What is the biggest obstacle to the growth of the church in Britain today? Creeping secularisation? Richard Dawkins? Infighting over women bishops or gay clergy? Let me make another suggestion: how about the continued existence of pews?
For the first 1500 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% 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 a 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. 90% of them found the experience uplifting, finding a real sense of community. Three quarters said they would go back. Over 50% felt comfortable and welcomed. It suggests that half of the battle is actually getting 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 realise 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, realising 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. Our church in London – St Paul’s Onslow Square - 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 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 twentieth 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 noticeboards 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.
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