Warming the chair? WSJ laments the loss of the pew

It’s five minutes past the hour, and you’re late for services. The cat insisted on one last pass around your leg, and you had to extricate the lint brush from the back of the junk drawer, and in the process you found that key to the shed you’d been looking for forever. But you couldn’t be sure it was the key until you tried it.

Anyway … you’re late. You park farther from the building than you’d like, hustle in, smile at the eyebrows-raised usher and slip surreptitiously into the back … chair? If you’re a Wall Street Journal reader, that’s where you sit. Not the pew, mind you, but the chair.

From the top:

WINDHAM, Maine — At first, it just didn’t sit well with Nancy Shane when her church decided to switch from pews to chairs.

“My generation grew up in pews,” the grandmother of three says. She worried the sanctuary of the Windham First Church of the Nazarene would resemble a movie theater.

Yet, when the pews were removed in September and replaced with burgundy-cushioned chairs, she says she decided God didn’t care whether she prayed from a pew, a chair or even the floor. “I walked in Wednesday night for a prayer meeting and the chairs were there, and they were beautiful,” she says. “I thought, ‘Nancy Shane, even at 68 years old, young woman, you can change.’ “

She isn’t the only churchgoer being asked to take a stand on new Sunday seating arrangements. Pews have been part of the Western world’s religious landscape for centuries, but now a growing number of churches in the U.S. and U.K. are opting for chairs, sometimes chairs equipped with kneelers.

The  Journal’s emphasis, in spite of its award-winning news coverage and compelling features, has always been and likely will always be economics and business. That’s its bread and butter, the Pulitzer-winning coverage it provides so well. The bottom line, to borrow a business phrase. So I’ll skip to the bottom line here and say this particular “worship wars” story seems stale and a bit forced.

Worshipers have been sitting in chairs instead of pews in some parts of the U.S. and the U.K. and around the globe for years. Decades even, in some regions. Evangelical church plants of the 1990s sprung up with chairs because leaders wanted to attract a younger demographic, and chairs shout change. Pews don’t shout much. They sort of whisper. The sound is a good one, granted, but it has to be listened for and appreciated.

Pews are traditional. They’re beautiful, and they tell stories of centuries of heritage, of intergenerational families all lined up in their polished best. Chairs are flexible. They can be reconfigured to give worship space a different feel or stacked aside if the area is needed for a different purpose. And these chairs tell the story of the last few years, young seekers and non-traditionalists melding with time-tested, gray-haired faith.

Therein lies the rub, the WSJ says:

The dispute is the latest sticking point between traditionalists and those who believe old-guard churches have to modernize to broaden their appeal.

Church Executive Magazine last year called it “Chairs vs. Pews.” A blog on Religious Product News dubbed it “the great pew debate.” “I’ve had a couple of cases where it got ugly,” says Paul Lodholz , a principal with Ziegler Cooper Architects, a Houston church-design company.

The story goes on to detail two 2012 kerfuffles within the Church of England (one of which was decided in diocesan court) over replacing pews with chairs. Of particular note are the quotes.

In formal judgments, the courts largely uphold modernization plans, with the condition that chairs are of high quality.

A September 2012 ruling criticized a church in the Diocese of Chichester for chairs that were “ghastly in their red upholstered inappropriateness.” In the English town of Epworth, Winifred and Harold Woolgar filed official objections over a switch in May from pews to chairs at St. Andrew’s Parish Church. Mr. Woolgar dubbed the plan an “unnecessary act of official vandalism.”

Having lost the battle, Ms. Woolgar, who is 73, says she is still missing the pews. “I feel it’s lost a little of the atmosphere of a religious building,” she says.

Imagine how news reports might have read in 1522, a scant few years after pews were introduced into houses of worship by enterprising craftsmen. I imagine it going something like this: “This is the devil’s handiwork,” said Sir Edmund Ainsworth of Gloucestershire, referring to the recently installed, elongated wooden seating structures of the Leckhampton Church. “These abominations destroy the ambiance of worship. Jesus might have been a carpenter, but I doubt the chap dared imagine we’d all be leaning back comfortably during Holy Communion,” he said, shuddering at the thought.

Back to the WSJ: The story seems to be making a link between the rise of the “nones” and the decline of pews, although it never comes right out and says that.

Readers would have been better served if the WSJ had looked at economic trends instead. Are pew makers losing their companies or diversifying more? What about pew refinishers? What share of the market goes to chairs vs. pews in 2013?

As it is, this trying-to-be-current story is covered with cobwebs. It won’t sit well with anyone who has been to a house of worship built or renovated within the last 20 years.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Tamie Ross

Tamie Ross is a wife, mom, writer and all-around crazy-about-life girl now battling autoimmune disease. Her 20-year journalism career included stints as religion editor for The Oklahoman, online editor for The Christian Chronicle and freelancer for clients ranging from The Associated Press to United Methodist News Service. She has won state and national awards for her personal columns and editorials.

