One of the many ways in which the Via Media is made manifest is nothing short of amusing – and profound. Years ago when the St. Alban’s church pews and the floor in the nave were being refinished, I learned an interesting thing about the angle of the backs of church pews. As it happens there are three different angles commonly used: one is more straight up than the other two; one is more reclined than the other two; and one is, obviously, in between.
The three angles are used primarily in three different denominational groupings: Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican. I have not been able in the past few days to find a reference to whether the straight up angle is common to Roman Catholic churches and the more reclined more common to Protestant churches, or the other way around. But I think I recall that the more straight up angle is a manifestation of a greater austerity in worship and is used in Catholic churches and the more reclined angle is the more comfortable choice where the worship service is a mostly seated experience like being an audience in a theater.
What I found remarkable though is that there is that third, middle, angle, and that it is the angle used commonly in Anglican churches. It may derive from the greater degree of motion in Anglican liturgical practice, as we “sit to learn, stand to praise, and kneel to pray.” The pew angle is not too austere and not too laid back, but like Goldilocks’ choice of the bed, the chair, and the oatmeal in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, not too much one way or the other, but just right.
It is certainly the way I think of the Episcopal Church: not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 8-March-2016 .