Sunday, 7 February 2010

The End of the Pew?

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.


  1. Hi Graham!

    Totally agree about the need for a flexible space - it's the focus of our "10th Birthday Project": to make a gift of our church to others by making it usable midweek to serve our community.

    Our route is rather different, though - thought you might like a different perspective?

    We're planning to get rid of our pews...BUT replace them with more pews!!

    These new pews - though made of solid wood - are easily stackable (up to five high) and light enough to be two-person movable too.

    At the church where I was curate, we had the chance to start with a 'blank sheet' (building a new church) and so never considered pews. We spent money on expensive, well-made, easily-stackable chairs. We wanted to be able to do the things you describe above.

    Problem is that fire-regs say that chairs have to be connected together (six-across I think) when in use and the process of (un)linking and then (un)stacking the chairs was incredibly time-consuming - and decent chairs are very heavy indeed!

    Here's why, then, we're going for pews

    1. Pews are much quicker to move, stack and lay out - it's the equivalent of moving six at once!
    2. Pews suit the look of our church building better.
    3. We are 90% families with young children - the survey we did showed that people really like pews in that they can squish together as a family...
    4. ...and you fit a lot more people in that way!
    5. They are nearly as flexible - you can move them around, creating smaller areas for discussion, play etc.
    6. They're (potentially) even longer lasting.

    Financially the outlay is pretty much the same (per 'bum') - and for many churches (including those that might be much more jumpy about chairs in principle I suspect) it might be the better route to what you're (rightly I think) describing as the flexible usable church space we need.

    All Souls Church near Twickenham

  2. We're in the process of restoring our grade 1 listed Church in Finchampstead, and whilst (to our surprise) we were told that chairs were an option we again opted for pews, precisely because of the fact that we can squeeze more people in with pews. Although we will generally say the capacity of our church building is 120, it regularly seats in excess of 150 for our family services precisely because people are willing to squeeze up on pews where they wouldn't be happy to do so with seats.

    Having said that, I guess the arguments might be a bit different if we had a large building in comparison with our congregation size, and didn't have a church hall immediately next door that we could use for meetings, discussion groups and some services.

  3. Pews are a major impediment to the church engaging with the community. I've come across a couple of churches recently who've gone for really creative use of premises: one has refitted as a soft play area/cafe, another is going for a ten pin bowling alley, cafe and furniture recycling scheme. None of that is remotely on the radar for our medieval village church, now surrounded by urban housing but built for a different time and setting.

    RTP - we're facing a similar issue: our church is full (seats about 90), but if we took out the pews the capacity would drop even further. We use our church hall for a live relay 1 Sunday a month, which adds 50 to the seating capacity, and seems quite popular, sometimes more so than being in the church itself!!

    1. Surely a church IS designed to be a place of worship, not a community centre. I don't recall Jesus having a problem with the synagogue being anything other than a sacred space - in fact didn't he drive out the 'buyers and the sellers' yet our vicar proposes to hold Winter/Summer Fayres with sales in our church once the pews are removed. He quotes how outsiders remark on how beautiful our church is once they come inside yet proposes to destroy the look of it by removing the pews! It is not pews which keep people out of churches, it is that the church's message is at odds with a secular, materialistic,and to be honest, promiscuous lifestyle which the vast majority follow today.Sadly people regard an organisation which regards pre marital sex as wrong, suggests you hand over a tenth of your income, that you help others without any gain etc as fuddy duddy and to be sniggered at. The very concept of believing in a God as opposed to trusting in this world and science alone is regarded as childish as believing in Father Christmas. These are the concerns we need to address- and removing pews is hardly going to do that! And sitting in semi circles of chairs is regarded as off putting by many I have spoken to outside the church - they feel uncomfortable with the very informality proposed by many a 'modern' vicar! It is not the layout of the building which excludes people, in fact you would be surprised how those living a lifestyle at odds with the church's teachings are actually quite conservative in their views of what they want a church to like be should they ever go there. My sister in law, brought up in a Welsh non conformist chapel, though now not attending any form of church,was horrified when, on a family holiday together, we separated for lunch and I told her that we had found a lovely cafe in the back of the church just off the main street of Brecon! She said it wasn't right to eat in a holy place! In fact she said it felt blasphemous to her. Our churches, with or without pews should be kept as a sacred space- especially when, as ours does, they often have a church hall or centre attached or close by. Use the centre for the 'fun' things,keep the church for God alone. It isn't much to ask to keep His House Holy when he does so much for us.

  4. Potentially 'pews' is one of those topics that can divide churches (along with music!)... Richard's (hi!) solution sounds great and is a long term solution. Our church replaced it's pews 30 or so years ago with immovable dinosaurs from funds raised by parishioners. The church will be be unable to return to being a full part of the community while they (pews and donors!) remain.

    Therefore the point that I would make is churches need to look beyond their immediate and current views, to think through what they do now may prohibit future mission.

  5. It's interesting that many of our cathedrals have removed their pews and gone for comfortable seating. The flexibility it gives them is amazing and to see a cathedral void of any seating is stunning, just the architecture, the way it was designed to be seen!

    As an ex-stewardship adviser, concerned with people's visions for the development of their parish, I was dismayed at the pathetic intransience of so many "Churchians" who's faith seemed to be in the building and not our Lord Jesus Christ. The pews were a timebomb, the moment anyone suggested removing them (or even some of them, to make space for wheelchairs!).

    Sadly, they are a bigger problem than just making flexible space. They show a lack of true Christian spirituality in many of those who claim to be Christians.

    My efforts to inspire people's giving by developing their vision as a local church sadly fell on dry, infertile ground much of the time.

  6. We have just moved back into our newly-pewless church. See for the 'after' picture and I am sure you can imagine the 'before'! For a church with no church hall this is particularly exciting - Valentine's Dinner for 16 couples in the church this Sunday, something we could never have considered before.

  7. The stacking pews at St Mary's South Ealing are the best option I've seen. They must seat 3, or perhaps 4, and it seems you can stack them 2 high and still sit on them. They are very light weight, and I assume they can stack several high. They provide for easy set out and lots of people but can be cleared to provide an open space.


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