“The medium is the message,” they say, and in a similar way the seating in a church building can subtly and profoundly affect the way we think and behave.
When old church buildings are redeveloped, most seem to make a move towards chairs; and chairs have certain practical advantages if you want to make a space multi-purpose. And assuming you don’t have a principled objection to people sitting comfortably, chairs normally win on that front too. (Though not always – I’ve been to some American churches who make a speciality of the comfy padded pew! And I’ve sat in some pretty poor chairs.)
But what does the seating say about the nature of the meeting? To me, rows of chairs speak of individualism: ‘my little space’, just like I’d get on a plane or in the cinema. A demarcated zone which is mine to control. By contrast, a long pew speaks of my togetherness with the others on my row.
There’s a practical, social aspect too. If I want to go and join someone I don’t know on an empty row of chairs, do I leave a gap or not? Parking right next to someone can be invasive; whereas leaving a whole empty chair can seem frosty. Pews enable me to leave the newcomer just a little personal space – and then I can always squish up a bit later on.
Pews, of course, haven’t always been a means of friendliness. In the past, in some churches, a quantity of the best ones would have had a number (and possibly even a door), and been reserved for those who paid for them – which is quite wrong.
And should we be sitting in rows anyway? One of the good things about chairs is that, where space permits, they can be arranged in clusters, perhaps around small tables with bibles, drinks and helpful bits of paper. The ‘message’ of that ‘medium’ is that we’re all there for one another, rather than just to enjoy a performance from up-front. Which is not a bad view of church.