by Lori Erickson
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.
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.