The first church where I served as a priest had folding chairs instead of pews. Surprisingly folks still got pretty attached to where they sat. Whenever we had a baptism we would reserve the first few rows and people who usually sat there had to sit somewhere else. One day one of our parishioners complained to me about having to move. I tried teasing her by picking up the chair where she sat and asking her where she would like me to put it so she could have “her chair”. The next spring, April Fool’s Day fell on a Sunday and I put a reserved sign on her chair as a little prank. She stormed into my office and asked what was going on. I said, “April Fools” and gave her a big hug.
The next church where I served had a conventional layout and one Sunday, at the early service, a parishioner walked in to church to find someone sitting in her pew. She came back to the rear of the church where I was standing, getting ready to start the service, and told me someone was in her pew. “Yes, ma’am, I see that,” I replied. She said, “I want you to ask him to move.” I tried to be gentle with her but told her I would not do that. She spun around, went back to “her pew”, and asked the man to move. He did. And, of course, he never came to church again despite my best efforts to welcome him.
A couple of years after I came to St. John’s, my daughter had occasion to attend the early service by herself when she was about 12. Jack and Nell Capell, neither still living, came in and started walking down the aisle. As they got further and further down the aisle, I realized that Meg was in their pew. Jack and Nell didn’t know Meg but they couldn’t have been kinder. They got to the pew, asked Meg if they could join her, and then sat next to her. At one point in the service I saw Jack sharing a prayer book with my daughter and afterwards they told me how nice it was to get to meet her and sit with her.
“My pew.” Everywhere I’ve been certain people have had what they considered to be “their pew.” Some have been more gracious than others about that. In one way it is perfectly understandable to have a place where you are comfortable sitting and to keep going there week after week. And as long as the membership is static and there are never visitors, we might say that having one’s own pew never causes any problems. Of course every church wants visitors and new members. Or do they?
While claiming a pew as my own may be natural, it’s a practice that has done much harm over the years. First of all it is basically inhospitable. Very few are so rude as to ask others to leave “their” pew but it’s one of the major fears newcomers have in visiting churches. They don’t want to offend anyone. If I walk into a church and am afraid to sit down, a lot has to happen to offset that. Having “my pew” makes it hard for the church to be holy.
The most harm claiming a pew as my own does though is to me. It encourages me to feel ownership about a place that not only doesn’t belong to me, it actually belongs to God. It’s mighty hard to sit in “my” pew and open my heart to the sometimes uncomfortable challenges of the Gospel of Christ. If it’s “my” pew, it’s hard not to see it as “my” church, even “my” God. God probably understands our need for the comfort of a pew but God also expects me to grow in the image of Christ and it’s impossible to grow when I have to have everything on my terms.
Right after two year olds say “No”, they start saying “Mine.” We gently teach them that not everything belongs to them and that they must learn to share even what does belong to them. Sharing is good for the people I am sharing with. Sharing is even better for me. It teaches me an aspect of life that is really important. The world benefits from my generosity. I benefit from it even more.
Every week I watch my wife come into church and sit in a different place. For her it’s fun to move around and sit with different people. Maybe she does that because she has a humble spirit. Maybe her humble spirit has come from never having her own pew. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Jesus said that it was hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. Having a pew I consider my own, like being rich, does not keep me out of the kingdom. But it may make it harder for me to know about it or show it to others.
I honestly don’t judge anyone harshly for having what they consider “their” pew. But maybe you’ll get the point that having “my” pew is risky for my spiritual growth. It’s good for me to know that when I attend church I am on God’s turf, not mine. If you have a pew that you consider yours, I’d offer a couple suggestions. First, quit calling it “my pew.” That does harm to others and yourself. Second, try moving around. You might see some things differently and it might help you remember that it’s God’s church not “mine.”
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.