Pews or other seating have the biggest visual impact in a sanctuary. They also say something about the congregation’s theological convictions. How we sit in church is not as important as what we are there for, but it does say something about us, and can detract from or add to the essentials of preaching, the sacraments, prayer, and singing.
Originally, churches had no seating. In Roman Catholic cathedrals and early Reformation churches, people remained standing. That is remarkable, when services could last hours. Elderly, disabled, or other physically impaired people brought their own stools so they could participate.
Protestant congregations, valuing the preached Word, realized that sitting down did two things: enabled people to concentrate better on the sermon and prevented folks from wandering around. Typically, pews were installed in two rows with center and side aisles. They also had doors with locks and keys; pews were rented out to parishoners to help support the minister or offset building costs. Evangelical congregations had rent free pews near the back for the poorest listeners. This pattern held for centuries.
Eventually, pew rents came under architectural attack for theological reasons. Pew rents prevented some people from coming to worship – this was effectually a denial of the free offer of the gospel, and eventually all Protestant denominations rejected pew rents. Pews are rent free and open at the ends; any sinner may come without cost and hear grace proclaimed.
Center aisles also gave way to side aisles, as low church Protestants associated center aisles with Anglicanism, but also for other reasons. With no centre aisle, the preacher’s voice projected directly to a large number of the congregation. The height of the pulpit allowed the minister, at eye level with those in the lowest pew of the balcony, to speak easily to his entire congregation, partly by enabling eye contact with nearly every parishioner, as most of them sat directly in front of him. The preaching of the Word went directly out over the congregation, not down an aisle.
Large, curved pews also replaced straight ones, especially in Methodist and evangelical Presbyterian churches. Sanctuaries were often designed in a semi-circular shape so that both the preaching and the singing would be loud and clear. In an age before microphones, most preachers depended on sounding boards to carry their voices over the congregation. Many Methodists, however, shaped the sanctuary so that the minister could speak without a sounding board and without straining his voice, yet still be heard by the entire congregation.
For singing, the semi-circular shape of the sanctuary meant that parishioners’ voices projected not only towards the front of the sanctuary, but also towards each other. This naturally amplified the volume so that the sound of praise was even louder.
Beyond acoustics, however, the shape of the sanctuary emphasizes the familial nature of the congregation. Long pews allow large families to sit in the same row. Benches curved in an arc not only allowed people to better face the minister, but also each other, emphasizing the communal nature of biblical worship.
But what about weddings? How are you supposed to have a decent wedding without a center aisle? Every bride I know wants to walk up the middle. Side ailes mess this up. But even at a wedding, there are reasons for side aisles: the bride comes up one with her father, a daughter under his headship, and leaves by another, a wife with a new leader. In between the aisles, there is a huge change in her life, so that she cannot leave the same way that she came in. There is something significant and special about this arrangement.
While it’s not wrong to have a center aisle with straight pews, it is usually more helpful, theologically and practically, to have a large portion of the congregation directly in front of the minister, singing to God as a family.