  • Kevin Spencer

    The story has an additional ghost or two. One point not covered is how Western personal space standards (where people feel crammed) has affected the less defining capacity of a pew. Those who go to church only twice a year might do so because they remember how “packed” and confining a Christmas or Easter felt, not realizing that’s not how crowded the seats typically fill during the rest of the year.

    Another missing element involves the pew’s history. Catholic churches make the case for them as found in their ancient cathedrals. But not even papal Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica use pews now. However, the kneeler, essential in Catholic liturgy, are in use.

    • Julia B

      There are no pews in ancient Catholic cathedrals.

      • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Anti-Catholic Wesley Mcgranor

        Again pagan sources are sighted. Sure pews are optional in Protestantism.

        • Julia B

          What pagan sources are cited? BTW This is a journalism-critiquing blog site, not a debating-religion site.

          • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Anti-Catholic Wesley Mcgranor

            And this is a man of faith typing to you; not an academic venture.

          • Julia B

            What pagan sources are cited?

    • n_coast

      Could the added poundage of contemporary Americans be a factor in the personal space problem? Apart from that, with decreasing attendance at many churches I would expect crowding to be a good sign.

  • Dale

    According to Rod Dreher, the traditional practice in Orthodox churches is to stand, although chairs line the wall for those unable to do so. He claims that pews began with the Protestant Reformation, and that the Catholic Church (and some Orthodox churches in the US) eventually adopted pews as well. But for the first 1500 years of Christianity, standing at worship was the norm.
    http://blog.beliefnet.com/roddreher/2010/02/pews-vs-standing-an-orthodox-controversy.html

    I can’t verify his claims but, if accurate, this is an important angle which the WSJ article may have missed.

    • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Anti-Catholic Wesley Mcgranor

      Amen. Good news from the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox–underlings of Antichrist: Roman Catholicism.

    • Enders_Shadow

      The Orthodox are more and more having pews, even in places such as Jerusalem and Greece, rather to my surprise.
      The adoption of pews by the Protestants probably corresponds to the arrival of preaching as a far more important component of the service, and duplicated by the Catholics as they sought to encourage preaching in the Counter Reformation.

      One of the more amusing things to do when reactionaries in England complain about the proposed removal of pews from an ancient church is to present it as a restoration to how it would have been before these new fangled pews were introduced in recent centuries. This approach of course doesn’t work in young countries like the US.

    • Suburbanbanshee

      Generally, men stood. Women and kids generally sat on the floor or on little rugs and cushions they brought with (although people sitting generally stood up for the Gospel, etc.). Kneeling gradually became more and more common too. Of course, in Western churches, women often were placed either in the back, or more originally, on one side to the men. This went along with synagogue practices, of course.

  • Julia B

    As I understand it, there were no pews to remove in European (continental) cathedrals. Look at the really old floor in St Peter’s – there’s no sign of pews having been removed. Really old paintings of Catholic churches don’t show pews. Today, chairs are brought in, but that may have always been the case – don’t know. At least they were present in the sacristy for bishops. Probably chairs were available for prominent people and maybe for everybody. I’m guessing it varied upon location, wealth of the parish and local customs. Traditional is actually No – pews.

    Here’s an interesting article on the subject from 2011 in The Telegram. It mentions a book which is now only available used: “Pews, Benches, and Chairs”, which says that Roman churches did not have pews. .

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8813427/Ripping-the-pews-out-of-the-church.html

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Anti-Catholic Wesley Mcgranor

    I do not appreciate chairs either. At a Methodist church that i go to they recently removed their pews for chairs; sighting the need for a contemporary sanctuary in attracting ‘youth’. Even though the present congregation is 80% elderly. The elderly and young reactionaries do not count. At my other half of faith’s expression is a local Episcopal church that has pews…and a piano(although i prefer an organ). This must stop.

    • http://www.latinmasser.blogspot.com/ Nate Cameron

      80% is elderly? That leaves 20% comprised of “young reactionaries” and…people like you? I wonder what happens when the 80% have passed away? Assuming the young reactionaries really do count, that still paints a very bleak picture does it not?

      • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Anti-Catholic Wesley Mcgranor

        No Mr. Cameron, i am the only reactionary there. What paints a bleak picture is inviting those that have refused Christ, to profane the Church. I am speaking of post-Counterculture Emergents. They claim the postmodern church from their hippie grandparents or parents, and finally strike a final blow to Orginized Religion.

        • http://www.latinmasser.blogspot.com/ Nate Cameron

          Heh, I appreciate the clarification. I’m not so sure they will strike the final blow to organized religion, but they will likely manage the decline much like our inglorious leader.

  • diane

    Replacing pews (already bought and paid for) with chairs (the cost of which must come out of the budget) seems really dumb, if not sinfully wasteful.. However, I can see where a just-built church might consider having chairs for a while until they can raise the funds for the more expensive pews


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