Pews or Chairs?

A Pray Tell reader writes with this question – only the place name was changed. Oh, and I switched “battle” to “discussion,” since this is a blog about liturgy, about which there are never “battles.”

I have a discussion going here in St. Paphnutius … pews vs chairs. Where might I find a good presentation of advantages and disadvantages of each? We already havve nice chairs, but some folks want pews … as they say they are more “prayerful?” and “we always had them in the other parishes I have been in.” Looking forward to getting help from you.




  1. Both pews and chairs can be torture devices, and I know a lot of people still think that prayer should hurt!

    People here will be surprised when I say this, but pews have a lot of advantages on chairs. They accommodate bottoms of all widths and sizes, while chairs are one size for all. People can adjust their closeness in pews while some chairs come with fixed interlocks.
    I’ve seen pews arranged with some pews having shortened ends allowing for easy, discrete use of a walker or wheel chair.

    If pews are used – they MUST be comfortable. Cramming them together to increase seating capacity is a mistake. I don’t think pews should have or need cushions. If cushions are used, the parish must make a commitment to regular replacement and/or cleaning.

    1. @Brigid Rauch – comment #1:
      Pews accommodate bottoms of all sizes? They don’t the ones we have just replaced with chairs were so narrow we had to hold on to them in case we fell off.

      1. @Maria Evans – comment #18:
        I should have said – properly designed pews!

        I’ve experienced the narrow seat pew- compete with a back that required you to do the limbo to get in !

  2. Well the best solution are chairs that function like pews.

    Here is an excellent example.,r:32,s:50,i:15

    The chairs have cushions but the floor is slate.

    Some of the chairs are individual chairs, and some are benches.They can be assembled in various combinations to create pews.

    More pews can be added when they are needed. The space can rearranged easily, for example to provide an area of tables in front of the choir when the handbell choir plays.

    There are no kneelers! People do not kneel during the sung EP. They sit after communion.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #2:

      Those chairs are beautiful! They are no comparison to what we have…though comfortable, they are and orange/rusty color. Completely non-lliturgical, which was the intent but could’ve been done much better.

      And for the record, we have a mix of chairs and pews and it works very, very well for small and large crowds, alike.

    2. I have not seen chairs that don’t have some kind of gap between the seats causing discomfort or inability for the families with little ones, the oversized, the cold, and the snugglers. R these different?

  3. I don’t think the seating makes or breaks any prayer. I’ve had equally wonderful liturgies in a Boy Scout camp using logs as in a Cathedral with pews. As a liturgist in college, I really appreciated the flexibility we had with chairs in our Newman Center. We could rearrange the space to meet demands of various liturgies. One example was that when the full choir and instrumental group would be at Mass there was more space for them, but if it was just a cantor and pianist that space was available for the congregation. We also had the flexibility that our altar and the platform on which is sat were mobile. Our Pastor liked to shake things up from time to time so sometimes we were setup “in the round”, other times more traditional, sometimes in a semi circle and still others antiphonal. All and all, the seating doesn’t matter if the liturgy itself is sound. God will always provide the beauty whether it be a forest canopy or a new born child in the congregation glowing with God’s love.

  4. There are some very nice rush-seated chairs made just for choirs and churches. They have a kneeler and a book holder on the back. These are a good alternative to pews and are really good looking.
    I am not necessarily advocating either chairs or pews: I like both, depending on what they look like… I couldn’t care less whether or not they are ‘comfortable’.
    What I do, though, emphatically caution against are cushions. Besides being rather out of place (and decadent) in church furniture, even worse, they are yet another voracious absorber of sound and contribute greatly to poor acoustics. The better the acoustics the better the singing, the more beautiful the sound, and the more beautiful the liturgy.

    1. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #4:
      If you “couldn’t care less about whether or not they are comfortable”, then you haven’t suffered with some of the pews I’ve encountered. For over a hundred years, the pews in the church in my town were notorious throughout the diocese as instruments of torture. The pastors who sat on the altar in custom chairs trivialized the complaints and did nothing to relieve the situation until there was a parish consolidation and the church building had to attract new parishioners.

  5. Here at St. Matt’s we have both – pews in the main worship space (no cushions, tile floor), chairs (no cushions) in the choir area (tile floor) and in the Daily Mass chapel (carpet).

    I agree with Brigid that pews are a better choice, and more flexible than people realize. I also agree that the between-pew spacing should be enough to be comfortable, and that no cushions are better, not only in terms of acoustics but wear and tear.

