Pews

Someone came up with a snarky take on the history of pews amongst Christians. Pews came very late in the Philippines. As late as 1925, the church of Guimba in Iloilo, for instance, still had no pews. And participants of the First National Eucharistic Congress gathered inside the Cathedral of Manila relieved their knees and backs by sitting on wicker chairs, the ubiquitous sillas de anea of old. The Cathedral of Jaro in 1929, likewise, still had no pews, possessing instead rows of wicker chairs. And, lest we forget, until recently, Saint Peter’s basilica herself still had no pews, while up to this point, other basilicas in Rome only have chairs.

Pews were fixtures necessitated by heresy. To subvert and demonise the True Faith, preachers had to indoctrinate the faithful constantly and frequently. Emphasis on these sermons, the engine of heretical indoctrination, gave rise to long and organised benches that we now call pews. Catholics adopted the pew quite late, so late no dedicated Latin word exists for it until now! (Well, Spaniards sometimes use escaño, so we probably can back-translate to scamnum.) Adopting it seems to never cross the Orthodox mind. If the thought crosses, it is immediately perished. These differing attitudes have inspired witty creatures to assign these three largest Christian confessions to a posture that is dominant in their respective liturgies, something which engenders a classification parallel to the three realms of the Church. So now the Orthodox form the Ecclesia adstans, the Church standing; Catholics, the Ecclesia flectens, the Church kneeling; Protestants, the Ecclesia sedens, the Church sitting.

We live in an era when liturgical postures are purposely and deliberately linked to ideologies that do not necessarily respect the organic development of these postures. Our Catholic experience allows us to conclude that the prevailing attitude tends towards the gradual eradication of kneeling. To us Catholics, the most important part of the pew is neither the seat nor the back support. It is the kneeler. This is because we had to subject furniture that we adopt from others to the sensus fidelium. And our sensus fidelium is neither to lounge or slouch inside the consecrated edifice. Once people realised that we have developed dependence on pews for kneeling, discouraging this posture became easier. Remove the kneelers from the pews, and people will be weaned from kneeling.

The absence of pews in the early Church has been cited time and again by those in favour of standing as an incontrovertible evidence that kneeling was not an ancient posture. No pews mean no kneelers. No kneelers mean no kneeling. This is an old canard that has been debunked elsewhere. That people should banish kneeling with this logic, but leave sitting untouched, is always a funny factoid. Let us always remember that throughout the course of the liturgical year, there are only two postural imperatives that the congregation hears from the altar. In certain times, such as during the Easter Vigil, we hear the deacon chant Flectamus genua, which translates to Let us bend our knees. Afterwards, we hear the deacon bid the people Levate, which translates to Rise. There is no historical liturgical command that we know of enjoining anyone to sit for prayer. Thus, while pews have entered currency, while some of us somehow harbour the faint hope of returning to pewless churches, let us stand, sit, and kneel as our ancestors have done throughout the ages, not as how professional and wannabe worship pundits would like us to believe. Custom (not a newfangled practice desperately clawing its way to becoming a custom) is the best interpreter of the law.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.