From the St. Nicholas monthly bulletin…
On the Christian Life
On Chairs in Church
Recently we were asked about replacing the rickety chairs in church with sturdier, more comfortable chairs. The offer is kind, but there are aspects of this question that are not immediately obvious and bear some explanation. First of all, one thing we notice about parishes of the Russian Church Abroad: we have no pews. At St Nicholas, we do have chairs; however most of our parishes do not even have these. There is a theological reason behind this: we who gather together to worship are not an audience to be entertained, but servants in the presence of our Master. Throughout history it has been the rule servants do not sit in the presence of their Master, but stand. All Christian churches throughout history, until recent times had no pews (benches) and no chairs. Worshippers always stood for worship.
This is not an arbitrary rule meant to make things inconvenient for us. Rather, it is a deep insight into our human psychology. When we sit we become an audience – passive, and waiting to be entertained, informed or amused. In Christ, however, we are the People of God, members of His Body, and active agents of His will. Active participation in the Divine Liturgy requires us to stand and to pay attention. We have things to do to accomplish the Liturgy. For some that means to serve in the Altar, to be the hands and feet of the Minister to perform the Mystical Sacrifice (the Communion). For others it means to give utterance from the Reader’s stand or from the Choir to the words of our common prayer to accomplish this same Sacrifice. For those of us who are not in the Altar or the Choir it means to join knowingly and consciously our individual prayer to the common prayer of the assembly of the Faithful for the petitions in the litanies, and for the realization of this awesome Mystery. All this requires spiritual and conscious activity. Such activity is not done sitting down. Therefore Orthodox Churches do not (or should not) have pews.
The fact is that pews are a recent invention, a seventeenth-century product of the Protestant Reformation that secularized the life of the Church and replaced Sacrament (action) with preaching (listening, a passive role). Pews are natural and logical to Protestantism. They are opposed to Orthodoxy. This may seem a small thing compared to more serious issues in the Church, but all these small things add up. Change a little here, and a little there, and eventually we cease to be Orthodox, and gradually become Protestant. Our Lord told us that those that are faithful in small things will be given charge over great things.
Our lack of pews has many practical advantages: it is easier to move around, and if we have small children, we can take them in and out of the church when necessary, or attend to melting candles without displacing a whole row of sitters. We can also pack more people into an open space than a space filled with benches and chairs. This becomes useful on Pascha and other major holy days. There are points in the services and in the Church year when we make prostrations to the ground. This is impossible to do when we have pews. This is therefore yet another way we lose our Orthodox heritage.
We recognize, however, our limitations, and the fact that we have among us the elderly and the infirm who are not able to stand. The Church allows for our weakness in providing seating for the weaker among us, traditionally this is in the form of benches along the walls (we have a few of these at St Nicholas). In our St Nicholas Church, we also have chairs. We have a few armchairs (four of them) for those that need the armrests, and we have small wooden chairs for those that have the need to sit. This should suffice us. I do bless the replacement of the rickety chairs with comparable chairs in newer and sturdier condition. But I cannot bless the replacement of these chairs with larger, or more numerous, or more comfortable (padded) seats. Any new seating should replace the old worn out chairs on a one-to-one basis, and must be wooden, for the reason that metal chairs resonate, clang and bang when they are moved.
Fr George Lardas