Monday February 15, 2010
My family came into Orthodoxy in a parish without pews. St. Seraphim's Cathedral in Dallas observes the traditional Orthodox custom of parishioners standing for the entire two-hour liturgy, though there are chairs lining the sides of the worship space for those who cannot or who don't wish to stand for the service. There is no shame in sitting down; it's just not done by most people. Small children typically sit at their parents' feet for most of the service. When we first started attending St. Seraphim's, this practice was so off-putting; we couldn't imagine standing up for so long! But we did, figuring that something that has been done for so many centuries must have something to teach us. Before long, we came to appreciate standing, and it came to be the most natural thing in the world to us.
Before moving to northward, a number of folks told us that Orthodoxy in this part of the country is different from Orthodoxy in the OCA Diocese of the South. One thing we'd notice is that most Orthodox churches have pews. The Greek Orthodox in America accepted pews some decades ago (indeed, the big Greek parish in the Dallas area has pews today), as an attempt to acculturate its congregations to American standards (more historical info on this here). Today, in both the OCA and Antiochian jurisdictions, you find churches with pews (though the well-known Antiochian parish of the Holy Cross in Maryland does not have them). Let me stipulate here that I do not think that Orthodox Christians who worship in pews are in any way spiritually inferior to those who stand during the liturgy; in fact, at St. Stephen's Cathedral (OCA) in Philadelphia, most of the congregation stands anyway, in front of their pews! But I must say that having worshiped in both styles, I strongly prefer the traditional way. This essay from an Orthodox site explains why this liturgical form is not just empty traditionalism, but trains our way of experiencing God in the liturgy. I'm a bit off-put by the slight sarcasm in the essay, but I do think this point in particular is very true:
1) Pews teach the lay people to stay in their place, which is to passively watch what's going on up front, where the clergy perform the Liturgy on their behalf. Pews preach and teach that religion and spirituality is the job of the priest, to whom we pay a salary to be religious for us, since it is just too much trouble and just too difficult for the rest of us to be spiritual in the real world of modern North America. Pews serve the same purpose as seats in theaters and bleachers in the ball park; we perch on them (even during the Litanies which are the specific prayer of the People) to watch the professionals perform: the clergy and the professionally-trained altar servers, while the professionally-trained choir sings for our entertainment.
Yesterday I mentioned to Julie that I didn't like pews, because they made me feel as if I were part of an audience watching a performance on the altar. Without pews, I felt more like someone gathered around a bonfire. The author of this essay puts it more harshly than I would, but the insight is essentially the same. You wouldn't have convinced me several years ago when I first walked into an Orthodox church that the experience of worshiping without pews would make me feel more integrated into the liturgy (as opposed to merely tired from standing), but having worshiped this way for almost four years, I've experienced the difference, and love it! It makes one feel personally more integrated into the liturgy, I find.
Roman Catholics used to go to mass like this too, but it appears that the Reformation also brought pews into Catholic churches as well (Byzantine Rite Catholics generally still observe the older tradition of standing during mass, though I've attended two Byzantine Rite churches in the US that have pews). It surely must strike most American Christians as interesting, at the very least, to think that pews in Christian churches are a relatively recent innovation in the history of Christianity. For three-quarters of our history, most Christians stood at corporate worship.