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Lose the Pews!

By Hedgehog.

After several years of exercising considerable, and commendable restraint, I can hold off no longer. It is time to address the vexed question of pews. I realise that this will be completely irrelevant to those readers who are blessed with comfortable chairs in their church buildings, but spare a thought for those of us who continue to endure significant levels of personal discomfort in order to attend public worship.

It will also be a point of controversy for those who love pews, enjoy the luxurious comfort they offer, adore the warm richness of the wood and value the spiritual exercise which they encourage. However, I somehow think there may not be many such people among Ministry Today readers.

I had cause to visit Worcester Cathedral recently. To my surprise and delight, it was completely bare of seating at the time, because they were rearranging everything in preparation for a concert. Would that all church buildings could be so, for that is how many of them were originally made.

Now I’m not suggesting that we should make our congregations stand or kneel (even though both are more common biblical positions for prayer and worship than sitting) throughout a service. I’m just suggesting that we should banish pews, especially fixed ones, to the annals of history and adopt more flexible (and hopefully comfortable!) seating arrangements.

I’ve long been of the opinion that pews were invented by the devil himself. As a tactic for undermining the effectiveness of the Church, it was a masterpiece of demonic imagination. For a start, they are diabolically uncomfortable. The best have sloping backs and level seats, but the worst have exactly vertical backs (usually with a ridge along at shoulder-blade height) and sloping seats. As a result, not only is it impossible to go to sleep in a bad sermon - it’s also impossible to concentrate on a good one! One church of my acquaintance has seats which slope down to the front so that one has to wedge one’s feet against the pew in front in order to avoid sliding off! If you were not a believer, would you leave your comfortable armchair to spend an hour on such an instrument of torture? Of course not!

Then there’s the matter of inflexibility. In this case, all fixed pews are bad, but the worst offenders are box pews - the kind that have little doors with name-plates on them. These are always bolted firmly to pew platforms so that they cannot be moved at all - ever! They are usually so tall that the worship leader can only see the heads of the worshippers. And regrettably, they are much loved by the conservation brigade, who, if anyone dares to suggest that they might be removed in order to make the building more flexible for the 21st century, suddenly appear in droves to tell you that these pews are of deep historic significance and must be preserved at all costs - even that of watching the congregation fade into complete irrelevance.

But my greatest reason for disliking pews is that they effectively reinforce a congregational form of church life, preventing the church building from being available for all the people in the neighbourhood or parish.

What a far cry this is from the original role of church buildings. Prior to the invention of pews, many church buildings would have been the centre of village or neighbourhood life. The nave of the parish church would have been available for livestock sales and shows, parish council meetings, concerts, parties and other celebrations, temporary overnight accommodation for the needy and a host of other uses.

But once pews were bolted in place, all that ceased and the whole building was restricted to use for worship, ensuring that only those who wanted to attend worship could use it and only for that purpose, and thus disenfranchising the majority of the local population. Is it any surprise that so few of our neighbours visit our churches when the pews are communicating the unspoken message that only regular worshippers may enter? Is it any surprise that the local pub or sports centre has now become the centre of parish life?

Please don’t think I am completely opposed to pews. I think they make splendid garden seats, quaint restaurant benches and the timber is usually excellent for making bird tables and nesting boxes (pulpit timber has a similar use, but that’s another article!). I just think the time has come to get them out of our church buildings where they do nothing to enhance worship, while stifling the imaginative use of those same buildings to serve the communities God has called us to serve.

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You are reading Lose the Pews! by Hedgehog, part of Issue 23 of Ministry Today, published in October 2001.

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