Monday, July 27, 2020

Are Pews in Churches a Problem—and, If So, How Much of a Problem?

This article may be considered a continuation of the one entitled “Should the Postures of the Laity at the TLM Be Regulated, Legislated, or Revised?,” which generated such lively dialogue.

A reader once sent me the following letter:
I would like to ask you what is your take on church pews, their place (or lack thereof) in the Traditional Roman Rite and what the Traditionalist movement should do about them. Almost unknown in the East, they have become the norm in the Western Church in the last centuries. There are informal (sometimes odd) ‘rubrics,’ with wide variations from place to place, that direct the faithful to stand, sit, or kneel at different parts of the Mass.
          A priest from the Institute of the Good Shepherd, who is also very familiar with the Byzantine Liturgy, instructing some of us about the Mass and the real meaning of ‘active participation,’ said we ought not to worry about when to sit, kneel, or stand in Mass, as long as we remain standing for the Gospel and kneeling during the Consecration. As to anything else, his advice was simply to follow the local custom. His reason was that pews in the church are a rather recent phenomenon that has never been officially incorporated into the rubrics for the usus antiquior, and that before the introduction of pews the faithful used to remain standing, or would sometimes walk in the church during Mass, as the faithful still do in the Eastern Rites.
          Also, from my own research, I discovered that pews are mostly a Protestant invention. The Protestants emphasized the pastor’s preaching as the most important part of the Liturgy and understood the church to be some sort of ‘school,’ where the ‘students’ had to be able to sit to learn the Bible from their pastor. It was also a way to raise money via pew rents.
          The more I attend the Traditional Latin Mass (which hopefully will recover its rightful place as the sole ‘Ordinary Form’ of the Roman Rite), the more I am uncomfortable with the pews and the mechanical, sometimes almost nonsensical, ‘novus-ordoish’ sequence of standing-kneeling-sitting-standing-etc. during Mass. The pew feels almost like a ‘cage.’
          Do you hold a similar stance? Are pews a good or a bad thing? Should we accept them as a fact, as a good ‘organic development’ like the shortened Roman chasuble, or should traditional Catholics recognize them as foreign to the Roman Rite and start using their wood for a better purpose, like keeping the church and rectory warm in the winter?
I find this reader’s note admirable in its directness. The question of pews is indeed an interesting one. I am convinced it was not a good idea to introduce pews into Catholic churches, in imitation of the Protestants, for all the reasons mentioned. An Eastern Orthodox writer offers a vigorous set of arguments in “A Call For the Removal of Pews in Orthodox Churches,” the main contentions of which are summarized by Richard Chonak:
  • pews make the laity into passive observers;
  • pews teach us to want Christian life to be without inconvenience;
  • pews remove the freedom to engage in devotional acts such as lighting a candle during the liturgy;
  • pews make the processions overly regimented;
  • pews particularly isolate young children from the liturgy.
Chonak continues: “Going without pews would be a bigger deal for us Latin Catholics in the US than for Orthodox, since a fair number of their churches already lack pews, so that their faithful would have experienced worshipping without them. Most US Catholics won’t have seen a Catholic church without pews unless they have visited one of the medieval cathedrals.” As far as I can tell, no one advocates abolishing all seating, since there are nursing mothers and elderly folk (among others) who will need places to rest. It is more a question of opening up the space in the nave of the church.

George Rutler addressed the question in a 2015 article “The Problem with Pews,” saying, inter alia:
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.
Racks, Butchers, and Choirstalls

According to Dr. John Pepino, the term “pew” appears in an official Vatican document for the first time in 1969, in the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani promulgated together with the Novus Ordo Mass (link)—the first time in Catholic history that the laity’s postures were dictated to them in the same way that ministerial rubrics were dictated:
VIII. De locis fidelium
273. Loca fidelium congrua cura disponantur, ut ipsi oculis et animo sacras celebrationes debite participare possint. Expedit ut de more scamna seu sedilia ad eorum usum ponantur. Consuetudo tamen personis quibusdam privatis sedes reservandi reprobanda est. Sedilia autem seu scamna ita disponantur, ut fideles corporis habitus a diversis celebrationis partibus requisitos facile sumere possint et expedite ad sacram Communionem recipiendam accedere valeant. Caveatur ut fideles sive sacerdotem sive alios ministros non tantum videre, sed etiam, hodiernis instrumentis technicis adhibitis, commode audire valeant.
In the 2002 edition of the IGMR, this text was slightly modified, to privilege the word scamna:
311. Loca fidelium congrua cura disponantur, ut ipsi oculis et animo sacras celebrationes debite participare possint. Expedit ut de more scamna seu sedilia ad eorum usum ponantur. Consuetudo tamen personis quibusdam privatis sedes reservandi reprobanda est. Scamna autem seu sedilia, præsertim in ecclesiis noviter exstructis, ita disponantur, ut fideles corporis habitus a diversis celebrationis partibus requisitos facile sumere possint et expedite ad sacram Communionem recipiendam accedere valeant. Caveatur ut fideles sive sacerdotem sive diaconum et lectores non tantum videre, sed etiam, hodiernis instrumentis technicis adhibitis, commode audire valeant.
The USCCB translation of the latest version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal renders the passage thus:
Places for the faithful should be arranged with appropriate care so that they are able to participate in the sacred celebrations, duly following them with their eyes and their attention. It is desirable that benches or seating usually should be provided for their use. However, the custom of reserving seats for private persons is to be reprobated. Moreover, benches or seating should be so arranged, especially in newly built churches, that the faithful can easily take up the bodily postures required for the different parts of the celebration and can have easy access for the reception of Holy Communion. Care should be taken to ensure that the faithful be able not only to see the Priest, the Deacon, and the readers but also, with the aid of modern technical means, to hear them without difficulty.
Note the word used in Latin, scamnum (stool, step, bench), a word with an interesting history. In the Salic Law, 5th cent., it means “the rack,” for the torture of slaves (Lex Salica tit. 42. §1: Servus super Scamnum tensus; ibid. §8: Et qui repetit, virgas paratas habere debet, quæ in similitudinem minimi digiti grossitudinem habeant, et Scamnum paratum habere debet, ubi versum ipsum tendere possit). How suggestive of the experiences of many Catholics with the postconciliar liturgy! According to a Latin dictionary, the word also signified a butcher’s display table, which prompts comparisons with extemporaneous liturgical creativity. By the 12th century, the term had acquired the meaning of “choirstall” (ad vesperas monachos in scannis residentes se vidisse palam asseruit: Ordericus Vitalis, Historia ecclesiastica III 13, p. 138).

