To Pew or not to Pew, that is the question.
Our country is adorned and defined by Christian churches. From the ‘dreaming spires’ to the humble country chapels, our churches describe something of both our history and our character. They are an intrinsic part of our on-going story.
The appearance of our church buildings, therefore, deserves a second look. However, their outward appearance has received undue attention, for the real story is within. The interior of a church reflects its use and its purpose much more than the exterior.
Over the centuries, church interiors have altered considerably, reflecting both changes in the understanding of worship and the social structure of those who used them. Even as late as the eighteenth century, many churches had simple earthen floors. Sometimes prominent members of the church or community were buried within the confines of the church walls, so those open floors were a constant reminder of those who had gone before.
The walls were often quite plain in Saxon times, decorated with patterns and colours in the Norman churches and acquiring murals and pictures, statues, tombs and memorials as the years progressed after that. This accumulation of decoration was rudely halted by the Protestant Reformation and, in particular, the Cromwellian enforcers’ plain interior decoration. At this point, statues were often destroyed and removed and walls were simply lime washed to cover the decoration.
Similarly, windows reflected both the wealth of those who supported the church and the understanding of the nature of worship that was current. The beautiful stained glass that coloured the interior of many pre-Reformation churches was replaced by the clear glass of those who preferred their worship lit only by God’s own light. This, in turn, has given way to a more modern understanding of the place of artistic expression as part of worship. So, in the twentieth century, stained glass again found favour, but in bold and experimental versions of the ancient art.
One of the most interesting aspects of church interiors is the development of church furniture. Arguably, it is this area, more than any other, which reflects the social structure of the surrounding community and the place of the church building within it. The simple, uncluttered earthen floors of previous centuries reflected the type of worship that was current – a series of liturgical exercises, not unlike an Orthodox service today, during which the congregation would stand or even wander around. There were no facilities for people to sit, except for the old or infirm, for whom, some low, stone benches would be built into the walls. So it was, that those who were in failing health were said to ‘go to the wall’.
After the Reformation, it was not just the interior decorations that changed. The altar was sometimes brought forward, if not just exposed to public view. The font, previously often very ornate and topped with architectural ironwork, was sometimes brought forward from its dominating position by the door of the church, to more forward position. However, the real changes came as the non-conformist traditions took hold and preaching was re-discovered as having a valid place in worship. This led to several changes within the church.
The centre of attention shifted from the altar to the pulpit, leading to, in some cases, the introduction of a pulpit, complete with sounding board above and so on, to the side of the altar, and in other cases, the central position of the altar completely gave way to a central pulpit, with communion table below. This opening up of the front of the interior of the church, in a visual way, also led on to changes in the body of the building.
As congregations were now expected to sit and listen to a sermon and to join together in hymn singing and communal prayers, some accommodation had to be made for the congregation as a whole to sit down and enable this mode of worship to happen. Some churches had already begun to introduce bench seating from the thirteenth century onwards. From the sixteenth century, this process accelerated greatly, so that it was soon the norm for churches to be equipped with benches. They even acquired, as with all church additions, their own name – pews.
Pews have dominated the body of the church interior ever since, until the last decade or two. More recently, two other forces have had to be reckoned with: the desire for greater comfort in every part of life and the realisation of the community value of our church buildings. There is one company, above others, that has arisen with the drive to fulfill both those needs in today’s church. Not surprisingly called ‘Church Chair (UK) Ltd’, an off shoot of the original ‘Church Chair Industries Inc’ of Rome, in Georgia, USA, one of the largest manufacturers of church seating in the world today, this company has developed a range of chairs that are both flexible and comfortable.
The affection in which pews are held in the Britain psyche has left many a congregation with the difficult dilemma of whether, in today’s environment, ‘to pew of not to pew’. Many a church meeting has had heated discussions on this close-to-the-heart topic, whilst other, perhaps more fundamental, issues have proved non-controversial. ‘Church Chair (UK) Ltd’ understood this and introduced their very popular range of pew-style chairs. Now, very many churches throughout the UK of all denominations, ages and traditions can testify to their comfort and flexibility. These chairs clip together to form a pew-style bench of padded, ergonomically shaped and attractively finished seating. That these ‘benches’ are actually composed of comfortable individual seats that can, at a moment’s notice, be moved to a different arrangement, even cleared and stacked into a cupboard; yet at the same time provide all the benefits of the traditional pew. Hopefully this means that ‘to pew or not to pew’ may become less of a dilemma for churches in the future!