Walk into most places of worship today - and they are basically all the same - not set our necessarily based on the importance of any individual parishioner - but set out to hear about and worship God. I say - most - because there are three exceptions. Synagogues have a pecking order and a separate area for women, Mosques have a system that separates the men from the women and the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (formerly the Exclusive Brethren)- have, not only a layout to keep the women well back, but the key jostlers for power well up the front. In key seats as it were.
With Synagogues the reason for keeping men and women quite separate in the house of worship is both venerable and tightly articulated. A Sydney Rabbi says this of the system that keeps the two genders apart in Jewish 'churches'. "Women and men are very different beings. Not only are we physically different; our thought processes, emotional states and psychology are all different. This is because our souls are different - they come from complementary but opposite sources. The prayer experience is supposed to be an opportunity to be with your true self, to communicate with your soul. Men and women need space from each other to help them become in-tuned to their higher selves. Ironically, it is by sitting separately in prayer that we are able to truly come together in the other areas of our lives; because it is only when both male and female spiritual energies are allowed to flourish that we are complete as individuals, families and a community."
Whether this flies in the face of a world determined to create total equality is perhaps questionable in this day and age but rules is rules and tradition is tradition with the Jews.
I'm not about to get into why Mosques do whatever they do with their women - but it will probably be along similar lines.
But the Exclusive Brethren have a more curious set up when it comes to the pecking order in their so-called 'churches'worldwide. When I was one of them - their churches were a mixture of old halls, old houses, even old sheds perhaps, that had been transformed into fundamental 'churches'. Over the past 40 years, most PBCC churches follow a strict formula for design and seating layout - which is generally set out in the windowless round. Concentric rows starting with an inner circle and radiating back as the congregation becomes less and less important in the status department.
If anyone (and I mean one of them - as the general public are not admitted) just walks in to a Brethren room today and decides that today he is going to go and sit in the front row -the fallout is palpable. I would suggest that today - that person would be asked to move. You see, for as long as I can remember, there has been a pecking order of importance in Brethren churches. And the order relates to keeping the plebs back and the 'prominent' ones at the front in their highly prized seats. Of course if you go to the same church as the leader - or if the leader visits your meeting room -woe betide the fool who thinks he can sit beside - or even near the 'great man'. These prized seats are often in use by the same person for decades.
Whereas - walk into a Catholic or Baptist or Presbyterian church and you can sit up front all day without a whimper from the congregation. Well, maybe a slight whimper from a crusty old parishioner but certainly not a strong arm eviction.
'Prominent' is a word the Brethren like. It basically means someone who has pushed their way forward through intense indoctrination and lots of sucking up to the powers that be. And the prominent guys are the ones who sit up front and dish out the doctrine. And the punishments. And this is where its gets ugly.
If a prominent brother who has sat in the same important seat in the front row suddenly finds himself out of favour - he instinctively is ushered towards the back of the room - probably sitting beside his wife in the 15th row. In Brethren- land, it's a visual fall from grace - a visual kick in the kidneys and something that he is going to have to work hard to recover from.
In every Brethren 'church' there are the pleb Peebs. These are people who go to church but who do not contribute to the proceedings and can't wait until each session is over so they can get home and do something more important. They can't leave because of family and kids and probably their job - but if they brought in a voluntary attendance rule - they would rarely if ever show up. As for any seat forward of about the third row - forget it. They would approach such a seat in much the same way as they would a rabid dog.
Being up front means being vulnerable. It means that some mean bastard in the front row might fire a question at you - which you are ill-equipped to answer. And nobody likes to set themselves up to look like a fool. In what must be called a fool's paradise. So the non- movers and shakers sit happily down the back with their wives and rarely say a word that is not compulsory.
The real interesting bit is what happens when someone 'prominent' falls foul of this highly delicate system of order. Let's say a 'prominent' brother with his front row seat suddenly finds himself in the brown matter. If it's terminal - he takes the long walk. Which has happened to many leading brothers in the past including the fathers' of the current 'great men' in Australia. Given the bullet on a Tuesday night - they are told that they can't be 'walked with' and then forced to shuffle out into the darkness of the (shudder) - world. With every eye fixed on their receding forms. The Plebs internally punch the air at such a sight as well as a few front and second row brothers as well. They are a vindictive bunch these Brethren. They relish the opportunity for some schadenfreude. Like Dame Edna, they are deliriously happy at witnessing the misfortune of others.
And then the real tussle begins. Who will get his seat! The lesser important 'prominent' brothers all jostle for position and at the very next meeting - one of them has forced his way into the fallen one's vacated seat in either a self appointed capacity or by being pushed forward by those who are in turn - sucking up to him.
If a 'prominent' brother -having scrabbled and scrambled his way forward over the years and landed himself a plum seat with his fellow heavies - suddenly finds himself in a situation - the thought of tumbling back the rows to a position of unimportance is almost more than he can bear.
Let's take a real case in point. A prominent brother - who has a lifetime of compliance and crawling under his belt and has learned parrot fashion, every word that the most 'prominent' of other brothers have said over the past - say 20 years or more- suddenly finds himself in a potentially damaging situation. His daughter gets pregnant at a ridiculously young age and he of course is directly responsible as the perpetrator - make that the penetrator - has crept under his roof to do it. Without his knowledge. So the daughter is thrown out with her 'boyfriend' to 'get right' (which means to make marriage plans immediately) and he is instinctively relegated to the rear of the church with the bloody plebs. A spectacular fall from grace. He is now back with people he doesn't really know - nor wants to know. His progression is like that of an ant falling from a branch 20 feet above the ground. He has that inexorable crawl back up the trunk to reunite with his ilk in the front row again and it's not an easy journey. For a start his seat has been taken and secondly there are a bunch of people who really want to keep him where he now is.
Don't tell me about love in the 'assembly'. They bloody hate each other and the indicators are right there in their seating order. Oh - I didn't mention the womenfolk. Well -they sit behind the rows of brothers all the way to the back. Which means they can snooze if they feel like it and keep themselves well out of harm's way. Which in a Brethren hall - is not a bad place to be.
Yes folks - if you want to worship God in a PBCC 'church' -you have to know your place. And trust me - it's nowhere near the front.