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A church without pews

A church without pews

THE MAGAZINE

 

by Lori Erickson

 

This piece originally appeared in Iowa Connections, a publication of the Diocese of Iowa and has also appeared at Patheos

 

At last fall’s Diocesan Convention, Bishop Scarfe mentioned in an address that he’d love it if more churches got rid of their pews. There was no enthusiastic applause at this comment, and as far as I know, no Iowa churches are rushing to follow his suggestion.

After all, in many ways pews define church architecture. They convey tradition and stability and invite contemplation. Why in the world would we want to get rid of something so valuable to our worship?

But year four of the Diocesan Plan asks us to consider the theme of “A Work of the People—New Structures for an Eternal Message.” That makes this a good time to look at those wooden pews more closely, for they actually have a range of effects that may not be immediately obvious.

Having recently moved from a church with pews (Trinity in Iowa City) to one without (New Song in Coralville), I have some personal experience in this area.

At first, I must admit that the change from a beautiful, historic sanctuary to a much more modest one was disconcerting. There’s a lot you lose when you don’t have pews. I miss kneeling during parts of the service. It’s harder to snuggle children close and hold hands with your spouse. Chairs are meant for meetings, while pews invite worship.

I’ve discovered, however, that there are some significant things churches gain with those utilitarian chairs.

The most obvious benefit is flexibility. During my time at New Song I’ve seen its sanctuary be transformed into a concert hall, meditation space, meeting room, dining area, and monastic-style chapter house. New Song can look and feel very different depending upon what’s needed, and it doesn’t get used for only a few hours on Sunday mornings.

Because most of us are so accustomed to churches with pews, we may not be aware that they’re a relatively recent development in Christianity. The early church met in people’s homes, and when larger structures were needed, Christians met in buildings where worshippers moved around freely. To this day, many Orthodox churches are without pews.

Pews didn’t come into widespread use until the Protestant Reformation, which made the sermon of much greater importance in worship. Pews ensured that people would sit in a fixed spot, gazing at the pulpit. To help pay for their construction and to earn money for their operations, churches would charge rent for “pew boxes,” which would be kept closed so that no one else could use them, even if their owners were absent.

In Colonial America, boxes around pews ensured that no one would ever sit in your spot in church. (Wikimedia Commons image)
In Colonial America, boxes around pews ensured that no one would ever sit in your spot in church. (Wikimedia Commons image)

This led, inevitably, to greater class distinctions in churches. The important people sat in front, while the poor were in the cheap seats in the back. Church became like a professional sporting event, where you got better seats if you paid more.

Around the world today, churches still use a wide variety of spaces, seats, and buildings. Pews don’t seem to be an essential part of the mix.

In the U.S. and England, newly built sanctuaries hardly ever have fixed pews, for congregations are realizing the advantages of having moveable chairs. But because older churches almost always do, squabbles can arise during remodeling. Sometimes these disagreements have even led to legal disputes. In a 2012 court case in England, for example, a church was criticized for chairs that were “ghastly in their red upholstered inappropriateness.”

All I can say is that I’ve come to appreciate the functionality of those New Song chairs. But there’s something else about them as well, something more directly connected to worship.

If you come to New Song in the middle of the week, its sanctuary doesn’t have much spiritual pizzazz. In fact, it has more of the vibe of a Quaker meetinghouse than a traditional Episcopal church.

But that makes what happens on Sunday mornings all the more remarkable. As you sit in one of those chairs, you can watch as the sanctuary gradually fills up with people. And at a certain point the spirit swoops in, filling that ordinary-seeming space and making it holy. I’ve tried to pinpoint the exact moment it happens, but it always sneaks up on me.

When this happens, it reminds us not to rely on beautiful architecture to create sacred space. This is what worship is meant to do-—and it can happen in a house, or in a grass-thatched hut, or in a tent as much as in a cathedral.

For God doesn’t care if we’re sitting in pews, on the floor, in folding chairs, or standing. What’s important is that we nurture a community of love, wherever and however we worship.

 

Lori Erickson is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, Iowa.  For nearly thirty years she’s been writing books, articles, and essays on a wide variety of subjects, from travel and health to reflections on family and spirituality.

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Paul Woodrum

Pews tend to promote liturgy as performance art -- everybody facing one direction watching the production. Chairs encourage liturgy as community gathered around the Lord's Table. Of course it all depends on where the altar is located more than that on which one sits.

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Alan Christensen

I once visited a congregation other than my regular one where the vicar was also a bus driver. He had just had the worship space rearranged so the altar was in the middle with the pews facing each other. He likened the traditional arrangement to riders on a bus, all going the same general direction but with different destinations. And the in-the-round arrangement to a family gathered around a table.

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James Byron

Benches: best of all worlds!

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John B. Chilton

9 years ago I wrote about the personal pew movement. A chair is merely a pew for one.

https://www.episcopalcafe.com/the_personal_pew_movement/

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Michael Merriman

The boxes were also for holding what ever warms was generated by those sitting there and some would even bring heated bricks from home, boxes cut down on drafts.

I once served at Gethsemane in Minneapolis, they still had copy of their pew rental chart from the 1800's. The free pews were at the front, not the back. I'm certain that's why Episcopalians don't want to sit on the front rows, lest they be thought to be unable to afford a pew.

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Gretchen Pritchard

Some box pews even had little braziers in them for more effective warmth than you could get from heated bricks.

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John-Julian

The ancient, traditional, pewless tradition is no less strong in the Anglican world than in the Orthodox. I may be wrong, but off hand I cannot think of a cathedral in England that has pews! Thank God!

Pews are an invention of the devil to destroy the experience of liturgical community, and it is tiresome to have no vision of any other worshippers except the rear end butts of those in front of you!

And, after all, only the disabled or elderly need chairs at all—liturgy is (or should be) a standing thing—or if one wishes, one can truly kneel on the floor (rather than squat in the pew). And if need be (as in the Middle Ages) people can bring their own stools.

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Gretchen Pritchard

"only the disabled or elderly need chairs at all"

Well, it's a little more complicated than that if you want to bring small children to church. If our liturgy were really to become as fluid as the Orthodox liturgy, that would be one thing, but as long as we retain our Western expectation that the congregation remain more or less motionless and quiet, all attending to the altar or pulpit, we're going to need seating for families, as well as a surface to stash their gear.

Pews are actually surprisingly child-friendly. Children often need a sense of enclosure. Pews provide that, and also allow children to lie down, to squeeze up next to a loved adult, to squat on the floor facing backwards and color, or to stand up safely and securely to reach the level of an adult.

Ideally, as in the church I attend, there will also be a "Pray and Play" corner, with good sightlines to the altar, where small children and their parents can have comfortable seating (rocking chairs, child-sized chairs) a little more freedom of movement, and a supply of faith-related toys and books.

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