Church of England

In defence of church pews: God save us from white plastic, stackable stainless steel and bright blue upholstery

There is “no theological basis” for the retention of church pews, declared John Gallagher, Chancellor for the Diocese of Rochester, as he dismissed the view of conservationists who wanted to retain the austere wooden pews in the 14th-century Grade I listed St Margaret’s Church in Rainham, Kent. And so a Church of England court has decreed that these Victorian pews may be replaced with tubular steel chairs upholstered in royal blue, which are light and easy to stack, not to mention a little easier on the posterior than hard wood.

History and architectural congruity must give way to the need for “comfortable seating” and the preference for “colour and brightness”. The change is apparently “popular among their congregation”, and they believe it “would encourage more people to attend”.

St Mary’s vicar, the Rev’d Judy Henning, is supported in this decision by church wardens Janet Garnons-Williams and Desiree Willis. This is… O, it’s probably best not to comment further.

Why should there been a need for “relief from the timber interior”? Is any of the congregation suffering from hylophobia? Are they a registered or protected minority? What about the need for relief from grey stonework and stained glass? What happens to the character of a medieval building when you fill it with IKEA and drape it in Laura Ashley? Why is it permissible to inflict an apocalypse of modernity upon a 14th-century Grade I listed parish church, but not (say) Canterbury Cathedral or St Paul’s Cathedral? Or are they next?

Should we put beanbags around the site of Thomas Becket’s tomb, to make it “more comfortable” for pilgrims to meditate and pray? How about gutting the interior of Westminster Abbey and filling it with brown leather armchairs and comfy sofas and coffee tables? That would certainly be popular with visitors, if not quite with the Dean. Why not model every cathedral on Costa? Wouldn’t that be cool and trendy and “encourage more people to attend”?

There may be “no theological basis” for the retention of pews, but John Gallagher might consider that there’s no theological basis for church buildings at all. But since we have them, and many represent a thousand years of cultural religiosity and Christian order, we really ought to respect their historic interiors as much as we seek to preserve their Early English Perpendicular. Is there no theological basis for a sense of aesthetics?

See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah:
And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship,
To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,
And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship (Ex 31:2-5).

God clearly cares about the quality of the art by which He is glorified. So much so that He fills the artist’s mind with beauty, and gift his hands with great skill and dexterity. There is no space for shoddy and second-rate. It is the vocation of the Christian artist to create excellence, and that creation, being to God’s glory, must be superlative. As TS Eliot expressed it in The Rock:

LORD, shall we not bring these gifts to Your service?
Shall we not bring to Your service all our powers
For life, for dignity, grace and order,
And intellectual pleasures of the senses?
The LORD who created must wish us to create
And employ our creation again in His service
Which is already His service in creating.

White plastic chairs may be lighter, and stainless steel tubes upholstered in bright blue fabric might be brighter, but church furniture is not made for detached comfort or portable convenience: it is designed for huddled collectivity and corporate communion. Church pews facilitate a shoulder-to-shoulder way of doing church, and a knee-to-knee way of approaching the presence of God together. We shuffle and nudge, glance awkwardly over shoulders to find our place in the order of service, and can’t escape the hymns of tuneless droning of the guy on the left. You touch him all the time. Or her. You can’t escape proximity, space-invasion, body odour, breath.

The church pews which St Mary’s in Rainham is chopping up for firewood were lovingly carved and crafted by our Victoria forebears in works of divine devotion, so that their community might sit side by side, infected and affected one by the other. When we replace these fashioned, shared benches with individual, machine-moulded chairs, we move toward the church of individualism, where every man becomes a comfortable island.

But it looks a lot brighter, and it’s certainly much easier on the posterior.