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!