Recently a friend shared an article on Facebook about the history of church pews. In church buildings, pews are a relatively new invention that likely came about because sermons were getting longer as the Protestants focused more exclusively on the Word. Until the Reformation, people evidently stood in church—or knelt—and the amazingly decorative floors are evidence of that. Even now, if you visit older churches in Europe or the Holy Land, you can see that they’ve simply installed a number of chairs for modern visitors in a large, otherwise empty nave.
I found myself thinking about that in terms of my experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where few people were seated. There was a lot of walking around, and there were a few places (presumably for the elderly or infirm) to sit, but the energy of the church was more about movement. We stood, we knelt and prayed, we lit candles, we stood some more.
I’m guessing that worship in the early church was much more likely to be active, to be upright. I could well imagine early Christians asking us, “Why would you sit in church? You should be kneeling and standing and praising and eating and going out to do good work in the world. The church is not a place of rest, it’s a place of challenge and inspiration.”
I also found myself thinking that a species who spent generations evolving to stand should not be so quick to sit. When you sit, you can’t respond quickly. When you sit, you’re not on your guard, and for most of human history, humans were hunted (as much as hunters) and did have to “stand guard.” Learning to walk upright was a huge step in the right direction. Why sit now?
Then there’s the other meaning of upright—not in terms of physical stature, but in terms of the spiritual life. How do we walk uprightly, as a spiritual practice, when we spend all our God-time sitting? How do we understand ourselves as upright when we only have our gazes focused downward, toward our own navels or worship-books, or toward the front of the church, as spectators? The idea of God as “watching over us” really begs the question of what we’re doing, sitting on our tails, when we are called to be servants, living out our faith.
How are we called to upright walking in this day and age? How is God calling us to not fold inward, back into an ape-like existence, where our safety is what matters, where our focus is on ourselves?
How do you walk upright? How might you, figuratively and literally, transform the sedentary posture of today’s church worship into the active life in Christ?