Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Need For Sacred Space III

Box Pews in a Colonial New
England Meeting House--
probably the worst seating
devised for churches but quaint.
I mentioned in my previous posting on the importance of integrating sacred space with contemporary architecture that I have usually found traditional Cistercian churches to be highly conducive to prayer, both private and liturgical.  One of the things that I like about monastic architecture is the seating arrangements, in particular the arrangement of the choir stalls. 
And one of the biggest challenges in making sacred space, contemporary or traditional, compatible with the liturgy is the challenge of seating the congregation so as to facilitate congregational participation and adequately symbolize the role of the assembly in the liturgy. 
Pews are a Protestant invention.  Before the Reformations of the 16th century, there was the occasional bench or chair placed against a wall or a column for the elderly or the infirm, but the congregation was used to standing for the entire Mass or other service.  Even today, in Russian Orthodox churches, it is the universal practice that the nave is without seating despite the fact that the Liturgy lasts for several hours.  It was only with the Protestant emphasis on the sermon—which often lasted an hour or more—that permanent seating became a fixture in European churches. 
One of my favorite American churches is Pohick Church in Lorton, Virginia.  This was the parish church of George Washington—or, I should say, one of Washington’s parish churches, as he was also known to attend services at Christ Church in Alexandria.  The current church building was finished construction in 1774.  One of the curiosities of Pohick Church is that when you enter, your attention is drawn not to the altar –which is sort of inconspicuously stuck away off to the right, but to the three-decker pulpit which dominates the center of the church.  Another curiosity of the church are the pews.  They are the traditional box pews, family enclosures, where the seating runs along three sides of the box, leaving some family members with their backs to the preachers and others with their backs to the altar. 
I am certainly not advocating this type of seating as it is so idiosyncratic, simply pointing out that the custom of pews is not only Protestant in origin but often was ill thought out. 
Most churches, Catholic and Protestant, in the 19th and early 20th century went for a theatre arrangement where the pews were lined up to face the altar and pulpit as if the sanctuary were a stage, the Liturgy a dramatic production, and the altar and pulpit merely part of the set design.  Such an arrangement facilitated the congregation remaining passive and all the “action” being left to the sacred ministers who were then more or less performers. 
In the first millennium and a half of the Church, without fixed seating the laity were not so confined to dramatic silence.  To go back to my allusion to Russian Orthodox worship, I must admit that I find it somewhat disconcerting to see worshippers roaming the church, venerating icons, lighting candles, making prostrations during the Liturgy.  It strikes my Catholic sensibility as not unlike the old pre-Vatican II days when people read their prayerbooks, said their rosaries, or simply nodded off while the priest “said Mass” on their behalf but without them taking an active role.  On the other hand, in the Russian Liturgy when the Greater and Lesser Entrances are made or the deacon comes out and stands in the middle of the assembly to sing the various litanies, there is a strong sense of faithful being in the midst of the action.  Also, of course, the Liturgy of the various Byzantine Rites (Greek, Russian, Melkite, Romanian, etc.) are highly participatory with the priest(s), deacon(s), choir, and congregation in a sort of four-way sung dialogue almost throughout the entire Liturgy. 
Maybe the reason I like the choir-seating typical of monastic communities is that it gives us the comfort of a seat while still being in the heart of things, a sense that the liturgy is happening in our midst rather than “up there” while we are confined to our pew “down here.” 
I believe that good architecture is first and foremost functional.  This does not mean that we reduce the building to pure functionalism—far from it.  We cannot abandon aesthetics.  But I do believe that the architect needs to examine closely what is to happen in the space, how it is to be used, and then design the building as a sort of “skin” to enclose the space and the sacred actions within. 
Understanding the nature of the Catholic liturgy as it was reshaped after the Second Vatican Council the theatrical arrangement no longer works.  The Eucharist takes place within the assembly of the faithful, not separate from them.  The entire assembly—not only the sacred ministers—are intimately involved in the Liturgy. Although the roles of priest, deacon, and the faithful are essentially different from one another, they are seen more as an integrated whole and less as a hierarchical distinction.  We need to reposition altar and ambo and presidential chair as well as the seating for the faithful in such a way to reflect this integrated relationship. We also need to design the space in such a way that the seating doesn’t confine people or limit their participation in the sacred actions.
One aspect of the Liturgy that seating arrangements just seem to impede are processions.  Processions are a key part of the Liturgy—not only the three great processions of the Mass (the Entrance, the Procession with the Gifts, and the Communion Procession) but those processions proper to various feasts such as the Purification, Palm Sunday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.  I am not sure how to resolve this conundrum, and I am not sure that that seating is the only challenge we face in trying to restore full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy, but we can leave it to the liturgical and architectural pros to make suggestions as how to do things better. 

I have seen a number of churches whose basic layout I have liked.  Saint Bede’s in Williamsburg, Virginia is one.  Saint Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg Maryland is another.  The Abbey Church of Saint Mary’s Delbarton in Morristown, New Jersey is a third.  Saint Mark’s in Vienna Virginia is yet a fourth.  I wish I could think of more, but unfortunately I really can’t.  The trend these last ten years or so—coincidentally (?) concurrent with the papacy of Benedict XVI—has been that sort of Duncan Stroik return of South Side of Chicago style typical of pre-WWII large city churches.  (Again, I compliment Stroik and his fellow nostalgists on the elegant lines and fine craftsmanship of their work, it is just their timidity about breaking new ground that I find, well, disappointing.)  But in regard to the aforementioned churches that I do like their layout, the buildings themselves are invariably ugly.  Are there no architects today that can design sacred space to be theologically and liturgically principled and also prayerful, spiritual, and aesthetically pleasing but just not white-bread replicas of where our grandparent’s worshipped?   


