Friday, March 21, 2008

The weakest go to the wall

There are rumblings in the Church of England. Up and down the country, pews are being removed from parish churches and not everyone likes it. Press reports that stress the new uses to which pewless churches can be put - yoga classes and the like - make yet more hackles rise. We know the C of E is a broad church, but yoga classes? Really? There's the stuff of comedy and soap opera here, and Ambridge is already debating the question. But, as so often, the soaps are airing a real issue.

In many places, the church is used by a handful of people for an hour a week, and such a group finds it hard to raise the money to maintain an often old and listed building. Meanwhile, there's frequently the need for a comunity building to house all kinds of activities from drama groups to, yes, yoga classes. Not all villages have a village hall and removing pews from a village church frees up space for such activities. To many, opening up the church in this way is a chance to bring the building back to the wider population - and to give the church the chance to raise money for costly repairs too. To others, such a move seems like heresy.

Well, it's a bit unfair to condemn it when, for hundreds of years, churches have been used for so much more than services. In the Middle Ages, church buildings were used, amongst other things, for court sittings, village meetings, charitable handouts, and sealing business deals. Later they became in addition repositories of records or schoolrooms, or provided garaging space for the local fire engine. Most of these things took place in the nave, the main body of the church, while the chancel, the domain of the clergy, was reserved as the truly sacred space.

Many of these secular uses of church buildings required flexible space, and early medieval churches had little in the way of seating - mainly seats for the infirm near the walls (hence the expression 'The weakest go to the wall'). In the later Middle Ages, many churches fitted pews (though not always throughout the church) and pews were also the staple of church fitting in the Georgian period. The Victorians too were great pew-builders, and many of the pews now slated for removal are Victorian. By the Victorian period something else had happened too. People were thinking of the whole church as an exclusive 'sacred space', devoted entirely to God. Business dealings, fire engines, and the like just weren't appropriate here.

And that's still one reason why, for many, pews are sacrosanct. They define sacred space - as well as being old, traditional, what people are used to, and better looking than the insitutional chairs that so often arrive as pew replacements.

In my opinion, there's often a case for removing pews (though I'd keep historical fittings like medieval benches and Georgian box-pews) from at least part of many church buildings. A clear, uncluttered pewless area can enhance the spatial dignity and grandeur of a church interior as well as making it usable for all kinds of activities and so bringing more people in. But if you do scrap the pews, for goodness sake find some decent chairs for parishioners to sit on. Then open the building up to the groups that need the space, introduce people to the church, and get them raising cash for the roof repairs. Then the building itself won't go weakly to the wall.

1 comment:

Peter Ashley said...

None of this pew-bashing would've happened if the Church of England had started to actually believe in what it stands for, and conducted itself with the respect its religion deserves. With an Archbishop of Canterbury bent on being an apologist for his own religion, we might just as well get our arms up in yoga rather than down on our knees in prayer.