The rite reverend Fanny Bottoms, the public affairs officer for the National Council of Churches (NCC) has issued a press release acknowledging that the NCC’s historic ecumenical council on Christian worship has entered a difficult phase with some delegates threatening to withdraw from the multi-lateral dialogues. To the surprise of many, an agreement was quickly reached on a definition of the Eucharist, and the council moved forward to deliberations on ecclesial architecture. There was little debate over a carefully worded section intended to allow but not require stained glass but the negotiations broke down over acceptable seating in Christian worship.
The Anabaptists were uncharacteristically the first into the fray, offering an amendment requiring that sanctuary pews be of simple design and neither painful nor cushioned. During a brief recess the Anabaptist section quietly sang a hymn attributed to Menno Simons, “No vanity, nor pain, nor slumber in His presence, No vanity, nor pain, nor slumber in His presence.”
Perhaps in an effort to make evident their historical and theological distinctions, a group of Southern Baptist messengers[i] offered their own set of amendments. First, their motion that every house of worship include a prominent display of the American flag was ruled out of order since it was not germane to the main motion concerning seating. Their second concern was that a provision be made for seatbelts in church seating. They expressed two concerns. First they were seeking an acceptable tool to help restrain “contemporary service” worshipers during the more charismatic choruses. Second, they felt the presence of the belts might provide a greater sense of the believer’s security.
The Presbyterians and other Calvinist were troubled by the Anabaptist insistence that church seating not be painful. They argued that efficiency trumped comfort and that appropriately placed pain is to the glory of God. They pointed out that they had considerable interest in this topic as they make greater use of their seats than most, all-be-it, their services tend to be more brief than those of the Baptist.
The Pentecostals had little concern for the issue of comfort. They were more interested in pragmatic issues of ease of egress. Specifically, they stressed a preference for the ergonomics of seats having a proper center of gravity, one which makes standing effortless whenever the Spirit moves. They have prepared a statement on headrests, a feature they say is needed for better viewing of the big screens.
The Charismatics went farther than the Pentecostals, seeking approval for spring-loaded lift seats that make response to the Spirit effortless. They also have petitioned for a paragraph approving cup holders large enough for their lattes. Their delegates confided that comfort is less important than the appearance of comfort as the world needs to see God's favor on His people.
The Anglicans were silent on this issue saying only that there should be tolerance for all alternative seating styles.
Both Methodist delegates were also silent on the floor. It is rumored however that they formed three committees to draft alternative proposals. The chair of their delegation would only say that the Book of Discipline was silent on this matter but that they were unequivocally committed to unity, charity, and tolerance. Denominational executives have pledged to work toward inclusion of the topic on the agenda of the next General conference.
The Vatican observer for the Council stated that the Holy Father was pleased the ecclesial communities were talking about matters important to the Holy See as seating arrangements are critical to full communion at the table of the Bishop.
Finally, the Orthodox have already distributed their minority report which they prepared last year before the ecumenical council was publically announced. In part it argues that the question of seating is irrelevant. Metropolitan Bishop Stanz Upright Strait explained “It is imperative that we follow the traditions of the Apostles and not be misled by these modern perversions. Seats were introduced in Western worship in the late 4th century as an appeasement to the Emperor. In all of our icons it is clear they were standing in the upper room when the Blessed Spirit came and so it is everywhere the Spirit abides. Only the bishop may sit in the presence of the holy.”