moving pews

No, don’t panic. I’m not launching a campaign.

But I’ve just stumbled across an interesting video about a church’s decision to replace its pews with chairs. Lots of churches do this — but in this case, the potential opposition was high. St Paul’s Chapel is part of Trinity Wall Street — the church that kept standing as the Twin Towers fell down around it. Trinity and St Paul’s served as the base for much of the rescue operation, and the firemen slept in St Paul’s pews. So it was a really brave decision to change the pews now — just as people were beginning to revere the scratches and chipped paint caused by the fire-fighters’ equipment.

The video only takes a few minutes, and can be found here.

13 thoughts on “moving pews

  1. I notice there is no provision for people to kneel in the new arrangement – unless they have strong backs and legs! Is kneeling something that modernisers consider A Bad Thing, or simply not sufficiently important to consider alongside other issues like fellowship and adaptability?

  2. It may just reflect local practice. Many Episcopalians in the States stand for both the intercessions and the eucharistic prayers. That rather limits the kneeling opportunities. As for quiet prayer before the service or after communion, it must be said that in some places it gets swamped with cheerful (but annoying) chatter, whereas in others people simply sit to pray. One church that got rid of pews left a low bench running round the edges of the church and encouraged people to use that as a quiet prayer space — before, during, after the service — and everyone sits in place for a long silence after communion.

    It raises the question of how often and in what circumstances it is desirable to kneel to pray. There are times when I very definitely want to kneel — but I would be prepared to argue that when I most need to kneel cushions are quite irrelevant. As for Holy Trinity and St Paul’s (Argyll, not Wall Street) — because of the wooden benches under then kneelers, you never really get to kneel properly any way. And the half-kneel that is possible is great for meditative prayer — but better served by prayer stools in a carpeted space.

  3. Why shouldn’t you mount a campaign? (Don’t feel you need to answer that one! I’m sure there are compelling reasons.)

    What the video demonstrated vividly was that if one wants to make changes in a church building, half-measures are pretty useless. One needs to think radically about what the Eucharistic celebration is about, and reflect that in the design, whatever it takes.

    It does occur to me, though, that celebration in a circle or oval means that the celebrant has her/his back to half the congregation. How do you solve that one?

  4. I’ve actually worked in a circular church, and would like to point out that putting everyone in a circle puts each person at the furthest point from the most number of people. It can also mean that there is a huge absence at the heart of the celebration – a big space where there is nothing.

    Whilst supporting the Pews Out movement utterly, circles are not necessarily helpful rhetoric for a campaign.

  5. There are downsides to chairs. The fact you have your own island of space, and can’t budge up to hug a weeping friend, or crayon in with a child – and most are so uncomfortable, and you can’t manage any of the sideways sitting a pew allows. If you allow a bit more space to one side of the other, it is an empty space, not somewhere you can bung your bag …

    But I have to say ‘my Marquess’ loathed pews, and insisted on chairs for the flexibility.

  6. I really love kneeling to pray, especially in church, and really miss the opportunity when I worship in churches that don’t have pews and/or kneelers (I’ve been in some churches that have pews but no kneelers or space to kneel which I found very odd). I hope that the move towards chairs (I can imagine it could be good for a lot of reasons) rather than pews doesn’t mean that kneeling will go to.

  7. We don’t kneel much at the convent anymore, either, which I miss, but in our case it’s as much for inclusiveness as anything else – we have many sisters with bad knees who simply can’t do it anymore. I think they may miss it, too, but kneeling makes them stand out. As I recall, it was also when my father’s knees went that he stopped the genuflecting that was part of his preferred way of celebrating the Eucharist (he’s a priest).

    We have a circular (oval) set-up in our chapel here, but the altar is part of the circle at one end with the ambo and sedilia on the other end. In our case, in the chapel, we wanted our focus on the Body of Christ to be on the gathered Body, while in our oratory, we have the Blessed Sacrament reserved for the focus to be on the Body in that form. I was unconvinced at first, but I have found that having both as part of my daily prayer means a lot. It’s a good reminder to me. And there is something about seeing the faces of my sisters in worship, and not just their backs, that really brings it home – sometimes especially when I’m irritated at one of them.

    Of course, this works for us in part because it is not a large space – otherwise, it would be as Kelvin described.

    I hope we’ll always have a variety of church building and worship styles – we need all of them for different reasons.

  8. Forgive me, Kimberly, but I must demur. If the president stands at the table during the Eucharistic prayer, some of those in the circle will inevitably be behind. The model described by Sarah seems to me to work better.

  9. I think there’s something about the inherent domesticity of sitting on a chair that I find inappropriate – that, and the nuisance of where you dump all your gubbins. Not just bag, cast-off jacket etc, but hymn-book(s), pew sheet, liturgy book, Mass setting music …oh, and at least one spec case!

  10. Pews are undoubtedly more comfortable for kneeling and since kneeling to pray is my habit, I like them. However, like Sister Sarah, for reasons of inclusiveness I’ve taken to sitting to pray recently and I don’t find it distracting or ‘domestic’. The height of the wooden bench kneeling thingy at HT means I generally have to kneel without the benefit of a hassock, which is hard on the knees (maybe that’s a good thing to keep me awake and focussed!).

    I’m a fan of circular setting with the altar as part of the circle. That way, everyone is facing the celebrant and each other. With our small numbers at HT it would work, but I suspect that most people prefer the status quo, skulking privately in their own wee space, squashed together with the family or – as Chris puts it – surrounded by their gubbins (and the odd pal).

  11. Now having watched the video – I think there WAS a provision for kneeling in that the chairs had hassocks hooked to the back (if I’m remembering rightly, should probably watch again to be sure). That to me seems like a useful compromise – still allowing for kneeling – but providing flexibility.

  12. Apologies. I was visualising the setup as a large circle with the table in the middle, which was what seemed to be suggested by the dimensions of the church shown in the video. Stupid of me! If the table and the president are part of the circle, that would be ideal, but it only works in a smaller space.

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