I have had many recent experiences related to sitting in the front at church that have caused me to reflect upon why we do or do not sit in front at church.
About two months ago, I was attending one of our ecumenical chapel services at Yale Divinity School, called a “Marquand” service because the chapel is named Marquand Chapel. The chairs there are usually set up in concentric circles with four openings so that the chairs form a cross, and so that we can worship in the round. I sat, rather boldly I thought, in the second innermost circle because I was excited about the preacher. And then, to my 5’3″ dismay, a very tall, broad-shouldered seminarian (bold Methodist!) SAT IN FRONT OF ME.
I tapped him on the shoulder and said in a somewhat joshing manner, “Hey, now I can’t see.”
He said, “Why don’t you sit in front?”
He had an excellent point. Methodists often do. So I promptly climbed over the chair next to him and sat next to him. I now had an excellent view. And everyone else had an excellent view of me in front.
That is one reason why I don’t sit in front. There’s no place to hide.
The other experience I have had of sitting in front is a result of a rather unfortunate occurrence in my life: my recent discovery that I have developed an allergy to gluten and can no longer eat gluten (wheat, rye, barley). That makes most normal bread, pasta, baked goods, etc. very bad news for me. It also makes Communion complicated, since Communion bread is made out of wheat, and the Communion wine also gets gluten in it when people dip their bread in the wine or when they take a swig (gluten backwash…).
So now I need to have gluten-free wafers, which really taste vile (sorry, Jesus!). And there is no way to have a gluten-free chalice unless I am, say, the first person to drink from the chalice. (That’s another excellent reason to be the priest–first person at the chalice!) Since we have Communion four times a week in St. Luke’s Chapel at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, I needed a solution. We already had gluten-free wafers, so that was easy. We have two chalices at our morning services, so if I pay attention to which chalice has been used the least, I can get a relatively gluten-free chalice. Then I figured out that if I sit in the front on the right side, I would probably be the first person to drink from that chalice. Presto: gluten-free chalice!
So, as a result, I now sit in the front nearly every morning at St. Luke’s Chapel (the Episcopal service). This has had strange effects upon my fellow Episcopalians. Apparently, they have been wondering why I sit in front because almost no Episcopalian (or Roman Catholic) does that. So here it is:
1. I sit in front because I have a better chance of getting a gluten-free chalice.
2. I sit in front because I am short and can see everything better without tall people in front of me. You are all tall people to me.
3. I sit in front because I am one of the chapel ministers, and sometimes we need to fix something or give someone a significant nod that says, “Go get the wine and bread now.” I need to be able to see to know when something needs to be fixed. (See 2.)
4. I sit in front to counter the notion within me–and within others, apparently–that there is something wrong, or too forward, or too lacking in humility, about sitting in front.
This last seems to me to be a very Roman Catholic and Episcopal cultural thang. In most of the Catholic and Episcopal churches I have attended, very few people sit in the first three rows. One time, in a Catholic church in Mountain View, California that I attended with my aging father, I was sitting in one of the furthest back pews with my dad. The priest started his sermon, and he asked why nobody sat in the four front pews, and then he challenged us to move forward. He teased us. He cajoled us. I was delighted. I thought, Why not? I nudged my dad and said, “Let’s go walk up to the front just to show this priest we’re not afraid.” My dad grabbed my arm and hissed, “No!”
What’s up with that? Do we really think we can hide, that we are somehow less visible in the back row? If we do, from whom do we think we’re hiding? The minister? The other congregants? God?
Do we not want to be on show?
I can sympathize with that. I don’t want to be on show at church, either. I want to feel like part of the crowd. But the fact is that we are there as individuals in communion, and no matter what the state of our mind, body and spirit, we bring that to church. Yes, it might be more visible to everyone in the front row. But do we really want to conceal that from one another in community? Do we have to keep up the brave smile for appearance’s sake at church? There seems to be something very wrong with that. Jesus showed his moods. I kind of like it when he gets angry–at other people….
And if we don’t feel worthy and want to skulk in the back, well, those are precisely the people that Jesus hauled to the front: Matthew the tax collector, the weeping woman who washed his feet, the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, the sisters of Lazarus. Front and center, baby: at his feet.
As for the suspicion that people are somehow less humble, more narcissistic when they sit in front at church, I understand why people sometimes get that notion. It may have very old cultural underpinnings from the days in which people paid pew rents to have seats up in front, and so the wealthiest and most influential parishioners sat up front. I have seen this cultural artifact myself in a relatively new church: the people who gave a great deal of money and time to the church’s construction always sit in the front row, dead center, and actually appear miffed if someone else sits there.
But the fact is that we have rid churches of this pew rent concept, and we can see in churches with other cultural influences a certain joy and exuberance about sitting up front. In my internship parish, Trinity Episcopal Church in Hartford, we have many parishioners from the Caribbean, and many people from West Indian locales sit right up front to be close to the party. I have done the same myself at Pentecostal/Evangelical services, where it somehow feels really right to be up front.
I hope that we will stop questioning why people are sitting in the front. I hope we will start asking each other, “Why DON’T you sit in front?”
SIT BOLDLY. You will at least give fellow Episcopalians something to chew on for a while.