Perhaps the most controversial element of any church reordering involves the pews. Any decision to remove them is fraught with debate and it is often the case that some members of the congregation will remain opposed to the idea throughout the reordering process. It is also true to say that most of those people do come to accept the idea when they see how removing the pews brings life to the building in new and unexpectedly joyous ways.
Pews in their historical context
It can be helpful to remember that pews have not always been part of a church building. Medieval churches would have been open spaces with movable bench seating next to the walls. In medieval churches, the pews we see are – at the earliest – Victorian additions. Viewed in this light, you can see removing pews from a medieval church as either peeling back the layers to restore the original vision or continuing the evolution of the building in the way it has always evolved.
Of course, in Victorian and later churches, the pews were an integral part of the space. This makes removing them a much more loaded decision. This is especially the case in churches designed by notable architects. In these cases, the statement of needs becomes even more critical to the decision.
The value of the statement of needs
There is only one reason to undertake a church reordering: the building isn’t fit for purpose in its current incarnation.
We don’t use churches in the same way as we did a century or two ago because we live in a much less structured society. For a church to be viable in the 21st century it needs to be useable as more than a place of worship one day a week. It needs to be used more often for more activities by more of the community for more of the week. When this happens, you could argue a church is fulfilling its mission as a religious building far more effectively.
For many churches the reality is simply that if they don’t adapt, they will no longer be useable as a church and will need to be redeveloped as commercial or domestic accommodation.
What happens to a church space when you remove the pews
When you remove pews from a church and replace them with chairs, you make the space very much more flexible. This means it can be used in so many different ways.
At St Michael & All Angels in Kingstone in Herefordshire, they’ve found people are able to stay and chat after the service. Because the space is more accessible and more flexible in its layout, holding big events such as weddings and funerals, is much easier.
St Mary’s Church in Maidenhead now hosts mid-week events for the locality, including a jazz evening, a Christian Art Gallery and further gospel outreach events.
Within a month of the reopening, St Peter’s Church in Hereford had hosted a national theatre company, a national music festival and welcomed children in for art and craft workshops.
St Peter’s Church in Peterchurch in Herefordshire operates as a hugely popular lending library. There is a café and the building is regularly hired by many community groups from Tai Chi to Voluntary Action Workers, and for conferences. It also continues to be used as a place of worship for midweek and Sunday services.
Revd Simon Lockett, Vicar of St Peter’s, Peterchurch, said: “I’m still getting used to having a rural church that’s really buzzing. It’s wonderful.”
St Matthias Church in Torquay hosts toddler groups and exercise classes. There has been a barn dance, Christmas Fayres, cream teas and a hog roast. The team also recalls the weekend of the Platinum Jubilee when the church was used for three Sunday morning services, each with a different chair layout, then set up for a celebratory lunch. When Covid-19 restrictions were in place, it was much easier to maintain and enforce social distancing measures. They also highlight the benefit that the space can be set up for the number of people expected at the service, which solves the age-old problem of people filling the pews from the back of the church.
Another benefit has been how sociable the space has become after services. John Beckett, Rector of St Matthias, says: “One of the things we’ve realised recently is that with pews, you got stuck talking to one or two people. With chairs, because they’re so much more loose, it’s much more friendly because you can easily walk up to someone from any direction and have a conversation with them.”
Unlocking the potential of a church building
Ultimately, removing the pews in a church is the decision that unlocks its future. We’ll leave the final word to Paul Stannard, Churchwarden of St Matthias. He says: “There are pros and cons about having chairs, but, for all people claim to love pews, they’re also extraordinarily uncomfortable.”