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.