While at the DeKay’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration the
other day I got up to make space at our table when Dave and Anne
Shelhorn arrived. As I moved chairs into place, Anne happened to
comment: “Wow, you’re really good with this chair thing.” We both had
a good laugh about the comment and it awakened me to the potential
need to say a bit more to the congregation about the “chair thing” that
has been going on in the Sanctuary since the beginning of Lent. Well, OK,
that has been going on for much of the last year.
For me the current arrangement of our chairs in the sanctuary has
everything to do with building on our strengths as a congregation. We
are a parish church where people gather not so much to watch a drama
or receive instruction, but to be with one another in a time of worship as
we remind ourselves of and give thanks for the identity God has given us
in Jesus Christ. Our architecture reflects this truth and I have now been
around Emmanuel long enough to know that the way you live your life
together as a congregation reflects this truth as well.
So as the pastor, who thinks a lot about ordering of worship, I have
been playing a bit with the way we sit together in worship, because I
wanted an arrangement of the chairs that gave us the maximum amount
of seats, made the best use of our architectural style and gave witness to
the character of our life together. The chairs in their current arrangement
of three main sections each facing a side of the communion table has
helped us to accomplish all of these objectives.
First, in terms of space, the current arrangement gives us 145 seats
in the sanctuary. With increased numbers in worship we need an
arrangement that both makes use of the greatest number of chairs and
also leaves enough space for people to move around during things like
communion and the passing of the peace. All but about four of the new
chairs purchased after the remodel are currently in use and the
arrangement of having multiple aisles reduces the feeling of being locked
into a long row of chairs until you are “released” by the pastor’s
benediction at the end of worship.
Second, when you worship in a small chapel that is flexible space where we do more than
just worship on Sundays, it is best not to try to be a cathedral. Churches that grow out of a
European worshiping tradition have often tried to build scaled down versions of the architecture of
the great cathedrals. High ceilings, a long and narrow nave, and an elevated chancel with an
altar are some of the components of this architecture. This design focuses all attention to the front
where the regular drama of the priest elevating the Host during the Eucharist was the high
moment of worship. You came to watch that, and then receive communion. However, there is
almost nothing in this description of a cathedral that points to who we are, what we do in worship
or what our building looks like. So why not live into who we actually are rather than try to press
ourselves into a model that neither honors the qualities of our unique space nor pays attention to
what actually happens in our worship.
And this brings me to the third reason for the chair thing. Emmanuel is a church that enjoys
its life together around the table. Fellowship with one another is a core value. When fellowship
with one another is one of the key objectives of worship, it is best not to have a room set up where
you are looking mainly at the backs of people’s heads. In the current set up we are literally
gathered around the Table. We are a community of faith gathered around the primary symbol of
our life together. As we worship we get to look not just at the backs of heads, but into the faces of
other worshipers and sing not only to God but to one another as we celebrate our new life in Christ.
If you’ve made it this far in this essay, thanks for indulging me. It may be that you have not
even thought about why the chairs are the way they are in our sanctuary, and that this doesn’t
even make a difference to you. But if it does matter to you, at least you now know what the
“chair thing” is all about. I feel like God has given me a gift in this opportunity to be your pastor.
The chair thing has most to do with me both acknowledging the gift you are to me and saying
thank you for that gift.