Book Review: Remove the Pews

Remove the Pews: Spiritual Possibilities for Sacred Spaces
By Donna Schaper

Till her recent retirement, Donna Schaper was Senior Minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City’s Washington Square, in Greenwich Village.  After work at the University of Chicago Divinity School she received her MDiv from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 1973. She has been a dominant voice among women pastors and has been active in social justice for decades. Schaper served churches in Tucson, Arizona, Philadelphia, Amherst, Massachusetts, Riverhead, New York and Coral Gables, Florida and was Associate Chaplain at Yale from 1976 – 1980. She has published numerous books on a range of topics from spiritual practices and Sabbath keeping to prayer and end of life questions, among others.

Remove the Pews is, like Schaper, thoughtful and at the same time explosive. She starts us with Judson Memorial’s decision some years ago to remove its pews. This was to allow many different religious communities to use the space—several others worship there—but also to initiate a redefining of what it means to be church. The rest of this fast moving set of reflections is essentially focused on rediscovering what church is in the 21st century, no small task as I found in my own study, Community as church, church as community (Cascade, 2021). Having also led a group aptly named Bricks and Mortals, she well understands the importance of place, the great significance of the historic houses of worship in which we pray, study, gather as community and use for the good of the neighborhoods around us. But much as Christ in the San Damiano icon of the crucifixion told Francis of Assisi to “rebuild my church,” something Francis took quite literally, the Lord had much, much more in mind. The same is true for Schaper and pews in the nave.

The pews are not, for Schaper, a mere relic of a useless past. The Church is too keen on the past, on all those saints before us, to simply a rush after what is new right now, only to be old and outmoded very soon. We ought not to get rid of ancient sacred texts that may baffle or enrage us. The same is true of the sacred songs of years past. We ought to keep adding to this tradition while at the same time letting its history teach us, challenge us. The pandemic closed the churches along with restaurants, schools, offices, and stores. This side of the lockdown we are glad to be able to be in all those places in person. But we also need to keep hold of Zoom or whatever platform we used to be together when we were separated. Contrary to the trend among some to sell off or completely redo sacred spaces, Schaper insists that they have deep roots in neighborhoods, in families, in peoples hearts even if they do not regularly attend services in them. She reminds us that the “rites of passage,” that is baptisms and confirmations and first communions, weddings and yes, especially, funerals remain gatherings for even the most distanced from church.

Schaper has a great deal of insight to impart in this book, some pointed observations on trying to “grow” churches by “selling” religion as a product or commodity. She takes up this and much more in a reflection on “Religion 201, A New Vision,” a wide ranging wondering about what faith and communities of faith could be moving forward. Readers will find that Schaper is solid, a seasoned pastor and theologian as well as social activist. She knows the scriptures and liturgy, she understands what living out the word and sacraments looks like in a congregation and how mission and reaching out to the “nones” and “dones” looks like today. Schaper looks at her own life and her evolution in faith, in ministry. She shows how we develop our own language of faith, our own paths that we have to accept as different from those of others. The pressure to conform is something she vigorously rejects, seeing in the Spirit’s work a freedom and thus, a freedom in our response to the Spirit. Schaper also wonders out loud about how we could look within our congregations and see not just projects and plans we’re been given by others or read about but the genuine promptings of the Spirit, challenging us to act differently but also to hold tightly to what is true and good and beautiful. For Schaper, there’s no rude throwing out everything traditional, all that is from the past. And this says a great deal for a soul as progressive and open and even rebellious as she is. Equally, she has no time for sentimental fans of tradition, only for lovers of “living tradition.” The Spirit yet has so much for us to learn and in which to delight in living out the Gospel.

There is a LOT in this slender volume and questions for discussion at each chapter’s end make it something for a group to read, ponder and discuss. A valuable reflection for us in communities of faith from a pastor of real discernment.

Schaper, Donna. Remove the Pews: Spiritual Possibilities for Sacred Spaces. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2021. 150 pages. $14.95. ISBN: 9780829821109.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.


