Thursday, 7 July 2016

Pews and other essentials

Last week a member of the congregation came up to me, and with a look that I can only describe as sincere pity, said: "I wouldn't have your job for all the money in the world"! What had elicited such a comment? Was it the sermon? It certainly wasn't my best and I had this sinking feeling all the way through that I wasn't connecting either vertically or horizontally, with God or the person in the pew. In fact the last few Sundays have been like wading through mud or talking in a sound-proofed room. But is pity the right response?

It may be that the person in question has been reading some report or other about clergy life expectancy rates having fallen, or the increasing poor health or rising stress levels of the average priest? Or perhaps that our pension fund is as safe as the Titanic?

Or perhaps it is a reference to various comments circulating about what people feel about the removal of pews at the back of the church? I suspect that that is (am I sounding too hopeful here?) probably nearer the mark, especially given that the limited removal of a few rows was a compromise after a faculty to remove them all was opposed. This was after a few unpleasant comments, behind the scenes canvassing of support (including someone ringing through the electoral roll to try and win people to the "remain" side) and letters sent to the Diocese from people who are not, let us say, regulars!

I was clearing out one of the drawers in my desk when I came across part of a correspondence about this from the newspaper "The Week". It is from the Sunday Telegraph and it is written in response to someone complaining about how integral pews are to real worship:

"Trevor Reid doesn't want his church to have "flexible" space. Leaving aside the death-knell such views sound for Christian communities interested in a viable future, it reveals a very poor sense of history. Pews became commonplace only with the longer sermons and static liturgies of the post-Reformation era; they are a somewhat modern development. before then, naves were flexible spaces where all manner of community activity took place.

In filling them with immovable furniture, the Victorians and their immediate forebears were securing income from pew rents, but showed scant regard for history. I pray that Mr Reid and his supporters will be cured of their attachment to these horrid, newfangled constructions."
Rev Canon Wealands Bell, Staffs (The Week 8th February 2014)

People's arguments usually boil down to the following with regards to pews:
1. Numbers. You can get more people into a pew than the chairs that replace them. the fact that pews are really uncomfortable is obviously a secondary issue.

2. History. Certainly the Victorians favoured them for the reasons set out above. But although that sets them in their historical context (along with holes in the ground for loos back in the Dark Ages) in terms of authenticity we have to go back further and see that the church in the early was much more utilitarian and much more community minded than the Victorians. Therefore churches were meeting places, sacred spaces, and even markets and hospitals, all in the one place!

3. Nostalgia. This is a big one and some see the removal of pews as a trampling on their childhood memories. To take away pews is to desecrate these and make church seem somehow less in the process. But is that what church is really for?

4. Personal taste. Usually arguments boil down to this. "Well I like pews" or "I don't like chairs." To which the response is: "But what about those who don't like pews and love chairs?" This sometimes leads to the toys out of the pram response "If you take them out I am not coming here again."

So maybe the pity was for someone who is trying to move the church forward while a significant minority want to do the opposite. In which case roll on retirement.

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