Pews and Kneelers, By Father Nico – January 2016
On a typical Sunday morning in an Anglican Church, the people in attendance will go through a routine of sitting and standing. The reason for the changes in posture is because each kind of body language we use in worship expresses a different aspect of our relationship with God. When one stands in church, one is showing respect. When one sits, one is being open to listening to whatever God might have to say. When one kneels, one is expressing penitence or adoration.
The changes in posture during Anglican church services serve to reinforce the idea that the people in the pews are not mere spectators. Rather, they are active participants throughout the entire liturgy. And as a result, churches have the kind of furniture which allows for people to be reasonably comfortable during the service. Yet, this was not always so.
In the early Church, there was not much available in the way of furniture. So the clergy and laity stood through mass for the most part. A church might have a few benches for the ill or the elderly, but these were an exception rather than the rule.
During the Middle Ages this began to change. A growing number of churches began to provide benches or chairs. What they did not provide were kneelers, which are a much more recent innovation. Christians in the Middle Ages knelt on the bare floors or on whatever cushion they could fashion from a rolled up overcoat.
With the coming of the Reformation, pews began to be installed at the expense of the congregants. This led to the pews becoming the personal property of the parishioners who purchased them. In time, this also meant that the furnishings of each individual pew would vary depending on the cost of the respective pew.
The most shocking outcome of the purchasing of pews meant that in many churches there was no general public seating in the church itself. So if one did not have the means to own a pew, there was the possibility that there would be no seating available to that person at all!
Given that the private ownership of pews led to a feeling of inequality among those who could not afford to purchase seats, churches did away with this practice. Today, people are free to sit where they like.
At times one might ask why the pews or chairs we use in church aren’t a bit more comfortable. The reason for this is that we are not using pews or chairs in church the same way we would use recliners. Pews and chairs in church should be situated in a way that members of the congregation can fully participate fully in all of the various postures which occur during the service, but should not be too comfortable that one might be tempted to fall asleep during the service.