May 22, 2014

To Pew or Not to Pew?

Yesterday I posted a picture of the removal of pews at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston on Facebook and the response was...passionate. 

To some, keeping pews is akin to keeping the church as a vibrant place of divine encounter and mystery. To replace pews with chairs is not about liturgical renewal but embodies the worst of baby boomer, hippie, trying-to-be-relevant-but-missing-the-point, theology.

While others see pews as a physical barrier to eucharistic community and view removing them as a refreshing symbol of new life and hope for the church. Stripping away static church seating is a way to annihilate the "we've always done it that way" attitude of the church.

While I prefer more traditional liturgy and worship spaces (ie. with pews), I can see both sides of this. I've had powerful spiritual encounters through liturgy in grand cathedrals and small group, informal eucharists in the round. Indeed some of my most profound moments of divine connection happened in the seminary chapel at Seabury-Western where we sat in pews facing one another in the monastic tradition. I've held and attended memorable liturgies in a variety of outdoor settings -- "Mass on the Grass," on the beach, on mountaintops. And few things are more moving for a priest than bringing communion to a homebound parishioner or taking the sacrament to a hospital room.

In other words, the whole issue of seeking and finding God transcends furniture. It must always first be
about Jesus. Everything else in liturgy is secondary -- pews, vestments, incense, music. And yet sacred space is critical to our spiritual understanding of God. The incarnation, Jesus coming into the world in human form, is about God entering the world in specificity rather than the abstract. And how we pray says much about what we believe.

As liturgical people this is embodied through our houses of worship -- not that God is under house arrest but that there are particular places set aside as holy and sacred spaces in which we come to worship in community. 

It may be helpful to know something of the history of pews. Obviously Jesus, carpenter though he was, didn't construct a bunch of pews for the people to sit on before launching into the Sermon on the Mount. 

Brief History of Pews

Open air preaching was normative for Jesus as was teaching small groups in people's homes. In the early church house worship and fellowship were the means by which the Body of Christ gathered. Before Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century, there were no such things as public houses of worship. Thus no pews. 

The first public spaces designated for worship were modeled upon the Roman basilica where people stood and milled around. There was nary a seat to be found. In the 13th century backless benches were installed in some churches -- often made of stone. Pews as we know them didn't come on the scene until the 14th century but weren't popularized until the 15th century as the Reformation was heating up. 

As teaching was a major hallmark of this period and the sermon became central, pews allowed worshippers to sit for long periods of worship/edification while looking not at one another but at the preacher.

This led to the rise of pew rents where individuals or families owned their own pews and were responsible for their upkeep and maintenance. Pew rents were especially prevalent in the United States as there was no government support for churches, a practice continued in many parishes through the early to mid-20th century.

As a sign of privacy and a practical need to keep the heat  in, lockable box pews became common as
did numbered pews. This had the effect of benefitting the church financially while forcing those without means into the "bleachers" -- often the balcony.

So in the grand sweep of Christian history, pews are a relatively recent innovation. They offer a certain formality, dignity, and pageantry to liturgy that, for many, feed the soul. It's a truism that when it comes to liturgy, architecture always wins. Pews or not, as long as the liturgy is consistent with and authentic to the house of worship, it will be a prayerful experience. When these coalesce the result is heavenly. When they don't, when worship feels contrived or forced, the result is, um, in the other direction.

A Variety of Worship Styles

Here at St. John's in Hingham, we worship in a very long, narrow space. When the church was expanded in the late 1950's they couldn't build out the sides so it became the largest church I've ever seen without side aisles ("No figure eight processions for you!"). Brides love it for the long aisle but it can be challenging if you're looking for an intimate setting. Transcendent, yes, immanent not so much. 

When I added a Saturday 5:00 pm eucharist a few years ago we spent the first year wrestling with this very issue. In the end we moved the liturgy into the parish hall and, while we sometimes change things up, we generally worship with the chairs in a semi-circle around the eucharistic table. People like the service precisely because of its intimacy, informality, and contemporary feel. 

Neither style of worship is for everyone but there are many doors through which to experience the divine. As a Church, we do well to fling open as many as possible. 

20 comments:

NcRttr said...

I also admit to a fondness for pews but they do limit the uses of our (mediƦval) building. There are times when I feel inclined to start a Campaign for the Re-appointment of the Diocesan Arsonist, if only to get rid of uncomfortable pitch-pine pews!

Meghan Mantler said...

There is something intimate and somewhat scary to look those we worship with right in the eyes during song and prayer. I think pews provide a level of personal space (why is someone sitting in MY pew!) chairs offer an expanse of our theology. Chairs may not look as pretty, but attending All Saints Parish Celtic Eucharist week after week confronted something within me... I would tear up looking at the faces I love so dearly as we circle the Table of Everlasting Life. Very intimate. It was almost like we were bolstering each other up and experiencing something TOGETHER vs. Being in a lecture hall.

Nurya Love Parish said...

Are those lockable pews from King's Chapel? If not, they look exactly like them! Wave of nostalgia for my Boston days...

Thom said...

I have worshiped in both types of spaces. While the church I attend has traditional pews, we are having discussion about whether or not to remove them. We are also looking at relocating the altar as well. It has been an interesting discussion. My own preference it to get rid of the pews to make the space more flexible and user friendly for various types of services. We can arrange chairs in a traditional "pew like" arrangement, or we can turn them facing each other in a more monastic tradition.....it would all depend upon the type of service, the celebrant, and the particular needs for a particular service. My thoughts.

Peg C. said...

For those of us of a more advanced age - sitting on a chair is usually more difficult and I for one would probably switch to another church.

