I love the creative incongruity of the internet, which often is reflected either in my Google Reader or facebook feeds. To wit: Today two facebook friends linked to things they had written about seating in churches. Nadia Bolz-Weber has a post on Patheos about the restrictions placed on worship and community by traditional church pews. Scott Gunn highlights news that the Church of England is seeking new designs for church chairs. Gunn is having some fun at the CoE’s expense, but Bolz-Weber is completely serious as she points out the clear message sent to contemporary culture by traditional interior church architecture and design:
There is a critical “why” to the reason we do things this way that extends far beyond taste. It’s missional. In a postmodern context people are increasingly leery of organized religion and it’s attendant obsession with hierarchy. We have peeked behind the curtain and seen only scared little men. So a shared, communitarian experience of liturgy in which we live as the Priesthood of all Believers is inviting in a way that the formality of the traditional church is not. (To be clear, this is not the same as saying that we no longer need clergy – I still hold the office of Word and Sacrament but I hold it on behalf of the whole community and with their permission). This population of urban, postmodern young-ish people have a deep critique of consumer culture and as such are far more interested in being producers than consumers. This goes for church as well. And being able to worship in the round creates an accountability of presence to each other and a shared experience which allows for the community to create the thing they are experiencing rather than consuming what others have produced for them.
It’s an interesting perspective on the debate that’s going on over at the Cafe about “what’s up for grabs.”
There’s more to say about the historical development of the pew. Bolz-Weber aligns it to the Protestant Reformation and the importance of preaching. In fact, preaching was important before the rise of Protestants–the Dominicans, for example, are officially known as the Order of Preachers. Medieval preachers, and many Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century complained, often in their sermons, about the lack of attention paid to their words by the assembled congregation. Pews were in part an attempt not to make the sermon more central but to force disciplined behavior on churchgoers and to establish a clear hierarchical relationship between clergy and people, which undergirds Bolz-Weber’s larger point.
On the other hand, one of the odder moments in the debate between radical reformer Conrad Grebel and Huldreich Zwingli had to to with Grebel’s insistence that communion should be received while seated, just as the disciples were seated at the Last Supper.