3 responses to “Book Review: Remove the Pews

  1. Jean-Paul Marie Justin Auman Avatar
    Jean-Paul Marie Justin Auman

    Please feel free to fact check —
    More than 50% of people over 50 are full or partial caregivers for an elder parent.
    In 8 years, all 71.5 million (pretend the million is in caps) post war baby boomers will be over 65. Since the census doesn’t ask questions about religion and hasn’t since 1950 — so even with broad brush stroke distribution a huge number who were pew centric for worship won’t be because it is a physical impossibility. Their gradual disappearance from pews has been assigned a myriad of explanations while ignoring the facts of aging and debilitation for which there is no cure and nor reversal. And then add the persistent covid factor that everyone wants to deny still has the 65+ population at highest risk.
    Covid lockdown was the prequel to the aging Tsunami that will decimate the workforce, faith communities, health care systems and services, not to mention the obvious us question where do 71.5 million people go to die? What hospice system awaits the arrival.

    John Hopkins reports that as of December 15th 2022, there have been 99,700,000 confirmed cases and 1,090,000 deaths from covid in the US alone. Now try to extrapolate from that experience what the passion of dying will be for all 71.5 million because all will die. All will require food and shelter and varying degrees of medical care while dying. All will require their bodies be buried, burned or somehow disposed of.

    This is all fact certain. This is all happening while “church” is preoccupied with ways to embellish the pew experience. You are serving a 40 something demographic while 71.5 million are preparing for their Palm Sunday entry into their personal Holy Week from which denial will not provide an alternative conclusion. Some will be courted to pay for that million dollar pipe organ. Some will be courted to endow this or endow that. All will be reminded that they can’t take it with them — though how much will be left with a hospice bed is going to the highest bidder remains to be seen. You won’t print this…

    1. Jean-Paul Marie Justin Auman Avatar
      Jean-Paul Marie Justin Auman

      perhaps the only way into discussion on the passion and death of 71.5 million is to examine what Covid revealed about out our working definitions of “the assembly” during worship, our working definition of the Body of Christ, how we defined a member of the parish in our allocation of ministry. What role did geography play in answering those questions? Who was considered an alien of the community because their name and tithe did not appear on the rolls nor fit the operating definition of community? Who was there to anoint the dying? How did we minister to those lost in the Good Friday of their beloved’s dying and death when Paul Turner’s script for Christian burial was shown to be woefully inadequate to the suffering still ongoing?
      With hospice care already a private for profit business are we becoming the same as we evaluate who will receive accompaniment through their Holy Week in Union with Our Lord Jesus Christ? And will our definitions preclude who can anoint when it was a woman of no standing who anointed Our Lord and He declared she would not ever be forgotten. Is our answer really to be “better nothing at all than someone of the wrong gender”. Is there really such comfort to be found in mapping the no’s because finding the yes will shake the status quo? I am not asserting an agenda of solutions but rather until one recognizes the scope of what is coming one can not have a clear understanding of the resources needed to be the Face of Christ to the dying. Who will be the formators of this new monastic community with its hermits and cenobites? Composed of the laity what lay monastic models can we draw upon? Consider Clare of Assisi’s devotion to the Eucharist, to the Body of Christ though the actual celebration of the Mass was in fact rare.
      Forgive me… my tears bring me to silence.

      1. Fr. Michael Plekon Avatar
        Fr. Michael Plekon

        Many thanks for your detailed, very strong comments. As one who has researched and written about decline, shrinkage and revival in parishes, I agree with all you say. I myself did take account of the aging of congregation members, also their lives which include caretaking as well as health issue. I can say my book was written before the pandemic and the best I could do was a brief postscript. It appears that this was also the case for the book by Donna Schaper reviewed here. It was completed before the pandemic and thus does not take that into account. It is as you say, more entered on the church, the building, congregation, pastoral leadership, church activities than on the much larger reality of aging and health catastrophes and other issues in the society. That these must be considered is crucial. Again, many thanks for your comments.

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