Imagine a child’s drawing of the interior of a traditional English church and the elements the picture is likely to contain. There will be colourful stained-glass windows, an altar and, almost certainly, rows of sturdy wooden pews. Yet the sad truth is that in parish after parish, the pews – which are often centuries old – are being removed and replaced by grimly functional chairs, of the sort to be found in any meeting hall or conference centre. I recently went to my own mid-Victorian parish church after a couple of months away and was dismayed to find the familiar old pews all gone and in their stead identikit rows of seats with pink cushions.
Why do the Church of England’s seating arrangements matter? Isn’t the getting of bums on to ecclesiastical seats the only thing that counts in our aggressively secular era of declining congregations? My answer would be a frustratingly ambivalent ‘yes but no’ – the two issues are linked. Pews, like it or not, are at the heart of what a church represents to many people, regular congregants or otherwise, and without them something substantially different is on offer.
The arguments for de-pewing are understandable. Without these heavy fixed pieces of furniture, which are only in use a handful of times a week, church buildings can become multipurpose spaces, open all hours and available to a range of people and activities. These areas can be decorated and uplit to become a ‘community hub’, which in my experience tends to mean a cross between a nursery and a Starbucks. Children can run about and coffee can be sold. God, if he manages to get a look-in at all, will be present in the form of some irksome, tinny religious muzak.
This admittedly gets people into churches, although whether it encourages them to attend an actual service is another matter.