I’ve heard that you are considering changing the seating and lay-out in church. I hope you don’t!
Why do you say that?
It’s not a proper church without pews, is it? There have always been pews in church!
Maybe in our lifetime, but historically, things were very different. In mediaeval times, there were no seats at all and people had to stand or kneel to pray all through the Mass. The old and infirm had to prop themselves up against the walls-many churches had ledges around the wall to support them. The nave of the church was used for processions and activities in the service: the word, ”carol” comes from a word that means, ”a dance in a ring”, people would dance around the pillars as they sang. Seats would just have got in the way! Church, being a large enclosed and covered community space, was also used for secular functions. Both church and churchyard were used to hold markets, fairs and the sale of specially brewed church ales…now there’s an idea!
So when did seats appear in churches?
By the mid thirteenth century, the church hierarchy disapproved of holding these noisy events in church but the churchyard was still used, being one of the few public spaces in the community. Seats began to be provided, at first people brought their own but later there were seats, which in time were fixed to the floor. By the 1600s and 1700s, pews were being used because the service revolved around a lengthy sermon so more comfortable seating than rough benches was wanted.
Pews have lasted all that time, then?
Yes, but in different forms. Pews could be rented out to the better-off members of the congregation, leaving their poorer brethren to sit on benches at the back or take themselves off to chapel, this enforced social differences and so was not universally liked or approved. Later, box pews came in, we had them here at All Saints as you can see in the engraving (1863) that hangs in the vestry: there’s a copy of it on the CC2020 notice board at the back of the church. The Mayor and congregation had a velvet-lined pew with an impressive table in the centre! Box pews gave privacy and greater comfort but led to irreverence and there was the distraction that they obscured the sight of the altar and the sound of the service. When a group of churchmen called the Ecclesiologists arose in about 1841,they insisted that all pews should be low, facing the east end of the church and therefore, the altar. They decreed that the altar should be raised on steps and the chancel raised two or three steps above the nave: this explains why many old churches have Victorian tiled floors, like ours. Our current pews are not truly old, they were installed in 1923 after the previous pitch-pine pews were eaten by dry rot, along with the floor and joists. Modern churches use various forms of seating, chairs and pews, most of which are easily moved and comfortable and stable to sit on-which for many people is not their experience of our current pews..
So if it was decided many years ago to stop holding events in church, why are we considering it now?
The main consideration is that our church is primarily a place of worship, open for private prayer and for services just as it is now. However, with more modern seating which can be moved, the body of the church could be used more flexibly for exhibitions and group activities, allowing church to become a central part of the community again.
And church will still be principally used for services, like always?
Services yes – but not like always, in medieval times marriages often took place in the porch, as did business transactions! As you said, we are just at the thinking stage: share your thoughts and ideas with us and we will continue to research these issues and in time, discuss them full with the congregation and the community.
BOOKS CONSULTED INCLUDE:
Richard Taylor,”How to read a church”
Simon Jenkins,”England’s Thousand Best Churches”
Brian L Harris,”Harris’s Guide to churches and cathedrals”
Richard Hayman,”A concise guide to the parish church”
P and T Clowney,”Exploring churches”
Edwin Smith,”English parish churches”
John Clemetson,”Life of a parish church”
J. Neave,”History of All Saints Wokingham”