Taylor: Keeping our proper place

Perhaps classroom-style seating is intended to discourage questioning, discussing, sharing. Just be good…and do as you’re told

I wonder who invented classroom-style seating, where people sit in rows, all dutifully facing the front.

Even in faraway schools too poor to have chairs and desks, children squat on the dirt floor in rows, facing the teacher. University lecture halls, theatres, town meetings, churches and mosques all organize people in rows.

I wonder if the crowds of thousands (according to the Bible) who filled the hillsides to hear Jesus sat in orderly lines. If so, did the disciples have to act as ushers, chivvying non-conformists into shifting their behinds forward or backward into rows.

Row seating acts like a lens, focusing everyone’s attention on the front.

I can understand that for a theatre or concert hall. You’re not there to be sceptical, to question the performance on the stage. You’re an audience.

But town meetings are supposed to hear voter’s views. Why set chairs in a pattern that inhibits their input? To stand up, to speak out—or worse, to have to stumble over other people’s legs on the way to a microphone—forces people to break the mould of acting like a passive audience.

Or perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps it’s intended to discourage questioning, discussing issues, sharing experiences. Just be good little boys and girls, and do as you’re told…

Seating people in rigid rows keeps the people up front in control.

In churches and mosques, too, orderly rows promote order. You can’t have people questioning the word of God delivered from the pulpit or lectern, can you?

I mean, suppose a priest or minister presented a concept, and then passed the microphone around like a ‘talking stick.’  Whoever held the microphone at that moment, would be in control. She can speak; he can remain silent. But the speakers also know that they do not have the final word either. Others will have their turn.

Why, it could be chaos, couldn’t it?

As a churchgoer, it makes me wonder how other seating arrangements might affect the way we worship.

Suppose we sat at small tables, for example, the way we sit in restaurants and coffee shops. And we got into intense discussions about what we heard from the pulpit. Every church that I know of uses small group discussion at retreats and conferences to promote spiritual renewal. Do we not expect spiritual renewal on Sunday mornings?

But would people gathered around coffee tables lurch dutifully to their feet to sing old hymns? I sometimes suspect that traditional hymnody depends on having massed voices.

Now that I start thinking about it, why do we sit at all? What if we held stand-up worship services? People could move around fluidly, forming and reforming groups. That’s what happens at cocktail parties. The surest way to kill spontaneity at a cocktail party is to make everyone siddown ‘n’ shaddup.

Or even—wild idea!—suppose that instead of just talking about bread and wine, we actually baked bread, and crushed grapes. Suppose we used our whole bodies to worship God, as well as our buttocks.

All I know for sure is that it won’t happen as long as we sit in rigid rows.