    Ben, one thing not mentioned is how much physical labor is required to move chairs around. The chairs & benches in Jack’s link (and in our choir area/Daily Mass Chapel) are substantial. I know from experience that moving them around can be a pain in the back! So, if you plan to change the liturgical space set-up as frequently as Ben suggests, then chairs as substantial as what we have or what Jack pictures would require a crew of beefy muscle to re-configure for each liturgy. Some churches don’t have that kind of resource.

    I think that with thoughtful planning, a worship space with permanent seating (pews bolted to the floor) can be as flexible as required to meet the needs of a variety of liturgical set-ups.

    Lastly, to me, a worship space with nothing but flexible seating feels too much like a temporary worship space, rather than a permanent worship space. In our society, with all it’s temporary-ness, I want my church & my prayer life to be solid, permanent, a strong foundation upon which I can stand firmly. I think there is something important to the psychology of permanence that fixed pews brings.

  6. It would be nice if my feet reached the floor (they do not).

    It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. My church has both chairs (cushioned seats) and pews (no cushions), and as a one-time parent of small children, I have to say I preferred the pews for their flexibility of seating (especially when a toddler fell asleep or when someone needed a little space to avoid a meltdown).

  7. We have pews and chairs. During a redesign (that cries out to be redesigned again) pews with cloth/cushion seats were put in, and chair that match. This is comfortable, but it, along with the carpet, wreaks havoc with acoustics.

    And being in the Diocese of Albany, we are one of many parishes with no kneelers, which is its own little controversy, or not. (depending on who you ask!)

    As far as what is more prayerful, people often say they want traditional pews. I often remark to them that many of the great churches that I have visited in Europe have chairs!

    In the end, I go for pews and chairs, so that there can be flexibility.

  8. When we renovated our church 2007-2008, we purchased a mix of chairs and pews. The first 2 and last 2 rows of seating are removable chairs. The choir sits in chairs, as well. Indeed, moving them is exhausting.

    Surprisingly, the renovation committee found that padded chairs were less comfortable than wooden chairs (echoing “ergonomically designed,” above). The wooden chairs are designed for the human body, and padded fabric can’t accomplish the same ends. And thanks be to God that this is true, because I was all for hard surfaces in our renovated space. We got very helpful advice from the pew/chair vendor.

    Caution: If the chairs are “ganged together” as ours can be, you can’t count one chair for one, er, derriere. People are generally bigger than that, especially when they sit down and, er, spread … out …? So if you are assigning that first row of chairs to the concelebrating priests for the dedication of the renovated worship space, for instance, it would be best to unhook the chairs and put a little space between them. Same for the, er, large-size wedding party.

    On the plus side, my Children’s Choir has sometimes been able to seat themselves 3-singers-to-2-chairs when the various choirs combine and seating is at a premium.

    Pews and chairs all seem to be designed for the 5’6″ person. If you are 4’11” or 6’3″, you are outta luck.

    1. @Siobhan Maguire – comment #11:

      “Pews and chairs all seem to be designed for the 5’6″ person. If you are 4’11″ or 6’3″, you are outta luck.”

      You are out of luck, but if you are a woman, you are really out of luck. The standard chair height in the US (16.5″) fits about 72% of men and 10% of women. Think about who uses your church before ordering seats that don’t fit even 1/2 of your congregation!

  9. FWIW, when our Cathedral was renovated a couple of years back, the old pews were used and refashioned into larger pews (fewer rows) that could accommodate contemporary-sized bottoms! They are not bad! The old ones were apparently very narrow.

  10. I think my ideal would be no seating at all. Totally impractical, I know (though I would note that when I preach I am seated for only about 10 minutes of a liturgy that lasts about an hour and a quarter), but I for some reason like the idea of the People of God not being constrained by rows of seats.

    I wonder where we got the idea that liturgies are things you need seating for?

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #15:
      Deacon Fritz,

      Having stood through hundreds of hours of very long Orthodox liturgies, I really don’t think that we necessarily need chairs for all of the congregation – as long as there are enough seats to allow the elderly and the less-able can take their ease.

    2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #15:
      Watch the people at the edges of the International mass in the underground basilica in Lourdes. With no seating there is continual milling around, chatting, angling for a better view and search for a perch for the long homily in a language used by only a quarter, or fewer, of the pilgrims.
      For that reason I tend to avoid that Mass.
      Your point about being seated for only a short part of the Mass is valid. Curiously standing still is more tiring than walking about which the celebrant does but the congregation does not. They tend to go to the wall.

