“Don’t sit in my pew; It belongs to me; I been a sittin’ right here at least forty years; and that’s the way it’s gonna be.”— Don’t Sit in My Pew song lyrics by Tim Lovelace
Unforeseen fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is everywhere. Circumstances we never dreamed of facing in our lifetime are imposing hardships if not downright intolerable alterations to our lifestyle. Many are just good sense and others will likely go away when the pandemic subsides. Some, however, are creating serious social problems from which we may never recover.
As Americans begin to resume life seeking some semblance of normal, there is one form of forced change testing the very foundation of religious services: the revered practice of claiming territorial rights to “my pew.”
With congregations now easing back into pre-coronavirus schedules incorporating social distancing practices such as assigned seating, that time-honored custom is being challenged all across the country. And I’m here to tell you, reports of reactions are disturbing, to say the least.
“You just won’t believe it,” a friend shared with me last week. “My wife complained all the way to services Sunday morning. Declared that no one was going to tell her where to sit. Said she’d been sitting in that same pew for more than 30 years and that’s where she was going to sit, she didn’t care what the ushers told her.”
“Well,” he continued, “I listened to that all the way to the church house trying to reason with her, and finally just told her to hush.”
“Hush,” was not on one little lady’s mind at that small East Texas congregation where I worshiped some years ago the Sunday morning visitors came in, introduced themselves, and took “that” seat. Everyone gasped when they sat down at the end of the fifth pew on the left side where many years prior, Miss Edna claimed that spot as hers. Miss Edna was the sweetest, kindest little lady you could ever meet. She had been present for every service for longer than anyone alive could remember with her “right on time” arrival customarily coinciding with the minister stepping to the pulpit for the welcome and announcements. Not one to break with tradition, just as the preacher stood up that particular Sunday morning, in walked Miss Edna.
Everyone, including the preacher poised in the pulpit and silently praying under his breath, watched Miss Edna as she walked slowly and quietly to the end of the fifth pew on the left side. Seeing it was not empty, she sweetly said to the visiting couple with a smile, “Well, good morning. I do believe we have visitors this morning. Welcome, we are so glad to have you. And what is your name?”
“Thank you,” the man said warmly. “We’re the Browns.”
“We are thrilled that you are visiting with us and hope you will come back,” Miss Edna replied, then paused and added, “However, Mr. Brown, you and your lovely wife are sitting in my pew and if you will be so kind as to move, we can start our service.”
The startled visitors politely relocated to the empty pew ahead allowing Miss Edna to sit in “her pew” thereby ending any further discussion on the 11th Commandment of “thou shalt not sit in someone else’s pew.”
With the pandemic pounding the economy, perhaps our return to congregational worship now might be an opportune time for churches to fall back on a common practice in Anglican, Catholic, and Presbyterian churches up until the early to mid-twentieth century: renting pews to families or individuals as an additional means of income. At the very least it would clear up any potential showdowns on which pew belongs to whom.
All of this change will no doubt work itself out and life will go on. But you know, I’ve always wondered about one thing the morning Miss Edna claimed her pew. Was that really just a coincidence when the song leader took the podium and announced with a straight face, “Please turn in your hymnals to number 819 … I Shalt Not Be Moved.”
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