Sunday, 3 May 2015

On Being a Creature of Habit: Why We Always Sit in the Same Seat in Church

Today, before the Scripture readings, our curate forced us to move seats. O, the sacrilege! But why do so many of us, including me, prefer to occupy the same places when attending public worship? Cally Hammond writes:
It is a familiar fact of church life that after people enter a church building for the first time and find a place to sit for worship, they are likely to keep coming back to that same place if possible. The marking out of territory within the church building is done both by formal signals such as ‘reserved’ notices, churchwardens’ wands, and ropes, and by non-formal means such as filling the parish priest’s pew with office books and devotional aids to make it clear that the seat is in use by another person. In essence this is not dissimilar from animals which scent-mark their territories to deter ingress by potential invaders or competitors. Within even quite informal worship gatherings, it is likely that people will gravitate towards a place that is not marked as someone else’s space; and for the next hour or so, that small area becomes that individual’s little bit of personal sacred space. In practical terms this functions as a sort of ecclesiastical time-share arrangement. This identification of safe or proper space is important to worshippers feeling that they belong and have a home within the church. Not everyone feels territorial about space within the group in this kind of way; but many do, and understanding their feelings on the subject can help with making worship work.

Cally Hammond, The Sound of the Liturgy: How Words Work in Worship (London: SPCK, 2015), p. 37

The need or preference for a protected personal space certainly resonates with me. But it’s not just in church that I need this personal space. I appreciate having a personal space in the cinema, too – which is probably no coincidence, given that watching a film at the local multiplex involves its own liturgical practices: one buys a ticket and refreshments (sacraments?), enters the sacred space of Screen 3 (or whatever), and, in reverence and awe, watches the pre-film adverts, the trailers, and then the main feature even unto the end of the closing credits. Amen.

I mentioned earlier that our curate forced us to move seats. The Old Testament reading we had today was Jeremiah 29:4-7, where we find the exiled Judahites being encouraged to seek the welfare of the city they now inhabit. Forced movement, forced exile, is terrible; it’s the uprooting of a person from one place – a holy place, a sacred space, and one where that person, on the whole, feels safe – to another, where everything is strange and unfamiliar, and where sacred and personal space has to be carved anew from recalcitrant social space. Having a place in the world, and knowing what and where is that place, helps constitute a person’s identity; but such identity is threatened when, for whatever reason, and in whatever ways, s/he is ‘exiled’ from that place.


  1. Interesting. I wonder what other habits we have within churches. I always sit at the back (I think this is so that I know I could slip out if I needed to). The habit that I really don't like in the Anglican service is the 'sharing of the peace', where you're forced to shake hands with people you don't know and who don't even acknowledge your presence at any other time.

    We Baptists have our own peculiarities, too, such as blackcurrant squash for communion (sacrilege!). Also, the free prayer can be... er ... interesting. Baptists like to use the words 'Lord', 'really', 'just' and 'this morning' to punctuate every breath. Really.

    1. You might find the Hammond book interesting. It largely applies to Anglican services, but I think is general enough to apply across the denominational spectrum. She includes some comments about the Peace as well!