A Call for Liturgical Renewal
Liturgical Effectiveness of Pews
Implied in the Orthodox liturgical tradition, and
axiomatic as well in the modern Liturgical Movement, is the basic
principle that what we do and what we say in corporate worship directly
influences our beliefs, our attitudes and our daily behavior. That
influence is indeed one of liturgical worship's intended effects.
Liturgy teaches. Liturgy is designed to affect life. Bad liturgy
therefore has bad effects. Heretical worship sows the seeds of error.
Boring services of worship bore. But the Divine Liturgy served in the
beauty of holiness manifests the light of truth and inspires holy
Few Orthodox believers in North America today would
deny the validity of the above fundamental principle, especially when it
comes to using, the language of the people in our services of worship.
For how can the Word take full effect, if that sacred Word is spoken
exclusively in a foreign tongue? We are quite conscious as well that the
quality of the preaching, the excellence of the teaching, the beauty of
the iconography, the loveliness of the singing, and everything else that
contributes to the liturgical celebration, also directly influence the
thinking and the living of those who participate in that Liturgy. But
have we thought about the direct effects of having pews (or rows of
chairs) installed in our churches for use during the Divine Liturgy and
the other rites of the Church?
Are pews, which we borrowed not so very long ago from
the Protestants and the Roman Catholics (who borrowed them from the
Protestants) a liturgical accretion without consequences? Or, do pews
(and pew-like rows of chairs) make a significant difference in the life
of the Church? Or is the idea they do make a difference perhaps only the
bothersome complaint of reactionaries who want to obstruct the progress
of Orthodoxy in the name of a false traditionalism? Asking ourselves
these questions, we came up with the following painful observations.
They lead us to the inescapable conclusion that pews and rows of chairs
make a significant difference, a big difference, in our Orthodox
Christian lives. That has absolutely nothing to do with jurisdictional
differences or with shades of opinion in the Church, or with labels like
"traditionalist" and "modernist." It has everything
to do with the Orthodox understanding of the Body of Christ, and the
nature of liturgical worship.
Whether we want to believe it or whether we don't,
pews (or rows of chairs) influence the way we think about the Church.
Pews mold the way we think about the Liturgy itself. Pews affect the way
we think about ourselves as Orthodox Christian lay people. Pews directly
influence our spirituality and our behavior. The use of pews is shaping
the future of Orthodoxy in North America.
Here are just some of the remarkable things a
"mere addition" to Orthodox worship like pews accomplishes. A
few of the following comments may come across as sarcastic. They are
not. They are simply an open expression of what possibly a majority of
lay people, and maybe even a few clergy, think in their "heart of
hearts." These ideas have taken root among us in large part because
pews have taught us to think them.
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.
2) In teaching us to sit back and relax, pews give us
the impression that any inconvenience, much less suffering no matter how
slight, is foreign to the Christian life. Aren't you supposed to enjoy
church and have fun as a Christian? Church is one of the few times we
can take it easy and avoid real life. We don't come to church to work.
(But doesn't the word liturgy mean precisely, "the work of the
people"?) How many American Orthodox today have the "legs of
steel" of old world Orthodoxy? Pews teach us to be spiritual wimps.
"Could you not watch with me one hour?" asks the Lord. Would
we who shrink from standing one hour, be willing to suffer for Christ,
as millions of our Orthodox brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers in
this very century have had to suffer?
3) Pews destroy the traditional feeling of freedom in
church. With the installation of pews, we are no longer
"bothered" with all the moving around which used to take
place. You know, grandmothers lighting candies, children kissing icons,
and the worshippers gathering around their priest like a family gathered
about their father.
4) Pews fill up the open space in the middle of our
temples, where the clergy and the people used to join together in a sort
of sacred dance as the clergy, censing and processing, moved amidst the
constantly changing configuration of the Laity.
this is reduced to the priest and servers marching in and marching out.
