Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Problem with Pews

From Fr. Rutler:
In 1843, John Coke Fowler, an Anglican barrister, wrote a neglected history of the pew, arguing for its elimination. His reference was not liturgical but social, for his purpose was to abolish the system of rentals that relegated the poor to inferior seats. The “high church” Oxford Movement at that time was a theological development little involved with ceremonial. None of the early Tractarians wore “Romish” vesture. But the consequent Cambridge Camden Society advanced ritualism and in 1854, desiring to be more “Catholic,” it published “Twenty-four Reasons for Getting Rid of Church Pews.” These reasons included sound theological points. Paradoxically, James Renwick who designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, was an Episcopalian, but he tried to explain to Cardinal McCloskey that pews were Protestant and inappropriate for a Catholic cathedral. He was overruled by the cardinal who installed the pews and rented some of the best ones for up to $2,000. This amount would be about $60,000 today. An engraving of the interior before it was consecrated, when a bazaar was held to raise money, shows how magnificent the space is, and how that perspective is lost in a forest of wooden seats. I confess that a few years ago I restored worn pews in my former church, knowing that there was little time to form minds on the subject. In the few months that the church was empty of the pews, people came to admire the uncluttered proportions.

Ascetically, pews stratify the people as passive participants. There actually are churches where ushers, like maître d’s in a cabaret, move down the aisle pew by pew, indicating when the people can go to Communion. Ensconced and regimented in serried ranks, the people are denied the mobility of the sacred assembly and even the sacred dance, which is what the Solemn Mass is—a thing far different from the embarrassing geriatric ballets called “liturgical dancing.”  Especially in a busy city parish, people wandering about and lighting candles and casting a curious eye at images, can be distracting, but it is also a healthy sign that people are freed by grace to be at home in the House of God, unlike the passive creature known as a couch potato or, in this instance, a pew potato. (Read more.)

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