Anglicans love the back pew. I suppose an interesting social history might be written on the subject putting forward all sorts of reasons that the front pews remain empty while the back pews are always occupied. I have heard several reasons put forward over the years, the most interesting being the suggestion that occupation of the back pew dates back to the days of pew rents. The pews and boxes in the middle of the church were the “property” of those who paid for them, while benches along the walls, at the back and in the gallery were open to those who could not afford to pay the pew rent. I have no idea if this is true or not and I can’t even remember where I heard it. I once asked my English grandmother why no one ever sat in the front pew of a church. She told me that it was kept free just in case the Queen showed up. Again, I don’t know if there’s a kernel of truth in that somewhere, but as a child I certainly believed it. It does seem to be in concord with the concept that those of a certain socio-economic class and social status get the best seats in the house, while those less fortunate should be satisfied with what is left over. Fortunately, in the eschatological scheme of things, “the last shall be first.” It’s just too bad that the church has had such a hard time hearing its own Gospel. I have been in churches with side aisles pews where it was painfully obvious that a greater number of visible minorities occupied those seats.
Even if the Anglican attachment to the back pew had its origins in pew rents, I don’t think that there is anyone alive in the Canadian Church today that would remember pew rents. Thus it is unlikely that those who sit in the back pews today do so because of the historic influence of pew rents. It is more likely that those who warm the back pews of the church do so out of a desire to remain slightly anonymous, slightly at a safe distance, participating fully, but with caution. Even long-time churchgoers seem to like to sit as close to the back as possible. Perhaps it is akin to the student who sits at the very back of the classroom with collar up, sunglasses on and the peak of the ball-cap turned downward, exuding the attitude, “teach me if you dare.”
My father, who is a retired Hydro executive, once told me of some sort of industry meeting that he attended at which the late Archbishop of Toronto, Lewis Garnsworthy, was keynote speaker. Lewis Toronto is reported to have extended his index finger, gazed across the expanse of the room, and uttered in his own inimitable style, “Don’t think you people at the back intimidate me; I’m an Anglican bishop!”
Whatever the origins of the back pew phenomenon, the back pew continues to hold an allure for Anglicans. Even if we place a sign midway through the nave inviting people to sit ahead of the sign (as was the summer custom in my home church), the pleading will be ignored and at least one or two faithful will fly the Anglican flag high from the back pew.
At a recent clergy event in the Diocese of Toronto (at a church that shall remain anonymous to protect the guilty), along with my good friend Fr. Jason Prisley, I was looking for a place to sit. We jokingly said that we should try out the back pew and see what all the fuss was about. We headed to the back of the modern nave and Fr. Jason began to laugh, “Dan,” he exclaimed, “you have to get a picture of this! This is the classic Anglican back pew!” He was right. A quick glance revealed the startling find that although the building was only about ten years old, the back pew was well worn! The contrast with the pristine penultimate pew is quite amusing (see accompanying photo).
Lest we be too hard on those who keep the back pew warm, let us remember that they are not the only ones guilty of claiming a particular ownership over their ecclesiastical seating. Those in the chancel have their special places: the bishop’s throne, the rector’s stall, the choir pews. Is it any wonder that the laity wish to stake their claim? In one parish in which I was a student, I was told of an elderly man who had carved his initials into a certain pew as a boy and he sat in that same pew all his days. A clergy spouse I knew always sat next to a pillar no matter which church she was in. One could ponder the psychology of that piece of seating strategy for some time. We are all familiar with the stories of those who have been told, “You’re sitting in my pew.” Perhaps some readers will have been accused of this when visiting another church. I know of a bishop’s spouse who had this happen in a church in this diocese. Ouch.
So, to be fair, not all Anglicans have a need to sit at the back. There are some (few) who do enjoy sitting up front, and as a preacher, I do appreciate the opportunity to make visual contact with people in the congregation without the aid of opera glasses. It seems, though, that we do like to carve out our particular favourite spots in Church. We all have niches in ministry, and perhaps the little niches we carve out in the nave (and chancel) in some way reflect that. Maybe, when we get too concerned about where people are sitting in the church, we should for a moment consider the alternative: the empty pew. Perhaps we should simply be grateful that God’s Holy Spirit has drawn folk into the Church at all, no matter where they choose to sit.
c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves