On a summer youth trip to New York City several summers ago, we visited the Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen where 1000 people are fed on a daily basis smack dab in the middle of their Episcopal sanctuary. Some years ago a fire had ravaged the sanctuary, and in the reconstruction it was decided that the destroyed pews would not be replaced. Instead, the church would utilize furniture with more mobility in order to serve their daily community meal from the floor of the sanctuary. On Sundays they would fold up the tables and set out chairs for the congregation. What a perfect idea!
This got me thinking about church furniture, sacred space, and the powerful message it sends. I find it pleasingly ironic that the Holy Apostle sanctuary had to burn down in order for a new vision of church to rise from the ashes. The decision not to replace the pews, after having perished in the flames, became the image that prompted public comments I recently made about the pews in our own church. I recounted the time when I first saw the sanctuary at UrbanMission. As I stood at the entrance with Pastor Al, I couldn’t help but see our plan for serving weekly community meals come to life. All we needed was to get rid of the existing pews and rip up the carpet. It wasn’t but several months later that someone broke through a sanctuary window, feeding a running garden hose in. The water ran all night, flooding the entire sanctuary floor. The reconstruction of our sanctuary involved more months of tearing up carpet and hardwood, prepping the concrete underneath, pressure hosing paint off of brick walls, and ditching the pews out back. Today, the sanctuary is a free flowing sacred space, vacant of permanent furniture, where both Sunday gatherings and community dinners are held. We intentionally avoided using the space as traditionally intended, and instead explored other ways of gathering. Only through the calamity of flood were we able to envision other ways of being church. And the pews? The last of them were cut up several Saturdays ago and pitched into a dumpster, destined for the landfill. Craig, part of our maintenance crew who happily cut them up, exclaimed that they were the best pieces of redwood he had seen in a long time, and that if they hadn’t been covered in a century of toxic paint, they would have made good firewood.
Frankly, I am not saddened by this. Neither do I feel I should keep these opinions to myself, or tip toe around this issue in mixed company. I think all pews should go the way of either fire or flood. Period. They are an outdated furniture, having served to hold congregations captive for centuries. With their fixed presence, pews serve to make the sanctuary a lecture hall, or a theatre at best. Today, for most mainline churches, pews remain like remnants of the past, calling us to a familiar (and safe) form of worship. They have become a point of much contention, something to be filled, a burdensome measure of church success or failure. They are obstacles to be tripped over in the trying of anything new. I will even go as far in saying the same for most of our traditional church furniture: pulpits, lecterns, chancels, baptisteries, choir lofts, etc. I am sorry, but most sanctuary designs that utilize pews and other fixtures send one giant message, “come in, sit down, and follow our lead.” Might we consider ripping up these instruments of stagnation, dragging them out into the church yard, and setting them ablaze? Perhaps not, if we continue to cling to them like a life line, unwilling to let go of them like some old friend. They bring us comfort and stability. They are sturdy. They are a symbol of security.
The reality, however, is that most of us destined for parish ministry will have to deal with these fixtures of traditional sacred space. We will likely inherit churches that are trapped in time, with limited options for incorporating anything new. Any change will perhaps come piecemeal at best. I suggest we challenge these spaces, and challenge those who cling to tightly to traditional ways of utilizing space, just as we would challenge any failed, offensive, or archaic theology. And in so doing, I suggest we give preference to designs that allow sanctuaries to breathe new life. I also suggest that we consider ditching traditional fixtures, giving preference to only one piece of furniture that, IMHO not only should remain but should be considered as the foundation on which any new sanctuary is built. The only piece of furniture being timeless and of any real sacred use; The Communion Table.
The Table remains portable, flexible, mobile, and fluid. So strong is The Table in structure, form, and symbol, that if the church were to crumble in a smoking heap, it would rise from the ash, reminding us of what the church has always stood for: communion, community, fellowship, hospitality, nourishment, and openness. Pews, and other such fixtures, do not easily lend themselves to these notions, in fact they lead us further in the opposite understanding. So again I say, let the pew perish the way of fire or flood. Let us further be rid of anything that ties us like an anchor to static worship. And if stability or life line be needed, let us put our confidence in the one piece of furniture that is tied to the biblical notion of God’s kindom: The Table. Centered on this, let us create new sacred spaces that breathe, that allow for movement, for creativity, that allow the church to sit, to stand, to kneel, to gather in the round, to acknowledge one another, to listen, and to dialogue.
Pastor Stephen Patten
From the Mountain is a 'cyber sanctuary' where sermons and other musings are posted for the general consumption of a larger community. Feel free to reflect on them as you wish. You are welcome to leave comments below with thoughts, insights, and/or questions.