How can we dance with pews on the ballroom floor? Pews transform worship
for us into the merely formal and frosty affair that it has become in
mainline American religion. The colder worship gets, the less attention
we must pay to the unreal demands that religion, as our forebears knew
it, puts on us. Certainly we can't allow our religion to become our way
of life, if we expect to get ahead in the real world.
5) If children must be brought into the Church, at
least they can play under the pews, where they won't be distracted by
the ceremonies going on up front. Do kids understand all that anyway?
Wouldn't they be better off in Sunday School coloring pictures and
playing games, where they don't bother the adults while they sit back
and enjoy the liturgical music concert?
6) Although pews are admittedly not a feature of the
Orthodox liturgical tradition as our ancestors knew it, we're in America
now, and here things are different. We need to be relevant. The more we
can be just like the big and important religions in America, the more
influence Orthodox Christianity will have. We can't afford to lose our
big chance to mold American thought, and we will lose it if we cling to
silly traditions with a little t, like pewless temples. And
besides, is it not crystal clear that if we look too different we won't
be able to achieve prestige, success and power in our society? Isn't
that what life is all about?
7) Thanks to pews, on the weekdays of Lent we no
longer have to endure those humiliating prostrations. Other [Christian
groups] don't do that kind of thing in church, not even the Catholics.
Why should we? And during funerals, pews spare us from gathering around
the casket like we used to. Isn't the function of the modern funeral to
shield us from the unpleasantness of death? The accepted modern American
view is that we never really dieŚwe just fade away.
These blunt observations are not meant to offend, but
to hammer the point home vividly. The Liturgical Movement and the
Orthodox liturgical tradition are both absolutely right: what we do in
liturgical worship molds our thinking, attitudes and behavior. That's
precisely why the issue of pews is so critically important. We hope this
call for renewal will not be dismissed out of hand as "off the wall
extremism," for this is not a "party" issue; it is a
matter of life and death for American Orthodoxy. Pews are a spiritual
carcinogen. Like Social Security in politics, pews may be an
"untouchable" issue, but in spite of that, Orthodox America
must begin renewal in this regard.
The pews in our churches are a much bigger problem
than the use of foreign languages, for pews silently speak louder than
words. Pews outshout the greatest of preachers and the most effective of
teachers. Pews skillfully contradict the most excellent administrator
and the most caring pastor. Pews drown out the words of our greatest
scholars. A parish priest can brilliantly teach his flock about the
place of the Laity as members in the priestly Body of Christ and
co-celebrants in the Divine Liturgy, while the pews his people are
sitting in, with the subtle dynamics of liturgical drama, insidiously
whisper the very opposite. "Psst ... all you really need to do is
pay your dues, call yourself Orthodox, watch the Liturgy, and leave the
full-time practice of religion to the paid professionals." Neither
unknown languages, nor choirs, nor even operatic compositions, could
ever deprive the Laity of their active participation in the Divine
Liturgy as members of the priestly Body of Christ. For they also serve
who only attentively stand to pray. But when the Laity, as a mistaken
gesture of kindness, were given pews so they could sit back, relax and
watch the show, it was as if they had been deposed from their Sacred
We're not calling for fanatic "pewoclasm."
Liturgical renewal must not be divorced from loving pastoral concern.
But we do need to face it: the use of pews and rows of chairs in our
churches is a liturgical distortion which powerfully distorts our
self-understanding as Orthodox Christians. We need renewal in the
Orthodox teaching that we come to church not to be entertained but to
work, to do together the Work of the People, the Holy Liturgy. Perhaps
we could begin that renewal by removing several front rows of pews,
inviting the faithful to stand before the iconostasis from the Great
Entrance through Communion. Then let us progress back as fast as is
pastorally feasible to the traditional practice of having seats only
around the periphery of the church interior for the elderly, the infirm,
for mothers with babies, for the weak and for the tired. That practice
is not "merely traditional." It expresses a vital and
fundamental aspect of Orthodox liturgical teaching.
* From the Pascha, 1995 issue of DOXA, the quarterly publication of St. Michael's Skete (OCA)