Warming the chair? WSJ laments the loss of the pew

It's five minutes past the hour, and you're late for services. The cat insisted on one last pass around your leg, and you had to extricate the lint brush from the back of the junk drawer, and in the process you found that key to the shed you'd been looking for forever. But you couldn't be sure it was the key until you tried it.

Anyway ... you're late. You park farther from the building than you'd like, hustle in, smile at the eyebrows-raised usher and slip surreptitiously into the back ... chair? If you're a Wall Street Journal reader, that's where you sit. Not the pew, mind you, but the chair.

From the top:

WINDHAM, Maine — At first, it just didn't sit well with Nancy Shane when her church decided to switch from pews to chairs.

"My generation grew up in pews," the grandmother of three says. She worried the sanctuary of the Windham First Church of the Nazarene would resemble a movie theater.

Yet, when the pews were removed in September and replaced with burgundy-cushioned chairs, she says she decided God didn't care whether she prayed from a pew, a chair or even the floor. "I walked in Wednesday night for a prayer meeting and the chairs were there, and they were beautiful," she says. "I thought, 'Nancy Shane, even at 68 years old, young woman, you can change.' "

She isn't the only churchgoer being asked to take a stand on new Sunday seating arrangements. Pews have been part of the Western world's religious landscape for centuries, but now a growing number of churches in the U.S. and U.K. are opting for chairs, sometimes chairs equipped with kneelers.

The  Journal's emphasis, in spite of its award-winning news coverage and compelling features, has always been and likely will always be economics and business. That's its bread and butter, the Pulitzer-winning coverage it provides so well. The bottom line, to borrow a business phrase. So I'll skip to the bottom line here and say this particular "worship wars" story seems stale and a bit forced.

Worshipers have been sitting in chairs instead of pews in some parts of the U.S. and the U.K. and around the globe for years. Decades even, in some regions. Evangelical church plants of the 1990s sprung up with chairs because leaders wanted to attract a younger demographic, and chairs shout change. Pews don't shout much. They sort of whisper. The sound is a good one, granted, but it has to be listened for and appreciated.

Pews are traditional. They're beautiful, and they tell stories of centuries of heritage, of intergenerational families all lined up in their polished best. Chairs are flexible. They can be reconfigured to give worship space a different feel or stacked aside if the area is needed for a different purpose. And these chairs tell the story of the last few years, young seekers and non-traditionalists melding with time-tested, gray-haired faith.

Therein lies the rub, the WSJ says:

The dispute is the latest sticking point between traditionalists and those who believe old-guard churches have to modernize to broaden their appeal.

Church Executive Magazine last year called it "Chairs vs. Pews." A blog on Religious Product News dubbed it "the great pew debate." "I've had a couple of cases where it got ugly," says Paul Lodholz , a principal with Ziegler Cooper Architects, a Houston church-design company.

The story goes on to detail two 2012 kerfuffles within the Church of England (one of which was decided in diocesan court) over replacing pews with chairs. Of particular note are the quotes.

In formal judgments, the courts largely uphold modernization plans, with the condition that chairs are of high quality.

A September 2012 ruling criticized a church in the Diocese of Chichester for chairs that were "ghastly in their red upholstered inappropriateness." In the English town of Epworth, Winifred and Harold Woolgar filed official objections over a switch in May from pews to chairs at St. Andrew's Parish Church. Mr. Woolgar dubbed the plan an "unnecessary act of official vandalism."

Having lost the battle, Ms. Woolgar, who is 73, says she is still missing the pews. "I feel it's lost a little of the atmosphere of a religious building," she says.

Imagine how news reports might have read in 1522, a scant few years after pews were introduced into houses of worship by enterprising craftsmen. I imagine it going something like this: "This is the devil's handiwork," said Sir Edmund Ainsworth of Gloucestershire, referring to the recently installed, elongated wooden seating structures of the Leckhampton Church. "These abominations destroy the ambiance of worship. Jesus might have been a carpenter, but I doubt the chap dared imagine we'd all be leaning back comfortably during Holy Communion," he said, shuddering at the thought.

Back to the WSJ: The story seems to be making a link between the rise of the "nones" and the decline of pews, although it never comes right out and says that.

Readers would have been better served if the WSJ had looked at economic trends instead. Are pew makers losing their companies or diversifying more? What about pew refinishers? What share of the market goes to chairs vs. pews in 2013?

As it is, this trying-to-be-current story is covered with cobwebs. It won't sit well with anyone who has been to a house of worship built or renovated within the last 20 years.

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