  11. Mostly well-designed uncushioned pews; some chairs. I have no idealization whatsoever of no seating.

  12. In my experience carpeted floors have a much more deadly effect than carpeted pews. Local parishes with carpeted floors and bare pews have terrible sound.

    A local parish with brick floors and bare pews has better acoustics in terms of being able to get a reverberating sound with a small number of singers. During the summer it did a capella hymns with the congregation being led by a cantor. I like the reverberating sound, partially because I can here my own voice reverberating. Perhaps this acoustic would be very good for polyphonic singing by a small polyphonic choir.

    I suspect an important variable is the ratio of sound-absorbing people to sound producing people. In a local parish with the carpeted floors my voice can reverberate if almost no one is present. Just get a few people into it and it becomes dead very quickly.

    The church with the slate floor and covered chairs has a large choir with a sound that nicely fills the church when all the people are singing, too. This was particularly apparent in their last concert when their hundred voices sounded well (without a reverberating effect) but still did not completely fill the church. When they asked the audience to join them for the last hymn, the music completely filled the space with a perfect beautiful sound.

    Are their computer models that can predict the sound characteristics of space, including the number of people singing and attending? I got the feeling that this church which was remodeled a few years ago might have been planned to produce its best sound when everyone is singing. I do remember when it was reopened (they had used another space during the remodeling) that the pastor commented that they were still doing some fine tuning about the acoustics.

    One of the things that I like about the chairs is that my walking stick fits perfectly into the space between the chairs, so I just hold on to it when I rise. There is usually no place for the walking stick in pews, other than to take up about fifty inches of the pew next to me.

    We are going to have an increasingly elderly population and should plan for them in our seating.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #17:
      “There is usually no place for the walking stick in pews”

      Maybe we could come up with a hook analogous to the clips that are on older pews, designed to hold men’s hats.
      (as an aside, those clips provide a real sense of mystery for young folk attempting to determine their purpose!)

  13. If we eliminated the pews and the chairs, would we run the risk of spontaneous outbreaks of liturgical dance?

  14. Adam Wood – +++++ (good response)

    JR & Deacon – agree; carpeting is *deadly*; would also like to have a *go* at nothing but a few chairs for the elderly, etc. (but I know).

    Chairs with kneelers – why? can configure space for various ceremonies, sacraments, large feasts, seasons, etc.

  15. My own preference is for choir stalls like the brother’s choir stalls at Saint John’s, the straight ones on the lower level of the photograph.

    There was a nice slightly angled shelve to put your choir-book in front of you, a shelf underneath to store the book(s). There are arm rests to put your arms on when you stand. The seat also folds up. You can lean your rear on its edge while standing with your arms supported by the arm rests. A kind of seated standing position. I think there was an individual kneeler that folds up and down.

    As far as I can remember the pews are solid rows; there is not a space to slip underneath from one row to another. A perfect play area for children, out of sight and they can’t go far.

    Probably pretty expensive. Perhaps about half the church could be done with these in a pleasing design that would encourage people to sit in these places. Other spaces around them could be left vacant and only filled with chairs if needed. Could also be used for wheel chairs and other special arrangement, e.g. baby carriages and small chairs and tables for kids. Or even standing area for those who like to stand. I like to stand during the EP and now find it difficult physically to kneel.

  16. The parish of St. Elias (Ukrainian Greco-Catholic) in the City of Brampton, Ontario has no pews or chairs. This often strikes visitors as rather unusual or abnormal as they ponder, “Where do I sit”? Yet here we need to remember that the usual posture for prayer is standing and during penitential season such as Lent it is to kneel or prostrate, the latter being rather impossible if one is confined to a pew or a chair is only a few inches away before one’s waist.

    The nave or naos of the Church of St. Elias does have benches around the periphery for those who need to be seated because of infirmity, illness, age or some special need. Thus accommodation is made for those who really need it.

    Pews or chairs change the nave from an active area into one of passivity. They have the tendency to make the nave a place from which we watch the liturgical action that takes place within the sanctuary or to use the Byzantine term the bemos.

