Do you have a favorite pew at church? A few years ago (Jan. 7, 2015), a writer from Pennsylvania complained to “Dear Abby” after being asked to move when she had sat in someone’s favorite seat at church. The resulting advice — to move over — released a flurry of response.
Whatever our thoughts about where to sit in church, most of us expect to find pews there. It might be a surprise to discover that church seating is relatively new and didn’t come about because of Catholics. In fact, if you attend Mass in Rome’s largest basilicas, you won’t see many pews. And if you were to visit an Eastern-rite Catholic or Orthodox church, you might not see places to sit either. People in these churches tend to move about, not sit, during the liturgy.
“Orthodox Liturgy is called ‘divine’ because it is of God and not about him …” explained Fr. John Ealy, a retired priest of the Orthodox Church in America. “In order for us to participate in this divine action, Orthodox do not merely stand in church. There is a continuing dynamism, and movement on the part of the congregation. … Orthodox worship is natural, spontaneous, and genuine. There is movement about the temple before and during the liturgy. People do deep bows and prostrations.”
In Jesus’ time, there were benches in synagogues. There were also special seats for synagogue leaders, as noted in the Gospels (Mt 23:6 and Lk 4:16-20).
While early Christians continued to meet in synagogues, when they started to celebrate liturgies in the first churches, they did not use specific chairs or benches. This is because these first churches were in houses. Yes, there were seats for sick and older members, but even these were not permanent fixtures.
After Christianity became accepted by the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Christians were given Roman basilicas to use as churches. These did not have seats either, since basilicas had been built for governmental functions or judicial courts — where people usually stood.
Early Masses followed patterns similar to the way liturgies continue to be celebrated in Eastern–rite churches — with movement and physical interaction. There was no need for much seating.
What we know of today as pews, developed over the centuries that followed the Great Schism of 1054 that separated the Eastern and Western churches.
As monasteries developed in medieval Europe, it became the “work” of monks and nuns to sing the Office (the daily prayers of the church) at various times of the day. In some abbeys and convents, “choir seating” developed so that one side of the chapel would sing to the other side, praying the psalms back and forth. Some of this seating became choir stalls, and eventually included seats and places to kneel.
A second development was the rise of manorial chapels. These were built on private land by feudal lords, for use by their families, staff and the people who worked their fields. These chapels often had seating for the lord and lady and family members.
However, we can thank the Protestant Reformation (starting in the 16th century) for the rise of pews as we know them today. For Protestants, the emphasis shifted from sacraments to the Scriptures (sola Scriptura – “by Scripture alone”). Thus the emphasis changed from the sacramental meal (the Eucharist) to preaching and hymn-singing. As the late Benedictine liturgy expert, Fr. Aidan Kavanagh explained it, liturgy shifted “toward being some form of education … Concepts become more precise, the assembly more passive, ministries more learned, sermons more erudite, and pews fixed.”
What had been once chairs for the elderly, or more comfortable seating for the lord of the manor, became fixed rows of seats for everyone.
Making a statement
Before long, pews also became a personal statement. Today it is not uncommon for priests and pastoral leaders to bemoan the fact that Catholics arrive at church early in order to sit in the back or near an exit. This differed for early Protestants, especially in England and New England. People attended church “to be seen.” And the most visible seats were in front.
Since churches in America were not funded by the government, as they were in some European countries, furnishings were provided by wealthy members of the church. And some went all out.
“On account of the expensive nature of pews,” Philip Kosloski of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network wrote, “individuals and families would purchase pews and guard them with their lives. In some cases, they even constructed ‘pew boxes’ to protect them, locking them up so that nobody else could use them. Unfortunately, there even arose various legal battles over pews as individuals regarded their seats as personal property.”
In England, in 1622, the Anglican Bishop of Norwich, Dr. Richard Corbet, wrote to his clergy that “stately pews are now become tabernacles with rings and curtains to them. There wants nothing but beds to hear the word of God on: … I will not guess what is done within them: who sits, stands, or lies asleep at prayers, …”
Making cell phones look tame
Other historical sources note that people ate, played cards and even gambled in their pews, making today’s occasional cell phone chirp seem mild.
In 1639, another English bishop, Matthew Wren also of the Diocese of Norwich, ordered his clergy “that no pews be made over high, so that they which be in them cannot be seen how they behave themselves.”
While private ownership of pews had its problems, the practice did also offer financial benefit to churches. That included Catholic churches in the United States. The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1844) mentioned pew rents as something priests were allowed to address in homilies — the same as they could speak of other fundraisers and special collections.
Today, pews in churches take on various configurations — some arranged in neat rows, others with chairs interspersed and some arranged off-center to allow freer movement and better sight angles. The U.S. Catholic bishops wrote about pews in their 1989 document, “Built of Living Stones.” In it they said that the church and its seating should be arranged to allow for the “people of God” to act with “various ministries and actions for each part of the celebration” in which they participate.
Fr. Michael Driscoll, a professor of liturgy and theology at the University of Notre Dame, noted that what we should remember about church pews today is that they are “not comparable to the audience’s space in a theater or public arena, because in the liturgical assembly, there is no audience. Rather, the entire congregation acts.”
That’s true, no matter where you choose to sit.
Sources: The Liturgy Documents, Vol. 1; aleteia.org; holycrossoca.org; On Liturgical Theology; orthodoxinfo.com; christandpopculture.org; Easton’s Bible Dictionary; etymonline.com; “Church Pews, Their Origin and Legal Incidents (1844); and biblicalarchaeology.org