It turns out that there’s really little or no evidence of Christian churches having seating of any kind for at least the first 1,400 years or so of Christianity. In other words, Augustine, Athanasius, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin—all those guys very likely lived their whole lives attending churches that were standing-room-only. During ancient Christian worship, parishioners could stand, kneel, or even mill about the nave if they so choose. There’s no record of whether they engaged in stage dives and crowd surfing, so we’re forced to assume they did. Could it be how we view our history?
I have discovered this concept in a very real way after I recently wrote an article for Catholic 365.com entitled, “ 6 Reasons We Should Not Have Pews in Our Churches.” Many people never understood that pews were not an essential part of the Church nor they were not even a traditional part of the Church. Therefore, I decided to write another article and more fully explain where the traditional Church came from and what is traditional to us may not actually be traditional to the Middle Ages Christian Church, the early Christians or even first Christians.
To prove this idea out please look at the Muslim Church. The Muslim Church is almost a carbon copy of a Eastern Christian Church of the same era- minus the minarets. Look at the Hagia Sophia. This was the largest Church in Christendom when it was built. It was beautiful and it did not have pews. Muslims took their architectural design of the mosque from the Eastern Church and they took the concept that people attending worship would not be sitting in pews or chairs.
Even when large groups of Orthodox Church members moved to the United States in the beginning of the 20th they brought their customs with them. The following are three examples of early 20th Century Orthodox Church buildings in different cities across the United States.
First, in Los Angeles: Like the church in Pueblo, St. Sophia in Los Angeles had learners along the sides of the nave. From the Los Angeles Times (4/8/1917):
In the center of the church there are no seats. The congregation stands or kneels during the services. The aged or infirm, who cannot stand, are provided for by seats placed along the walls on both sides. These seats are high, with arms on which the worshiper may support himself while yet remaining in a standing position, if possible, but there are narrow seats that may be folded down and used if necessary.
Second, in St. Louis: Here’s something interesting. In 1917, St. Nicholas Greek Church was built. It had no pews, and the parish council decreed that women were to sit in the balcony, separate from the men. From the parish website:
In a sign of the times, it is interesting to note that discussions at several parish council meetings during this era involved the place of women in the Church: Woman’s place, they decided, was in the balcony – unless it was full – in which case they would be permitted to sit on the main floor. Needless to say, the fairer sex was not amused. However, the Council stood by its decision. A few years later, a new seating arrangement evolved with women sitting to the left of the main aisle and men to the right. By the 1950’s, families began to sit together in worship.In 1920, Fr. Mark Petrakis took over as pastor of the community. Again, from the website: “Father Petrakis introduced chairs for parishioners in the nave. This became a controversial matter because parishioners were accustomed to standing during the entire Liturgy, with a few ‘stadia’ (wall stalls) provided for the elderly.” This is the first direct reference I’ve yet found to a controversy over pews.
Third, in Chicago: In the mid-1920s, Fr. Mark Petrakis moved to Ss. Constantine & Helen Church in Chicago. The community’s first building had been constructed in 1910, and it did not have any pews. In 1926, that original church was destroyed by fire. Presumably under the direction of Fr. Petrakis, the new church was built with pews (and a communion rail) in 1927-28. From the parish history:“The new church not only evolved into one of the most beautiful Greek Orthodox churches of its time but also became an innovative influence for future churches. In addition to a new communion rail, church pews were installed.”
It may sound insanely uncomfortable to you reading this article in the 21st Century but keep in mind that which body postures are considered comfortable or uncomfortable is a highly culturally constructed thing. Back in the era when most people did physical exercise all day long five or six days a week, standing on your feet would be preferred over sitting down. This is why when the tradition was Americanized there was so much resentment. They thought it was sacreligious to disrespect God in his house by sitting down. This custom is still somewhat in place in many Eastern Churches if a man would lift his foot and show the bottom of the sole of his shoe at Church. In fact, this would go back the Holy Thursday Foot Washing Ceremony and the fact that your shoes were considered unclean (actually your sandals- and since you walked everywhere in those days- your feet would get very dirty). It was not only easier to stand, it was more respectful as well easier to both maintain the floors without pews and to accommodate large crowds in the same area without pews.
All throughout much of history people never really sat. The ancient Romans, for instance, almost never sat in chairs, preferring to stand or recline, while many modern Japanese and Koreans are still perfectly happy sitting on the floor, even well into their elder years. The idea that sitting in a backed chair is comfortable is a modern, Western notion, and one we’re currently learning has all sorts of health drawbacks. Also keep in mind that ancient and medieval Christian worship involved the average parishioner much more actively, with a lot of kneeling and recitation, and climaxed with the entire congregation coming forward for communion.
In the Eastern Church, the Deacons before the Anaphora would call out, “The Doors, the Doors, Wisdom be attentive.” This was the cue for the non members and people who were not baptized to leave and they were not permitted to stay for the Anaphora. Clearly, the Eastern Churches had people moving and actively involved in the Divine Liturgy (Mass).
In other words, seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners saw a change in the Church. The focus was shifted from altar looking toward God- to looking at the Congregation. The focus was shifted from the Eucharist as being the reason for the service to the concept that was taken out of the service entirely. The focus saw the priest or minister face the Congregation and now to them about God instead of representing them before God. These shifts came about when people decided to leave the Church and start their own churches in protest. The central theme of the service became the sermon which lasted the largest part of the service. It had to because if it did not the entire service would last only 5 or 10 minutes.
You see, pews were not created to help us worship God they were created to keep us in our seats and listen to what is being told to us. When you think about pews, they were not created to help us worship God, they were created to make people feel uncomfortable and to keep them from finding out the truth. With this in mind, do you still think that pews are an essential aspect of worshiping God or would we better off without them? Please comment below. Amen