    With the nave free of pews and chairs the nave becomes at all times an active place of liturgy. The laity are not set into a confined area but rather act as a living body engaged in the paschal mystery not only by means of the nous but also with the their bodies that are also being redeemed and transfigured into Christ. Liturgy for the human person is very much a bodily activity as much as it is one of the mind and the spirit. There is no good purpose in relegating the human body into a small confined space when the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection opens the believer up to a cosmic reality that transcends both space and time.

    From the perspective of Byzantine liturgical tradition and what was generally the liturgical tradition of Western Christianity for at least the first thousand years, the question is not one of pews or chairs but of allowing the laity to assume the same posture as the clergy and freeing the nave from seating that really is not integral or necessary to the liturgical action.

    Aidan Kavanagh in his…

  17. Aidan Kavanagh in his Elements of Rite pp21-22 put it this way: Filling a church with immoveable pews is similar to placing bleachers directly on a basketball court: it not only interferes with movement but changes the event into something entirely different.

  18. Another problem with a lack of designated seating is that people might be tempted to move around and greet even more people at the Kiss of Peace! 🙂

    1. @Jonathan Ziegler – comment #33:
      Try standing the entire service with a bad knee and wiggly year old baby, then get back to us.

      As a choir member, I stand a good deal. Having a chronic illness, there were times that that was a real struggle.

  19. “I think my ideal would be no seating at all.”

    Interesting you should mention that, Fritz, as I recall my visit to Combermere, Ontario where the chapel had benches on the exterior and a polished wooden floor in front of the iconostasis. That worked quite nicely there.

  20. Brigid Rauch : @Jonathan Ziegler – comment #33: Try standing the entire service with a bad knee and wiggly year old baby, then get back to us.

    I’ve done both and at least in the latter case the freedom to move around without the confines of rows of seating was a benefit. Now that I think about it, many of the parents of young children in my parish spend a lot of time standing/walking around in the back of church during Mass anyway.

    On the knee question, that would be why you would have seats along the walls.

    C’mon, Church, let’s think outside the pew!

  21. I second Todd’s suggestion of ergonomically-designed, unupholstered pews/benches.

    Back in 1990 I was backpacking through Europe on “$40” and I went to Mass on the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St. Nicholas Church across from the Central Station in Amsterdam. The front half of the nave was filled with what would appear to be ancient benches intended for the torture of worshipers. They were rather tall with a very shallow seat-plank and a back of no more than 3 inches high. I took my seat and prepared for an hour of asceticism.

    Well, the liturgy was the among the most engaging in which I have ever participated. It was the combined Morning Prayer-Eucharist thing, cantillated presidential prayers, processional antiphons and psalms sung in alternation between congregation and schola (in Dutch, with melodic formulae that I now recognize from the Graduale Simplex), and what appeared to be a weekly practice of singing in alternatim an extended strophic hymn based on the Gospel and penned by one of the parish clergy.

    I digress with the details of the liturgy to illustrate that I didn’t give the benches another thought until the end of the Mass more than 90 minutes later. Turns out the height and shallow depth of the bench put my pelvis in a forward-leaning incline, positioned me on my “sitz bones,” kept my circulation going in all lower regions, and supported my back in a straight, slightly forward-leaning active posture–the exact opposite of every other pew or chair I’ve sat in since (with the exception of Wenger posture chairs for singing).

    In the interest of full, comfortable, conscious, sustained, active and completely-engaged participation, I advocate for those old benches in Amsterdam. (Are they still there?)

  22. Our church has mainly pews, but has chairs facing to the middle in the front. The raised altar area sticks out some in the middle. The choir loft has half chairs and half pews. The chairs allow for flexibility. They were added when the church was remodeled in the 1980s.

  23. Not much new to add here:
    Combo is the best:
    Pews (rounded! Not straight!) in areas that don’t need flexibility.
    Chairs in areas that do: front row, back row, by the choir, around the font, for wheelchairs, etc.

    (Of course I can’t find any good pictures of my parish to share, because what you mostly see in pics are the chairs:

  24. It is an axiom of architecture that before a building is constructed, the people shape the building; after it finished, the building shapes the people.

    Pews vs chairs is the same debate writ small, and both shape the people of God who use them.

    More critical to me than the simple choice between the two is how the seating relates to the rest of the worship space.

    For instance, consider the following dining options:
    (1) highly polished and intricately crafted formal dining room table and chairs
    (2) country kitchen trestle table with sturdy wooden chairs and benches
    (3) tall polished metal table with high stools
    (4) picnic table with attached benches
    (5) bar stools at a kitchen “island”
    (6) cushioned recliners with refrigerated cooler inside one armrest and a retractable tabletop that emerges from the other.

