Moveable Chairs

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by Peter Block

Large conferences where hundreds of people come together for  a few days are important. They are a public way of affirming a set of beliefs.  They give us the experience of being part of a larger community and they remind  us that we are not alone in the work that we do. When the large conference  begins to disappear, it is worth worrying about.

If you have recently attended a professional conference on  management, quality improvement or one dealing with the well being of  employees, you will have noticed it is getting to be a rather lonely  experience. Attendance at people centered conferences is on the decline, while  attendance at conferences on speed, technology, money and entrepreneurship are  humming along.

There is an argument taking place in Milwaukee over the renovation of a church. Something important is at stake there that is worth noting. A July 14, 2001 New York Times article by Gustav Niebuhr, states that local Archbishop Weakland “plans to update the interior of the 148-year old Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. The changes involve moving the altar forward into the church and replacing the pews with movable chairs…”

A local Catholic group in the city, a chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, objects to the change and now has received support from the Vatican. Cardinal Medina, prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has indicated that the changes “would fail ‘adequately to respect the hierarchical structure of the church of God that the cathedral by its scheme is to reflect.”

Now you might dismiss this as the latest in a long history of religious disputes over details of practice that we might consider unimportant, but this time I think they are fighting over the right questions.

Here are some reasons why I think the participants in this argument are on the right track and why the disagreement is important to us all:

  1. Those involved in this debate understand the power and importance of physical space. They are willing to draw a line and take a stand, in public, over the location of an altar and the move-ability of the chairs. They treat the design of a room important enough to appeal to top management, located in the Home Office in Rome, to support the design they believe in. They understand that the shape and structure of a room impacts not only the operational functioning of what takes place in the room, but also touches their actual faith in the institution and their capacity to experience the presence of God.
  2. The conflict is really about the role of leadership in the church. The Milwaukee archbishop believes that the altar, the sacraments and the priests who serve the congregation should be located near the center of the community of followers who assemble to worship. Those who hold a more traditional view of the institution believe that the tasks of the leaders should be performed at a distance from the worshippers. So this is a disagreement about the role of patriarchy in the church.
  3. The change also impacts the relationship of the parishioners with each other. The proposed change replaces immobile pews with chairs. This opens the congregation to some radical possibilities. Instead of being forced to face forward, towards the leaders, the possibility now exists for people to turn their chairs and face each other. Where we once believed that we needed to look to the altar and the priests to affirm and deepen our experience of God, now, with chairs that move, we are open to the possibility of finding God in the people sitting next to us. No small matter.

The Right Question

What is hopeful about this disagreement is that there are people in this institution that care enough about architecture and its impact on leadership and membership, to fight. In most of our other institutions people unconsciously accept the spaces they work in with disturbing passivity.  It is hard to imagine that employees or members of most secular institutions would be so upset about the design of their meeting space that they would appeal to the highest authority about a design they believed in.

Most of our other institutions are as steeped in patriarchy as the church and our architecture reflects this. Government functions in hearing rooms, offices and chambers that exalt elected officials and top management. Businesses have reception areas, executive suites and auditoriums that affirm the distance and centrality of their leaders. Plus most conference rooms are dominated by large tables that impose themselves on those assembled as if the table was an altar to the worship of order and control.

In education, school superintendents rule supreme and higher education continues to build lecture halls with chairs bolted to the floor and all eyes front and center. Granted that the chairs in all these places have become softer and more comfortable, and sometimes swivel to allow some lateral movement. But the physical space we gather in remains leader centric and is not designed for participant interaction. If you doubt this, look at how we arrange the room at large conferences. This is a case where the convenors can place the chairs any way they want, and yet when you walk into most rooms where groups are assembled to learn, the chairs are most often lined up in a row like little toy soldiers.

In Praise of Milwaukee Activism

It is significant that we continue to work and assemble in regal and patriarchal physical structures despite our widespread belief in participation, citizen involvement and democracy. Most of our leaders, employees and citizens now espouse activism and high engagement and yet we yield to autocratic physical space without even a whimper. We seem unconscious of the fact that the structure and arrangement of a room carries our intentions and purpose as powerfully as any conversations we might have within that space.

More disturbing still, is the possibility that when we move into patriarchal space, we like it, despite our participative rhetoric. We may want the leader to stay distant, in control and we may not want to move our chairs to face those next to us. We may like a monumental conference table and the way it keeps us apart from each other, so we accept these structures willingly. This is voting for a high control world with our seats.

That is what is hopeful about the argument in the archdiocese of Milwaukee. They recognize the importance of place, and there exists energy and passion to renovate the space in a more engaged and democratic direction. They are mobilized where the rest of us remain anesthetized.

I would also push the meaning of the Milwaukee debate one step further. I have believed for some time that the church in modern society was in descent and that businesses had replaced them as institutions that shape and determine our culture. In effect, it has seemed that our office buildings had become modern cathedrals. Now I have to question this.

Perhaps caring about the physical structure of a room or a building is a measure of how much we care about the institution itself and how much ownership we feel to recreate it.  If those of us in business, government and education are passive about our physical environment, it might indicate that, for whatever the reasons, we have less passion, ownership or deep investment in the well being and future of our organizations.

If we are looking for passion and commitment, the Milwaukee debate over architecture may be a sign that we should turn our attention to the faith community, its leaders and members, as models of institutions that can mobilize and motivate people. Perhaps the office buildings that once loomed as cathedrals are losing their vitality and becoming spiritual and social warehouses.

If we think of elements in our cities that are committed to building community, the passion in Milwaukee comes as no surprise. In our troubled cities, leaders of the faith community are at the center of efforts for reconciliation in times of crisis. I imagine they have much to teach us about care, commitment and accountability. I know that I am heartened by the debate over altars and chairs in the 148-year-old Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist and hope it spreads its spirit with as much fervor as its name implies.