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
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
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.