You probably are thinking that its a silly question to ask: Why do we have pews in church? After all, its only natural to have a place to sit where you will be for an extended period of time, like when celebrating Mass. Today, we enter into a church and find a seat within the pews and remain in that spot for the entire service. Seems simple, right? Well, it may surprise you that pews in church are a relatively recent phenomenon in Catholic history. Long ago, parishioners would typically remain standing for the entire Mass, with only brief periods of kneeling. So what changed to make pews the standard in churches across the globe?
Before around the 13th century, almost all parishioners would stand during the entirety of the celebration of Mass. While there was scant seating for the weak and elderly, Medieval churchgoers would spend almost on their time on two feet. This was because the pulpit was placed in the center of churches, so laity would have walk to the priest if they wanted to hear the homily well. The lack of pews also facilitated enough space for all churchgoers to kneel during the service.
Starting around the 13th century, simple benches made of stone began to appear in churches across England, generally around the perimeter. Eventually these benches made their way to the nave, and were fixed in place on the floor. By the 15th century, stone was replaced with wooden pews that became relatively common across churches in England. However, in the rest of the world, this was not the case.
It was not until the beginning of the Protestant Reformation that pews started to take hold. In early Protestant worship, the focus shifted away from liturgies and more towards the sermon given by a preacher, along with their discourse and discussion over interpreting the Bible. Over time, nearly every church in England made use of the standard pews in the nave as we see today.
In the beginning, pews were installed inside churches at the expense of the congregants. Families would purchase pews for their use during Mass and guard them voraciously, even locking them up in pew boxes to prevent use by others. They would be issued pew titles, similar to the deed of a house or a car title, indicating ownership of the pews. Over time, churches were able to afford their own pews for installation. In these cases, pews would be rented out to worshipers to provide funds for parishes. This practice of pew renting was brought over from England into the United States, when churches had no secure way of raising funds. This practice and the usage of pews came to be adopted by the Catholic Church as a result of the pews prevalence in the United States. With the addition of pews to Catholic Churches in the United States and England, Mass shifted to make use of them. Homilies were extended because congregants could sit for them, and sitting during various parts of the liturgy became common.
While most have adopted the usage of pews, Eastern Orthodox Christians and the Byzantine rite generally do not use them for various reasons. In one essay on a popular Orthodox website, it is said that “Pews teach the lay people to stay in their place, which is to passively watch what’s going on up front, where the clergy perform the Liturgy on their behalf.”