Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgy Reflections
A church's seating arrangement

by Father Jan Larson

(From the Aug. 23, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson Does it make any difference how seating is arranged for liturgy? A great deal of difference! Proper seating not only provides the needed accessibility, visibility and comfort, but also conveys profound psychological messages. The arrangement of seating is a powerful force in how people relate to one another, and in how they understand their status.

Experts in the dynamics of human relationships and in the design of spaces used for human activities assure us that seating arrangements are a major factor in shaping attitudes in people. Seating for our liturgical assemblies therefore becomes a major consideration for church designers and liturgical planners.

The ritual of the Mass is fundamentally, of its very essence, the ritual of a shared meal. Thus the Sacramentary of the Roman Missal, at its very beginning, refers us to the words of Jesus as he asks his disciples to prepare a room where he may eat the Passover meal with them.

The Sacramentary goes on to say that “the church has always regarded this command of Christ as applying to itself when it gives directions about the preparation of the sentiments of the worshipers, the place, the rites, the texts for the celebration of the Eucharist.”

In other words, everything, including seating arrangements, ought to suggest a shared meal. This shared meal originated for Christians with the Last Supper, and it is the Last Supper that remains today as the template or pattern according to which every liturgy of the Mass must be planned and celebrated.

There are basically four possible seating arrangements for the liturgy. The first is to gather around the altar table, on all sides. This arrangement best suggests the way people share food together, and best allows people to feel that they are full and equal participants.

This would have been the normal seating pattern for the Christians of the early centuries, and is seen today in St. Peter Basilica in Rome, in Seattle’s Cathedral of St. James, and in many other churches throughout the world. Literally standing around the altar is possible today in the celebration of the liturgy with small groups of participants.

The second seating pattern is semicircular, probably the most popular pattern today in new or renovated churches. This shape also allows participants to feel they are gathered around the altar as best they can.

A third configuration involves the entire assembly of worshipers divided in two, with each half facing the other, and altar, pulpit and presider in between. This is a seating pattern commonly found in monasteries, and is becoming more popular for parish churches as well.

The fourth pattern of seating is the most familiar in our older churches: parallel rows of pews lined up for the length of the church, with priest and altar at the other end. This configuration is the best for seating spectators at a play, movie or lecture, but the absolute worst for seating the “active participants” that the liturgy now assumes, and is the most undesirable pattern of seating for making people feel they are gathered around the Lord’s supper table.

Objections to the better patterns of seating often involve the illusion that we come to the liturgy to worship God and not to pay attention to other people. Liturgy involves both. We had better pay attention to others in church, for Christ is really present in each and every one.

For this reason, the Church’s current norms for church design state that the seating pattern should no longer make people feel they are spectators: “This area is not comparable to the audience’s space in a theater or public arena, because in the liturgical assembly there is no audience. Rather, the entire congregation acts...the community worships as a single body united in faith, not simply as individuals who happen to find themselves in one place...”

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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