  1. 'Pews are a Protestant invention' - not entirely: there are quite a number of churches in England with nave bench-pews from the 14th and 15th centuries. Even the box-pew may have a mediaeval origin: chantry chapels were the property of lay proprietors, who not unnaturally regarded them as 'their' part of the church; when chantry masses were outlawed the transition from 'our' chapel to 'our' family pew is understandable. I would also remind you of various form of privatised seating in Catholic churches on the continent - the tribunes and galleries above the nave with their own private entrances in places where royalty or the nobility worshipped. The Counter-reformation development of the Mass as spectacle naturally led to churches that look like theatres, just as the Protestant sermon led to church buildings that were almost indistinguishable from lecture rooms. But I agree with you that either development is not very helpful for worship nowadays.

    1. I really have to disagree with you. Yes, there were occasional benches or stools in medieval churches for those who could not stand for the entire service, but any sort of systematic arrangement of congregational seating appears only in the mid sixteenth century. Your idea of the territorial/familial transfer from chantries to box pews is an interesting idea in terms of "family proprietorship" but in the end chantries and pews are not simply apples and oranges, they are apples and kangaroos--totally different genus. The chantry was a small chapel, sometimes a mausoleum chapel--where Mass was to be said and/or prayers offered by a hired clergyman for the repose of the donors' whereas box pews--while family staking claims to place in church--were no more than seating arrangements. But as I say, from the perspective of families claiming space in church, a related concept.

    2. Hmm - how do you account for Harrold and Upper Dean in Bedforshire, Stockton in Norfolk or Chelvey in Somerset, to take four examples at random, where the number of pews or pew ends that are indisputably 15th century is too great for them to be former chancel or collegiate stalls that have migrated to the nave? I don't think it was particularly common, and may have been something to do with increased prosperity in the very late mediaeval period, but 15th century pews there are. One also comes across testamentary requests for burial 'where my seat is', which suggests some sort of permanent structure rather than a moveable stool. Anent the move from chantry to family pew, don't forget that most chantry chapels would be constructed of nothing much more than a wooden parclose, not the elaborate masonry structures that survive in some cathedrals. It is clear that the late mediaeval period saw an increased privatisation of local society (the ending of the strip system of agriculture, for example) which would lead the well-to-do to feel able to appropriate, for a suitable fee, their own space in the church and set it up originally as a chapel for Diriges and masses for their family dead, and later, when that was outlawed, to retain the space to sit in. At Kedington in Suffolk, the Barnardiston family pew is clearly made out of a mediaeval screen and stands where a chantry altar might very well have stood, up against the chancel arch. I would actually say that 'systematic' congregational seating is the exception rather than the rule right up until the nineteenth century, especially outside fashionable town centres. Pre-Victorian engravings of parish churches reveal most haphazard conglomerations of boxes, gated pews, open benches and stools - for the squire, the gentry, respectable cottagers and the indigent respectively.

    3. I can't argue with you because I am not familiar with the situations you mention. It certainly is exceptional to both what I have read and what I have seen with my own experience of countless European churches both on the continent and in England and Ireland. I think you have a good topic here for a Master's thesis as, if you can prove your claims, it does go against the common wisdom. I also think your ties of chantries to family pews is worth exploring as you have something here but again, don't confuse a chantry with a pew--they served fundamentally different practical purposes although the claim of staking out territory indicates that there is a common mentality beneath them. As for the issue of systematic seating, I don't doubt your engravings but it is curious that in the American colonies seating in both Anglican churches and Congregational meeting houses was pretty well organized from the early 18th century at least. Also the 17th and 18th century congregational seating in both Germany and Scandinavia is anything but haphazard. At least in urban areas, Pews or benches tended to be designed to maximize seating in the churches. Country churches, especially the older pre-reformation ones, tended to have the sort of variety of seating that you mention arranged to reflect status. But in the medieval period the naves were generally open with a minimum of seating except for the infirm or elderly. notables would have been given stalls in the choir or in stalls placed opposite the pulpit if it were for preaching.

  2. "Are there no architects today that can design sacred space to be theologically and liturgically principled and also prayerful, spiritual, and aesthetically pleasing but just not white-bread replicas of where our grandparent’s worshipped?"

    Not in Los Angeles, apparently (sorry, the Taj Mahony REALLY irks us out here). LOL

    I'll take the "white-bread replica" because at least I know what I am going. You get these new churches and they are so sterile. And then you get that you-know-what out in LA, and even sterile seems inspiring. :-)

    Anyway, fascinating analysis. Your bio doesn't say you majored or studied or taught this stuff, how'd you learn it ? Self-taught ? Any good books or website references would be appreciated.

  3. I've tried to look at photos of the four churches whose layouts you like, but it's hard to see enough of them to really get a feel for the total liturgical space. Could you summarize what are the design elements that you think make for a good layout, especially with respect to processions?

    1. let me do this in a future posting, hopefully within the next week or so

  4. When I first opened this article and saw the picture, I thought I was looking down on the inside of a barn with stalls for critters much like my dad, a farmer, had for the momma pigs when they were having babies!!