I have a recurring dream about having to build a church. It’s Romanesque and open, uncluttered, especially by pews.
My friend Fr. George Rutler is in Crisis. He is talking about pews. He has a few digressions – he wouldn’t be the writer he is without digressions – on the Roman vestment. But his observations about pews are dead on.
Everyone should be aware of this perspective.
We enter in medias res:
Pews are the climbing ivy of God’s house. My case is that they should be removed. I immediately alienate from this argument anyone whose limited aesthetical perception sees nothing wrong with electric votive lights and bishops wearing miters in colors matching their vestments. [blech] But the problem with pews is worse, for it is not simply a matter of taste. Pews contradict worship. They suburbanize the City of God and put comfort before praise.
In 1843, John Coke Fowler, an Anglican barrister, wrote a neglected history of the pew, arguing for its elimination. His reference was not liturgical but social, for his purpose was to abolish the system of rentals that relegated the poor to inferior seats. The “high church” Oxford Movement at that time was a theological development little involved with ceremonial. None of the early Tractarians wore “Romish” vesture. But the consequent Cambridge Camden Society advanced ritualism and in 1854, desiring to be more “Catholic,” it published “Twenty-four Reasons for Getting Rid of Church Pews.” These reasons included sound theological points. Paradoxically, James Renwick who designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, was an Episcopalian, but he tried to explain to Cardinal McCloskey that pews were Protestant and inappropriate for a Catholic cathedral. He was overruled by the cardinal who installed the pews and rented some of the best ones for up to $2,000. This amount would be about $60,000 today. An engraving of the interior before it was consecrated, when a bazaar was held to raise money, shows how magnificent the space is, and how that perspective is lost in a forest of wooden seats. I confess that a few years ago I restored worn pews in my former church, knowing that there was little time to form minds on the subject. In the few months that the church was empty of the pews, people came to admire the uncluttered proportions.
Ascetically, pews stratify the people as passive participants. There actually are churches where ushers, like maître d’s in a cabaret, move down the aisle pew by pew, indicating when the people can go to Communion. [I have railed against this for eons!] Ensconced and regimented in serried ranks, the people are denied the mobility of the sacred assembly and even the sacred dance, which is what the Solemn Mass is—a thing far different from the embarrassing geriatric ballets called “liturgical dancing.” Especially in a busy city parish, people wandering about and lighting candles and casting a curious eye at images, can be distracting, but it is also a healthy sign that people are freed by grace to be at home in the House of God, unlike the passive creature known as a couch potato or, in this instance, a pew potato.
Worse than plain wooden pews are those that are upholstered. Goodbye acoustics. And anyone who gives priority to the softness of his seat rather than the sound of song, should humbly ask forgiveness of St. Cecilia who died suffering from more than the lack of a cushion, but was comforted—and eternally so—by good music. Sensibly, seating should be provided for the elderly and physically limited. Other seating should be moveable to permit different kinds of liturgical use, with space for kneeling. Spare us from those pews whose “kneelers” crash to the floor like thunder. If concessions are to be made, pews should be in the form of benches with railed backs, so as not to “arrest” the proportions of the church.
In 1982, the Kawaski Heavy Industries Company of Japan designed subway cars for the New York City subway system and had to go back to the drawing board at great expense, because the seats were not wide enough for the average American posterior. There still are a few cars with the original seats in use on the No. 3 line, presumably for commuters with narrower sedentary profiles. I submit this as a reminder that when an indulged culture makes comfort its god, it is worshipping a very fickle idol. And I pass along my unsolicited views to polish my credentials as an earnest curmudgeon, lest they rust. It will disappoint me if my opinions do not irritate people who could not fit into a seat on the No. 3 subway, or who like to lounge in pews in ivy-covered churches.
You will want to read it all, over there.
Fr. Z kudos, except for the part about the Roman pianeta.
Down with pews! ¡Hagan lío!
Do I hear an “Amen!”?