    Asking “which is best?” from those options requires answering a question with a question. Or ten.

    What does the rest of the space look like? How are people expected to move within it? What events take place in the space? What, besides people sitting, happens here? Is the focus always in one spot, or does it shift from event to event, or within events themselves?


    Finally, one observation I have not seen above. Solid pews — whether because they are heavy or because they are bolted to the floor — are preferable to lightweight pews unattached to the floor, at least for the elderly and the young. More than once I have seen an older person reach forward to pull themselves up by grabbing the lightweight pew in front. At first, they have a solid object to help them up, but when the people sitting in *that* pew stand up, the pew tips backwards and becomes a danger!

    1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #44:
      As with the comment above about where to place a cane, consideratiosn for the less able bodied among us should be primary and not an after thought.

  25. Perhaps we should go about reconstructing parish seating and space arrangements gradually, looking at the empirical results, and then doing some more changing until we reach an optimal arrangement.

    For example, if the parish has pews, begin removing some gradually. Leave some open space for standing, or wheel chairs, etc. Try some different types of chairs in different places. Look to those with special needs, e.g. children and elderly for suggestions of different things to try out. Listen to suggestions: e.g. to remove more pews, to add more of space, to add more chairs, etc. Perhaps different parishes will end up with different pew, chair, and space configurations depending upon the structure of the building, etc.

    If the parish has chairs and wants to consider pews, a similar process, only this time begin adding a few pews. Continue adding pews until an optimal balance is achieved.

    Or the open space option.(see #30-31) Begin adding open space for standing (whether you have pews or chairs). Listen to suggestions of where to local that space, observe what people do with that space and how that interacts with the rest of the congregation, increase open space as people are willing.

    Or the choir stalls option (see #28): Locate a small number of choir stalls in some part or parts of the church (like the brothers’ stalls at Saint John’s). Observe how the space is used and how it interacts with the congregation; be open to increasing the number of choir stalls.

  26. Solid axiom: “before a building is constructed, the people shape the building; after it finished, the building shapes the people.”

    So, what does that have to say about churches with kneelers? How do kneelers shape the liturgy? I’m reading lots about the pros and cons of chairs and pews, but in our diocese, where every parish except ours has pews (with kneelers), many consider us “rebels” because we stand during the Eucharistic Prayer.

    Greg Corrigan is associate pastor at the Parish of the Resurrection, Wilmington, Delaware.

    1. How does your parish accommodate Catholics who are visiting who wish to kneel in accordance with the norms of the national Catholic community?

      1. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #48

        Just to clarify, my question is first and foremost from the perspective of hospitality towards visitors who have an undeniably rightful expectation that national norms would be accommodated without having to resort to knees being directly on a hard surface (which, while it would satisfy the norm, would be the kind of thing that can make visitors write-off a place as inhospitable and unwelcoming because it’s trapped in the “all are welcome, so long as they do things our way” frame of mind), and not only that, but where the thrusting action of the hamstrings is done from an unaccustomed placement. I’ve ripped very well-exercised hamstrings doing that directly from the floor; I understand that bodies hardened in the days before modernity were less likely to experience such a result, but modern bodies are not hardened in the old ways, and I don’t think Mass is the vehicle for going back the future in that regard. (And I do eat my spinach.)

      2. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #50:
        Oh yes, I understood fully that you were asking from the standpoint of awareness for people’s expectations (i.e. hospitality). I appreciate that sentiment, and I probably would have asked it if you hadn’t.

        I’m asking from the standpoint of awareness of the ritual’s expectations (whatever that might be called).

      3. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #50:
        This is evidence of the problem created when people decide that every parish is properly “inculturated” in its own unique way. The end result is the closed circle lamented by the Holy Father. The gracious unity gained through our common liturgical rite is damaged – we no longer feel at home in different parishes precisely at the time in our history when we travel more often than ever before. Summer vacation is a perfect example of this.

    2. @Greg Corrigan – comment #47:
      For a good discussion on this, see John K. Leonard and Nathan D. Mitchell’s “The Postures of the Assembly during the Eucharistic Prayer, Liturgical Training Publications, 1994.

  27. My experiences with chairs have been uniformly negative – they were crammed together and made kneeling difficult. It was like being stuck in an elementary school assembly where the gym couldn’t really hold everyone.

    I agree with those who prefer the surprising versatility of pews.

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