Thursday, October 07, 2010

The End of the Pew?

Graham Tomlin asks the question in the current edition the Church of England Newspaper, via email:

What is the biggest obstacle to the growth of the church in Britain today? Creeping secularization? Richard Dawkins? Infighting over women bishops or gay clergy? Let me make another suggestion: how about the continued existence of pews?

For the first 1,500 years of the church’s life, pews were extremely rare. In most medieval churches people stood or sat on the floor, with only a narrow bench around the edge of the building for seating. Eastern Orthodox churches never got around to having pews – still today in Russia and Greece, worshippers stand. When they did gradually get introduced, pews were a mixed blessing. They were intimately connected with social division and hierarchy, with pews ranked according to social standing. The rich would have large grand stalls at the front and woe betide anyone who sat in the wrong one.

They were exclusive then, and they are exclusive now. Pews today effectively exclude the 90 per cent of people who are not regular attenders of services. The problem is that pews render the space in churches virtually unusable for anything other than around two hour-long events a week. The building becomes curiosity, hardly visited midweek except for a few ecclesiastical tourists who want to drop by, and the cleaners.

A recent survey sent unchurched visitors to slip into churches up and down the country. Ninety per cent of them found the experience uplifting, finding a real sense of community. Three- quarters said they would go back. Over 50 percent felt comfortable and welcomed. It suggests that half of the battle is actually get- ting people into a church in the first place.

There is also evidence to suggest that one of the main helps in getting people to feel more inclined to visit their local church is if they are familiar with the building. Imagine for a moment we could wave a magic wand and all fixed pews could be removed from churches up and down the country. Churches could then develop into open, attractive space that could become a resource for their local community. This has a number of key benefits.

At the most basic level, it could become a source of income for the church that would help it fund extra staff, such as a youth worker, administrator or community pastor. Football clubs faced this same issue in the 1970s. Clubs began to realize they were sitting on stadia that were only used on Saturday afternoons and occasionally for night matches. So they began to excavate space under the stands and build on the car parks to provide conference facilities, cinemas, bars, anything that would increase revenue for the club, realizing that it was a criminal waste of resources to sit on a building that was used so seldom.

Removing pews would also make churches more welcoming. With the best will in the world, whoever designed pews did not have comfort uppermost in their minds. Many clergy during a dull sermon have at least had the reassurance of knowing that pews are very hard to fall asleep in.

When people are used to visiting pubs, cinemas and theatres the least they get is a padded comfortable seat. If they are expected to sit for over an hour in church, pews can come as a bit of a shock.

More importantly for the church itself, opening the building for local community use makes it friendly, rather than foreign, territory. Local groups - further education sessions, fitness classes, after-school clubs and the like - could begin using the building regularly. Increasing numbers of churches are taking out the pews and not looking back. They are now imaginatively reordered, well decorated and lit and provide flexible, attractive meeting space for all kinds of local uses. If local people are used to visiting the church for all kinds of other activities, as they did in the Middle Ages and before, the idea of entering the building for Christian worship rather than just the gardening club becomes a little less scary. It also makes the space much easier to use for the church itself. Any church wanting to run its own prayer groups, meditative worship, after-school club, Alpha course, fund-raising dinners, marriage preparation sessions, suddenly has flexible, pleasant space in which to do. My local church in London has removed the pews so that at various times it operates as a drop-in homeless centre, a venue for marriage preparation courses, conferences, theology classes, and on Sunday of course for regular worship that attracts many in their 20s and 30s attracted at least partly by warm, open, attractive space.

Is this yet another example of the church forsaking its rich heritage for something trendy and fleeting? Nothing of the sort. How many cathedrals have pews? Precisely. Pews were a modern invention that served the mission of the church at one time, but arguably no longer do so today.

As Sir Roy Strong, former Director of the V&A says: “Until the 20th century, the country church could be altered and adapted in response to the religious changes that affected the Church of England. Now the church is all too often frozen in time.” This is an argument for the return to proper old traditions of the church, with churches as genuine community spaces, for the service of the whole community and the mission of the church.

Such a change need not sacrifice a sense of the sacred. Sanctuaries and side chapels can be kept apart, almost as a reminder of the origins and true nature of the building for those who use it – a gentle nudge that this is not just another functional building, but a place where prayer has been offered for centuries, a reminder that even in the middle of an exercise class, we are in the presence of God. Art exhibitions, sensitive use of decoration, even notice- boards can all serve as semi-permanent witnesses to the faith for those who use the building.

