them to be happy, healthy, and have all the things they desire.  Though the seats were once laid out in grand stadium style, COVID 19 has moved us to the galleries of home, complete with lounging furniture, watching it all unfold on the screen.

I am not sure I like pews.  Oh, I get why we have them.  The service is long and not only the elderly need to have time to sit.  But I am not sure that pews have helped what happens in the worship services of God's House.  In many churches the seats are placed so close together that it is impossible to kneel and hard to stand and difficult to pass by someone already seated there.  When seats are too comfortable we are moved to spectate more than participate and when seats restrain us we feel even more distant from what happens in the Divine Service. 

Pews tend to be latecomers to the design of a church.  Seating, when there was seating, was in the form of spare benches.  Although some might suggest that seats evolved for comfort, I wonder if that is true.  When we visited Colonial Williamsburg and the Bruton parish church, we were reminded that seats were for the wealthy, bought and paid for or rented out.  Both the seat and the placement of the seat were as much about prominence as comfort.  The Jews knew nothing of seats in the Tabernacle courts or in the Temple itself -- although every synagogue you see today is arranged just like every Protestant church.  I read somewhere that pews did not start showing up in force until 1100 or thereafter.  And, if I recall, these were choir stalls or seats where monks prayed the daily offices.  Now we have largely given up pews for individual seats and for many, theater style seating, because worship has move from being a lecture hall to an entertainment venue, further reinforcing the idea that you are here to watch others do things for you.  Sizes have grown possible as technology allows us to throw our voices and project our images so that everyone has a good view.  As true as this is for non-liturgical churches, it has become the single most important architectural criterion for sacramental churches as well -- a good line of sight to the action up front and a clear path for the sound.

I am not suggesting that pews be abandoned.  I am only observing that we need to take care with the seats so that they assist the Divine Service and do not impede it.  We do not want to be too comfortable and we should not be too restricted to prevent the liturgical calisthenics of standing, kneeling, sitting, and proceeding to the rail for the communion.  It should be less about how many folks we can pack into each square foot of space but how well the entire space works to fulfill its purpose.  Perhaps COVID 19 has reminded us that a little distance can be a helpful thing although I would hate to design our churches to accommodate a pandemic.

4 comments:

Carl Vehse said...

C.F.W. Walther's mention of "lecture halls" comes from his lecture on The True Visible Church, Thesis XVIII.D [The Evangelical Lutheran Church gives to each doctrine of the Word of God the place and importance which It has in the Word of God itself. D. The Evangelical Lutheran Church distinguishes strictly between what is commanded in the Word of God and what is left free (adiaphora, church constitution.] at the 16th Central District Convention in Indianapolis, IN, beginning on August 9, 1871 (Essays for the Church, Vol. 1, CPH, 1992, pp. 190-201):

"With this we are not insisting that there be uniformity of perception or feeling or of taste among all believing Christians—neither dare anyone demand that all should be minded in this as he is. Nevertheless it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the houses of worship of the latter look like mere lecture halls in which the hearers are only addressed and instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which the Christians serve the great God publicly before the world."

John J. Flanagan said...

Type of seating in church should not matter. We have pews and go to an LCMS which was built over a hundred years ago. So long as the seats are comfortable, who cares? No, most of us do not want to sit on a Bench like they did in the Middle Ages.

Daniel G. said...

There was a time when people stood to hear Mass...you don't see any pews in ST. Peter's or any of the other older churches in Italy. Also the Eastern Orthodox (traditional minded ones ) have no pews in their churches. They stand to hear the Divine Liturgy. Maybe instead of sitting we should stand until it is appropriate to kneel. That might keep our attention rather than falling asleep.

Mabel said...

My husband's family gave us a "church bench" that dates back to the 1840's. The village Congregational church dates back to 1701 and has gone through a number of sets of pews. After new pews were installed in the late 1800's, the retired church benches were sold to people in the village. This bench is incredibly uncomfortable, those New England Puritans did not want anyone to be too cozy during the long sermons and possibly fall asleep. Even with cushions, the only creature who seems to enjoy it is the cat. So enjoy your comfortable pews.