Anonymous said...

One very elegant solution is the one in the chapel at Yale where they put the pews on tractable casters so that they can configure them several different ways or roll them away completely.

Father Brown said...

Destroy the PEWS! http://anglicanhistory.org/neale/pues.html

"For what is the HISTORY OF PUES, but the history of the intrusion of human pride, and selfishness, and indolence, into the worship of GOD? a painful tale of our downward progress from the reformation to the revolution: the view of a constant struggle to make Canterbury approximate to Geneva, to assimilate the church to the conventicle. In all this contest, the introduction of pues, as trifling a thing as it may seem, has exercised no small influence for ill; and an equally powerful effect for good would follow their extirpation. Hence it is that, from the first moment of our existence as a Society, we have declared an internecine war against them: that we have denounced them as eye-sores and heart-sores; that we have recommended their eradication, in spite of all objection, and at whatever expense: that we have never listened to a plea for the retention of one; for we knew well that, if we could not destroy them, they would destroy us." - Fr. John Mason Neale (Anglican priest and hymnologist)

Father Brown said...

Destroy the PEWS! http://anglicanhistory.org/neale/pues.html

"For what is the HISTORY OF PUES, but the history of the intrusion of human pride, and selfishness, and indolence, into the worship of GOD? a painful tale of our downward progress from the reformation to the revolution: the view of a constant struggle to make Canterbury approximate to Geneva, to assimilate the church to the conventicle. In all this contest, the introduction of pues, as trifling a thing as it may seem, has exercised no small influence for ill; and an equally powerful effect for good would follow their extirpation. Hence it is that, from the first moment of our existence as a Society, we have declared an internecine war against them: that we have denounced them as eye-sores and heart-sores; that we have recommended their eradication, in spite of all objection, and at whatever expense: that we have never listened to a plea for the retention of one; for we knew well that, if we could not destroy them, they would destroy us." - Fr. John Mason Neale (Anglican priest and hymnologist)

Katrina said...

In the LA Diocese, the Cathedral Center has a worship space with chairs. Threw me off the first time I was there, but as I made repeated trips to the Center, it became obvious that the flexibility that it allows is a positive thing. We also have a traditional space for the more ceremonial services (ordinations, etc) which is the Pro-cathedral, St. John's. It is a large Romanesque style building and has a sense of awe-inspiring tradition and formality that suits the services held there. You walk in there and you "know you are in a church." However, the lightness and brightness and non-traditional feel at the Cathedral Center also stirs the spirit (and the Spirit, I hope.) We need to keep open minds and not just cling to the "we always did it this way" because, as you so rightly pointed out, we DIDN'T "always do it this way." (I point out to some grumpy folks that Jesus was not the author of the 1928 BCP, also.)

Colin Cameron said...

Hi Peg. Can you please explain to me why sitting on a chair is more difficult than sitting in a pew? I've never heard that articulated before and would like to understand your situation.

Dan Webster said...

Since it was the French who saddled us with the long, narrow holy of holies at one end set apart by a fence as well as the benches in the 13th century it's time to given it up. God as incarnated in human form and bread and wine is accessible; not something we should keep out of reach. Put the Table in the center of the gathered community. The symbolism is rich.

Miranda said...

It's about arms. Many use pew ends like chair arms to help get up and down. Many churches with chairs have stackable armless chairs so the set - up is flexible.

Miranda said...

I think I prefer thge idea of mixed designs. Open space with flexible seating (bean bags, rocking chairs, little and big kid chairs) followed by traditional pews. But what I want in a pew is consideration for taller fatter people than seen in many older churches. I've seen tall kids who can't comfortably get their knees in. So typically I wish people would remove a third of the pews. Worship would be better in first class not so called comfort economy airplane seating.

Anonymous said...

Paying for pews is not such a bad idea, like buying season theater or football tickets, because if you've paid for something, chances are you're going to use it. The first few rows could be free, and the back half of the church wildly expensive, because as we all know, Episcopalians prefer to sit in the way back.
And those box pews? Not a bad idea for families with young, wiggly children.

Robin D. said...

Our church has pews, but in a deep semi-circular space. Thus, two ranks of pews face each other with the altar essentially in the middle, and then the two center sections face the altar with an aisle in between. it works for us, but the front and rear-most pews can also be moved to permit extra space for events, be they concerts or funerals.

John Bunyan said...

As an ancient member of King's Chapel, Boston,USA, with its wonderful pews (in many of which one can cross to the other side to face the gallery choir for the anthem), and of S.John the Baptist's, Canberra (1840, Australia)I value pews. They enable me to kneel upright to pray (if not placed too close together), leaning on the pew in front, and using the back of that pew to get up and down (kneeling as well as standing for prayer with plenty of Scriptural precedent and our Lord's example). People's temperaments vary : I cannot bear sitting round in a circle, nor (to change the subject), with arthritic hands - some would say an arthritic heart! the over-enthusiastic exchange (in Episcopal churches, usually not Roman) of the "Peace", among other things unhygienic since so many things from MRSA to the common cold are passed by hand - as an hon.hospital chaplain, a fact of which I am often reminded. (The simple Asian greeting with clasped hands I think should be accepted as an alternative.)

Roy said...

Please do me the courtesy of asking me first before you use my images for your blog. It's sad to see that you've cropped the (C) Roy Goodwin watermark off the image. Please don't do that again.... and please take down my (cropped) image of the construction at St Paul's from your blog and from Facebook.


Roy said...

I was mistaken. You didn't crop the copyright out. You simply copied my image from the Cathedral's Instagram site.

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