There was a time when families paid for their church pew. Parents and offspring would wedge themselves neatly, side by side, into their allotted space. Wealthy patrons near the front, working class at the back. People of color, when allowed entrance, relegated to the balcony.
In some churches, pews were equipped with tiny wooden doors, that kept little ones from wandering; held elders upright should they doze. There was a place for every family and every family had its place.
No longer tethered to a family pew, the invitation these days is to sit where you’re most comfortable. But even now, church-goers rarely venture from their usual spot.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out once the mandates of social isolating are eased. I wonder if we’ll return to our regular seats, choose to sit at a social distance, or stay away completely – worshipping remotely, from the comfort and security of our homes.
When I was a kid, my family and I attended a United Church in Mt. Pearl, Newfoundland. One of our more colorful parishioners was an elderly gentleman who, for years, sat in the same spot. Heaven help the person who didn’t remember this. Each week he would arrive dressed in his finest suit, carrying his accoutrements of Sunday morning worship: hat, cane and seat cushion. His place was eight rows from the front, far right, next to the centre aisle. If the pew was full, he didn’t mind. He’d simply squeeze in.
I realized this was a hard and fast reality one Sunday morning when my parents, chatting with friends in the church vestibule, instructed me to go into the church ahead of them and find a seat. A terrifying proposition for a shy 10 year old. I ventured in and sat down. Right on schedule this gentleman shuffled in. Hat and seat cushion in one hand, cane in the other. Held, not for support, rather, as a weapon, which he swung back and forth in an effort to clear his path. I watched in fascination as he inched ever closer to where I was sitting. Too late, I realized I was in his seat. Panic wrapped around me. I envisioned him sitting on me for the duration of the service. Thankfully, my mother swooped in to intervene – gently halting him, and suggesting I choose somewhere else to sit.
I suspect the magnetic pull we feel towards a particular church pew harkens back to the days of assigned seating in schools. Where routine was regulated, independence discouraged. Or perhaps like Goldilocks, after trying a few spots over the years, we settled on the one that was ‘just right’.
These days, at church in Kingston, Ontario, my preference is to sit near the front. Sitting at the back of the church doesn’t work for me, even though that’s where most people congregate. Likely another holdover from school days. The back of the church, like a classroom, considered the safe zone. Far from the minister’s gaze, in the event of a post-sermon quiz.
In my case the back of the church offers too many distractions. My mind wanders to the first pair of interesting shoes that walk by, or scarf placed just-so around the shoulders of a friend or acquaintance. To the kids back from university, the babies being jostled in an attempt to sooth, the animated play by play of Wednesday morning’s bridge club antics. When I sit at the back, regardless of the lesson from the front, personal intrigue takes precedent over Mark, Luke and John. I’m far more focused at the front, so that’s where I sit.
John and Connie joined the congregation in the early 90’s. For years, I sat directly behind them. A dear man and his equally dear wife. John reminded me of my dad in looks and temperament. A gentle soul with ready smile, twinkling eyes and quick wit. I wasn’t able to see my actual dad as often as I would have liked, as we lived in different parts of the country, but we talked often and the subject of John always came up in conversation. Whenever my parents visited from the east coast we made a point of meeting John and Connie for lunch.
It was natural therefore, that, over time, John and I adopted one another. I looked forward to seeing him and Connie each Sunday morning. Tapping John on the shoulder as I took my seat. “There she is,” he would say. Knowing it was me, even before turning around.
In one terrible year Connie, then my dad, then John died. It took a long time for me to go back to church, and when I did I wasn’t able to return to my usual seat. Instead, I sat at the back. Beneath a smothering blanket of grief, I was oblivious to the usual distractions. Sitting at the back meant I was close to the exit. An easy escape, when needed – which was often. Usually during a hymn or anthem.
I will weep when you are weeping
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through *
A good friend of mine sits in the choir, facing friends in the congregation she has come to know so well. She witnesses love, and laughter and heartache. Tears are shed regularly by people who find it painful to be present, but can’t imagine staying away. This is our family. Our church family. We notice who’s there by where they’re sitting. We notice who’s away by the empty seats.
Or at least we did, before we were told to stay away.
It will take time for people to venture back into the church. We’ll have to re-think how we do all of those things we used to take for granted: welcome one another; participate in communion and baptisms; gather for choir practice, and weddings, and funerals; share coffee and conversation. But we’ll figure it out. If nothing else, we’ve learned to be patient during this pandemic.
A mom and her two small children had just started sitting where John and Connie used to sit before we were told to self-isolate. I think John and Connie would be happy with this arrangement. It was time for someone else to claim their spot.
When the mandates are lifted and it’s safe to gather once again, we may all feel inclined to choose a new seat. That’s ok. It will present us with an opportunity to view things from a new perspective. And that’s ok too. At least that’s how I see it. From where I sit.
* Servant Song by Richard Gillard