If we are serious about the survival and future of the church, we need to thank the pews for their sterling service, but tell them politely that their day is over.

Graham Tomlin is Dean of St Mellitus College, London.


Daniel Weir said...

Graham Pulkingham once said that sitting in pews meant that we were always looking at the back of someone's head and not meeting them face-to-face.

RMBruton said...

All right, having ditched the Homilies, the actual use of the 1662 BCP, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and now pews, what will be next on the list of things to do away with by the newly enlightened gurus of the contemporary "Church"?

DeeBee said...

'MmmmmmKay. We have all this space (real estate?) which is taken up by pews, and we're having trouble getting people in the door on Sunday. So, obviously, we need to rip out the pews and use the space for social and community events on the weekdays, and make a few bucks in the process. Heck, maybe we'll even balance the building fund! ("This used to be a cute cathedral . . .")

Many churches already offer out their parish halls, chapels, education rooms, and even basements (oops, "undercrofts") for social and community events, often for free or for a small stipend. Also, some people _might_ believe that limiting the worldly "usefullness" of the sanctuary and having all the people (except perhaps the priest) facing toward the alter is done explicitly for the purpose of creating a "set-apart" holy space for prayer and contemplation (in other words, it's a feature, not a bug).

Robin G. Jordan said...

"Many clergy during a dull sermon have at least had the reassurance of knowing that pews are very hard to fall asleep in."

Actually if there is no one sitting close to you, you can lie down in a pew and take a nap during that boring sermon. If you have kids with you, they can stretch out and take a snooze too.

For those who are not familiar with the history of church buildings, the traditional two-room church developed from the monastic church. The nave began as a storage barn that the monks built next to their church in which they sung the daily offices and celebrated Mass. The monks' church is what we now refer to as the chancel. When the more devote members of the laity began to come to hear their singing of daily offices and to see their celebration of the Mass, the monks permitted them to shelter in the barn during inclement weather.

Later in the Middle Ages parish churches would constructed with two rooms in imitation of the monastic chancel-nave arrangement. A rood screen would seperate the chancel from the nave which served as a community hall during the week. Ales, banquets, morality plays, public meetings, and a variety of other civic and social activities were held in the nave. The introduction of the pew put a stop to this use of the nave.

The arrangement of the early pews reflected the social structure of the local community. The pews were not open to the public but owned or rented by the wealthier families in the community. The squire and his family had a large commodious pew opposite the pulpit. The less prestigous families had smaller and less well-located pews.The poor stood in the alleys--what we now call aisles--or brought their own stools to sit on.

+Edmund said...

Sure, go back to the first 1500 years of the church, and apologize to His Holiness. Otherwise, quit complaining about everything traditional on the specious grounds that they "aren't traditional." This is the mental equivalent of three-card monty. Give us the 1928 prayer book and 1940 hymnal, stop preaching Marxism, and all shall be well.

Daniel Weir said...

The 1928 BCP and the 1940 Hymnal as the cure for what ails us? How about including an end to women's ordination and allowing women to serve on vestries. BTW, I haven't heard a marxist sermon in a long time - it might be interesting.

Don said...

For me, this is a sore subject.

When my own church built a new sanctuary early in the last decade, our original plan was to use chairs. But some of the "grandees" of the church insisted on having pews, at least in most of the church. They were forced to raise several hundred thousand US dollars (which could have gone to better use elsewhere) to obtain these pews, and then we lost 10% of our seating capacity because people tend to spread out more in pews than they do in chairs.

I outline more about the whole adventure in this piece.

Now that we have these pews, we find it difficult to replace the lighting in the ceiling because the pews have to be uninstalled to get the scaffolding in. (And, of course, the pews are difficult to remove for any other good purpose.)

The ultimate irony is that we left chairs in the back and the balcony of the church. Many of these same "grandees," who are seasoned citizens, find the chairs more comfortable, so they sit there.

Miss Sippi said...

For the past two years I've attended a small Orthodox church some distance away. OCA, no pews, but benches around the walls for us who need to sit sometimes. Sometimes we have services at our local university chapel, which has pews. After a lifetime of pew-sitting, I now find them very constraining and fence-like.