You might say that it was standing-room-only in those days. For at least insofar as historians can tell, though believers could stand, kneel, or even lay prostrate on the floor during the first fourteen centuries of the church’s life, the one position they apparently could not adopt in worship was to sit down during the services, for there were no chairs or pews.
Indeed, in the words of Luke Harrington, “seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down,” that is, about the time when the focus of worship shifted from more participatory acts like confession, creeds, and communion to simply listening to long sermons, causing some to say, “Can we at least sit down for that?”
The placement of pews in churches also took on a rather commercial feel in their early years, as families often bought custom-built pews to help pay for the cathedrals. With their shoulder-height walls, doors, windows, curtains and sometimes even fireplaces, those early “skybox-seats” (a social distancing dream) were a sign of one’s status– real properties with a deed, in fact, that could be passed down from one generation to another.
Eventually, of course, such visible symbols of the inequities between rich and poor folks in church gave way to the idea of “free and open” benches, and there is still a stipulation in our own denomination’s governing Book of Discipline, in fact, that “pews in The United Methodist Church shall always be free” (Paragraph 2533.1), just in case some desperate pastor or finance committee is looking for a new source of income.
All of which makes the current conversations going on across congregations about how to re-open their sanctuaries for in-person worship at some point historically more interesting, I think. For as entrenched as some folks are about sitting in the exact same place every Sunday, just imagine how difficult it would be if we had to worry about actual deeds and ownership and even giving refunds in closing every other pew for social distancing.
It all reminds me of what Jesus once said when he went to eat at the home of a prominent Pharisee one day. Noticing how the guests tried to position themselves near the head of the table, the Master told his disciples that should they be invited to a wedding feast, for instance, they ought to take the lowest place to sit rather than jockey for the places of honor, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14.11.) A good case for sitting in the back rows, some might say.
Whenever churches are able to re-open thus, I hope that folks will be understanding about whatever kind of physical adjustments we are going to have to make to ensure we are indeed caring for those around us. We all may need to be a bit like the fellow who was both his church’s organist and custodian, in fact:
It’s said he had to mind his pews and keys.