The compilers of the IGMR might equally well have chosen the Latin term transtrum, or rower’s bench, which makes for an equally suggestive image: the faithful confined to their benches, heave-hoing in unison as they labor to propel forward the ship of the Church! Smelling of tar and sweat, the term would have been appropriate for the workerism that was substituted for the contemplative engagement in which participatio actuosa finds its summit.

The Relation between Pews and Postures

Nevertheless, the question of the postures of the faithful is somewhat independent of the question of pews, for the faithful would have stood, knelt, and quite possibly sat ad libitum in open churches long before the advent of pews. The key question here is whether or not the postures of the laity should be regimented. Prior to 1969, the postures of the faithful were never officially regulated in the traditional Mass. They varied by custom, and even then, there was not the same sense of obligation as we have now. If a person felt sick or tired, he could sit; if someone felt especially fervent in prayer, he could kneel the whole time. In my book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness, I gave the following description:
None of these bodily actions is scripted in the sense that a rubric requires the people to do them, since the usus antiquior is blessedly free of rubrics dictating how the people are (or are not) to participate at every moment. As a result, different people at worship do some or all of these actions, according to their knowledge or inclination, or even what they happen to notice as the Mass progresses, and no one minds this diversity. There is a healthy sense of freedom of movement a little reminiscent of what one may find among the Eastern Orthodox who may walk about during the liturgy lighting candles and venerating icons. The Novus Ordo, on the contrary, perversely takes for granted the Protestant innovation of cluttering open sacred space with benches or pews and turns sitting on them into a scripted pseudo-sacred action befitting its wordy worship. (p. 202, note 24)
The regimentation of lay posture occurred, as we have seen, in 1969 with the Novus Ordo, which enforces specified moments of sitting, standing, kneeling, speaking, singing, or exchanging a sign of peace (though this particular routine has fallen out of fashion nowadays).

But shouldn’t we, in good Thomistic fashion, allow the other side to have its say, too?

A Modest Defense of Pews for the TLM

Pews can be helpful in several ways. First, they are like an extended prie-dieu, making it easier to kneel for long stretches—and this, to my mind, is a good thing. Not many people are ready yet to kneel for an hour or more on a marble floor without a prop to support them. The usus antiquior already requires more asceticism; it seems counterproductive, at this early stage in its restoration, to demand in everyone a footsoldier’s capacity for discipline.

Second, pews seem to foster a more focused and leisurely contemplation of the unfolding ceremonies of the Mass; one can too easily imagine how a group of people amassed in an open space could be disorderly, particularly if a large number of small children were escaping from their families and causing distraction to many.

Third, since we live in a literate age and have grown accustomed to reading our missals at certain points during Mass, it is convenient to have a place to put down and pick up one’s book. The use of a daily missal has permitted me to memorize large parts of the Mass and to meditate on them. It has familiarized me with the calendar of seasons and saints. This is not incompatible with a lack of pews, but I very much doubt it would work as well.

Fourth, until the usus antiquior is again the norm in every church for every Mass, most Catholic families have to deal with inconvenient times of Mass, and it can be a great relief to let the small child sleep in the pew if Mass happens to be very early in the morning or in the mid-afternoon.

One can admit that comfort-seeking is a spiritual error and danger for the Church—the carpeted, air-conditioned churches of suburbia are, in fact, deadly for the spirit of prayer—while not writing off completely the modest convenience of a pew, which might be compared with heating in the winter or electric fans and short-sleeve shirts in the summer.

Such are my thoughts. The great handicap is that it is so rare to have the experience of a Catholic church without pews. One can still see them in Europe, but seldom are traditional Latin Masses held without at least folding chairs being placed out. The closest thing in my experience has been attending silent Low Masses at monastery side chapels, where often there is no seating; one simply kneels near the entrance to the chapel. I would relish the opportunity to worship for a year in a church without pews, and then revisit the subject with the benefit of extended experience.

This church cries out to have (at least some of) its pews removed
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