The Problem with Pews

The queen consort of George V was consistent in her sense of duty and unswerving in how she expressed it. Crowned with dignity and corseted with confidence, at five feet six inches, Mary of Teck was the same height as the king, but they were called George the Fifth and Mary the Four-fifths. Of her many benefactions to Empire, not least, and perhaps most conspicuous, was her habit of removing climbing ivy from regal residences and public buildings. Her detestation of climbing ivy was a life-long obsession, quite the opposite of Queen Anne’s love affair with boxwood. Even in the dark days of the Blitz when she was billeted outside London in Badminton House, home of her niece the Duchess of Beaufort, and forced by wartime exigencies to reduce her private staff to fifty-two, Queen Mary led them in tearing down the ivy from the house and surrounding walls, like Samson bringing down the Temple of Dagon, with not a single hair out of place.

A few generations before then, ivy had become the picturesque fad for architecture, but only hid it, and also damaged the stones. There is no clear explanation for that fashion, no easier than explaining how our mostly clean-shaven Founding Fathers paved the way for a generation of bearded Civil War generals as hard to distinguish one from the other as Byzantine bishops. Perhaps it was because ivy gave a romantic air of antiquity, and ivied halls metastasized into the Ivy League. As fashions come and go, ivy has disappeared from buildings as fast as beards from faces.

The whiskering of buildings with ivy is a metaphor for another aesthetic offense, and one more serious, since it is a reproach as much to ascetics as to aesthetics.   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. 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.

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For most of the Christian ages, there were no pews, or much seating of any sort. There were proper accommodations for the aged (fewer then than now) and for the infirm (probably more then than now) but churches were temples and not theatres.  One need only look at the Orthodox churches (except where decadence has crept in) or the mosques whose architectural eclecticism echoes their religion’s origin as a desiccated offshoot of Christianity, to see what churches were meant to look like.  The word “pew” comes from the same root as podium, or platform for the privileged, indicating that if there were any pews in the Temple of Jerusalem they were those of the Pharisees who enjoyed “seats in high places.” The first intrusion of pews into Christian churches was around the twelfth century and they were rare, and mostly suited to the use of choir monks in their long Offices. But filling churches with pews was chiefly the invention of the later Protestant revolution that replaced adoration with edification.

Increasingly, manorial lords had special seats in the churches that were in their “living” not unlike the Pharisees, and this eventually extended to other people of means and in fact became a source of income. Pew rentals were precursors of pledging for the bishop’s “annual appeal.” Pews were property and could be part of a bequeathed estate. It was this sort of instinct that moved Ambrose Bierce to say of Celtic culture: “Druids performed their religious rites in groves, and knew nothing of church mortgages and the seasonal-ticket system of pew rents.” By the eighteenth century, in Protestant lands, “box pews” became like little cabins, where people could doze during long services and even brew tea and keep small charcoal warmers. Pews gradually were adapted by Catholics in areas imbued with a Protestant culture and were alien to purer Latin traditions. Try to find pews in the great Roman basilicas. Curious, then, is the way some people have come to identify pews with “traditional Catholicism” when they are its antithesis.

It is rather like the baroque vestments, popularly called “fiddlebacks,” which more formally are called “Roman” when the truly classical Roman vestments are commonly called “Gothic.” Most of the Roman popes would have been bewildered by the “Roman” fiddlebacks. That scion of baroque piety, Charles Borromeo, was precise about vesture, and insisted that even the baroque chasuble be tailored generously and cover the arms. I am the happy recipient of a few finely embroidered chasubles like that, and occasionally wear them. However, this baroque form shrank until today most of the examples look like the ungainly lobster bibs people wear in seaside restaurants. One is not a pedantic historicist for thinking that neither that kind of vesture nor bulky pews, are what the Fathers of the Church would recognize as part of the Church’s ancient patrimony.

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. 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. I could be wrong. I am not the pope. But he is infallible only in matters of faith and morals. On other matters not touching those two subjects, I have found myself to be instinctively and consistently right.

Editor’s note: The above image is the interior of Center Church on the Green, a colonial era Congregational church in New Haven, Connecticut.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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