Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.Unlike the Lord, they are hard and unforgiving. Wherever two or three hundred are gathered, there they will be also. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, but his followers will have somewhere to rest their behinds, even unto the end of the age.
Evangelical church pews are a sign of our identification with the Christian Church universal because they are not unique to our houses of worship. Austere, they stand in sanctuaries all over the world, colors changing with those of the available materials for building them in different countries and climates. I’ve seen them bolted to stone floors, hardwood floors, and floors covered in carpet to mask the material underneath; I’ve dozed on them in balmy Mediterranean weather and shivered on them through a bitter midwestern winter’s worth of Sundays, helplessly caught in the draft of God’s house and praying for the Lord to seal the door, as he sometimes does.The CEO and homeless man alike may share one with a whole middle class family in between. Like the Lord, pews do not play favorites.As Christian ecclesiology is written into the first words of the Lord’s Prayer, which allows even the solitary believer to approach God as one of a great corporate body, so too is our ecclesiology written into the church pew. There are no individual chairs here, no moveable seat for a person to scoot into a cluster with her friends or that would permit her to append herself to a colleague’s row. In uniform lines, pews stand with no concern for adjustable arrangements of bodies. They are simple, elegant, and utilitarian. The CEO and homeless man alike may share one with a whole middle class family in between. Like the Lord, pews do not play favorites.
That is not to say that we don’t. Congregants often stake out their own territory week to week, virtually creating a standing reservation for themselves that only a newcomer would be so thoughtless as to contradict with the wanton placement of his own behind. The premium on the spaces near the ends of rows in the back is well-known; the shame of the late arrival forced to speedwalk to a seat near the front is real.
But only to a point do our stolid benches permit us to indulge our neuroses. In the golden light of a weekday afternoon the pews are still there, standing under the gentle slow swirls of dust caught in the space by the window, indifferent to the busy doings of the congregation that spreads over them on Sunday mornings. The only material parts of us that may last as long as our pews are our bones.The carved ends might show a tame flourish or some other slight embellishment; there might be a cushion that stretches from end to end, a mercy if ever I have known a mercy in architecture. But pew backs are almost invariable in their smoothness, their uprightness, even their smell. Lacquer, the perfume or cologne of a recent sitter, the dulled redolence of the wood itself, the general scent of sanctuaries in which incense is not used—dust, cotton fabric, old paper, hints of brick and cement.
What is a pew for? It’s perhaps the easiest way to accommodate a congregation during a service, but don’t let this veneer fool you. Consider the faces around you in church as time does its inevitable work upon them. Cheeks sag, hair thins, the lines around the eyes deepen. Some folks are suddenly gone, away to college or new work or taken in a tragedy. Some congregations thin into extinction. Others swell and overflow their bounds and call for new pews to be made, pews that come into existence because they are up to the task: they persist for decades, faithful in the execution of their duties, unceasing even as time lithographs its contents into them through key-scratches, the troughs that form after years of accumulated weight, and the cracks that sigh under the tired butts of the faithful, imposed at regular intervals for years and years.
What is a pew, then? A bench seat in a shuttle between eternities.
Like the ark and the cross, pews are made of wood. My memories are largely of pews over blue carpets. So we stand and sit and stand again in the relative safety of the space in front of bowed wooden beams, aging and cradling new life in a journey from one darkness into another as time whirls and flows around us.