Some thoughts on the “chairs vs pews” debate
Faculty petitions for the reordering of a church frequently include proposals for the replacement of some or all the existing pews with chairs, whilst others merely seek the strategic removal of one or more rows of pews to increase the overall space within the church. This post examines some of the perceptions that are held regarding the importance of pews in churches and the practicalities of their replacement or removal.
According to the ChurchCare Guidance Seating [“the Guidance”], “[o]ne of the most frequent changes made to churches today will involve seating in some way”. Changing seating inside a church can have a significant impact upon the interior and the Guidance provides a starting point for parishes wishing to address this issue. Although not mandatory, the courts generally take note of its recommendations, and their approach is reflected in the statement [our emphasis]:
“[t]he decision to remove pews should be made on a case-by-case basis following careful assessment of significance, needs and impacts. If the decision is taken to replace existing seating in a historic church building, then the Church Buildings Council aspires to seeing replacement chairs or benches of the highest quality of design.”
So far, so good, but each of the groups with an interest in seating tends to have a different perception on what are the priority issues, and it is the role of the consistory court to asses these in the light of the relevant case law, in particular Re St. Alkmund, Duffield  Fam 158 as modified in In Re St John the Baptist, Penhurst  Court of Arches. As petitioners, the incumbent and PCC will be looking for a more flexibility in the use of the building or for liturgical reasons; by contrast, amenity societies tend to favour the status quo, or seek to retain some reference to the situation pre-reordering; and churchgoers’ priorities are more comfortable, upholstered seating, space for push-chairs, wheelchairs, with provision for those whose mobility is limited.
Attendees of concerts and other non-liturgical events, and “church crawlers” tend not to be directly involved in the court proceedings, although there is implicit consideration for their requirements: for the former, comfort is the major criterion since it is this group that must endure sitting on uncomfortable seats for the greatest length of time, uninterrupted; the interests of “church crawlers” (and sometimes the amenity societies), however, lie in the overall aesthetics of the seating rather than its functionality.
Whilst the courts attempt to balance these sometimes conflicting requirements, the resulting judgments are nevertheless a compromise based upon what is permissible within ecclesiastical law. In this respect they must balance the benefit derived from the replacement seating with any resulting harm; important in such considerations are the advice and guidance of the DAC and CBC.
Although seating was increasingly introduced from the late thirteenth century, a process accelerated by the Reformation and the consequent shift in emphasis from altar to pulpit, the Guidance observes that during the nineteenth century many churches were entirely re-seated. This probably gives rise a public perception that such an appearance that this is what a church is “supposed to look like”; however, the Guidance notes:
“many churches contain nineteenth-century pews that are not of great artistic merit in isolation, yet contribute greatly to the overall character of the church particularly if they formed part of a contemporary restoration. The case for retention would be much stronger in such an instance”.
“Where the pews are of great historic interest, for instance with carved ends and poppy heads, the case for retention may be overwhelming. There will also be a presumption against the removal or alteration of all pre-Victorian and especially pre-Reformation, pews and in particular box pews”.
Ironically, much of the present Victorian seating replaced furnishings which themselves would now be regarded as considered historically important, and often with less detailed scrutiny compared with the present day [see Faculties – then and now]; however, had such changes not been made, many churches would now be faced with significant visibility problems and lack of flexibility associated with box pews &c. There are few cases in which the removal of pews attracts objections on the basis of their historical merit per se. In Re Holy Trinity Long Itchington  ECC Cov 7, both the Victorian Society and Historic England accepted that the pews were of no particular merit, but objected to them being replaced with upholstered chairs; in Re St. Peter Welford-on-Avon it was claimed that the pews in question were thought to have been designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, but the Deputy Chancellor concluded that there was insufficient evidence to justify such contention.
Pews contribute to the overall character of a church, as acknowledged in Re St. John Knypersley  Lichfield Const. Ct, Stephen Eyre Ch. which noted that the church was “part of a complete early Victorian group including also the school and parsonage”. In 2013 a faculty was granted for the relocation of the front row of choir stalls, the alteration of the entrance to the church, and the removal of a single pew; the Chancellor commented at the time “the appearance and character of the church will remain that of a Victorian estate church with the bulk of the original internal furnishings remaining in place.” This was not the case for the subsequent petition for: removal of the existing pews; levelling the floor; installing a carpet; and installing new heating. The church bears only a Grade II listing, “marking the importance of this church and is by no means to be disregarded”, but in granting the petition the Chancellor “could not ignore the fact of the lower level of listing”.
Upholstered vs un-upholstered chairs and pews
With its many years of experience and having seen a range of completed schemes, the Church Buildings Council generally advocates the use of high quality wooden chairs (i.e. un-upholstered) and pews where seating is necessary. Wooden chairs “have the greatest sympathy with historic church environments, present the best value for money with long lifespans, and that a well-designed, ergonomic wooden chair can provide as much comfort as an upholstered design”.
Upholstered seats are not considered to be appropriate for a number of reasons: their potentially significant impact in terms of colour, texture and character which is not consonant with the quality of a highly-listed church; the need for more regular refurbishment, due to wear and tear, staining, especially in multi-use churches where it will be normal to eat and drink regularly on the chairs; difficulties in arranging and stacking; alteration of acoustics from soft furnishings. In summary, “wood tones and textures fit well within church buildings and have been used for centuries in this context, whilst some colours have associations with other types of buildings such as offices”.
Health & Safety and other ancillary matters
Among the practicalities to be considered when realizing the “improved flexibility” from the introduction of chairs are the frequency with which they will be moved and by whom. The Guidance notes that age and fitness [of the parishioners] should be taken into consideration vis–a-vis the weight and stackability of the chairs; other factors include where the seats will be moved to, and the adequacy of storage space – not every church has access to a skittle alley in their church hall in which to store pews as in Re Christ Church Hengrove  ECC Bri 4.
Issues of “health and safety” have been cited by the petitioners and opponents in the pews vs chairs debate: in Re Holy Trinity Long Itchington  ECC Cov 7, the movement of free-standing but long and heavy pews was held to be “an exercise which requires a number of parishioners. It is an exercise which is neither easy nor necessarily safe”. One solution adopted in Re St. Peter Welford-on-Avon [at [18(7)(iii)] is for the pews to be “placed upon castors which are capable of being locked once the pew has been moved to any required location within the church”.
From the opposite point of view, the introduction of chairs present other safety issues, Re St. Peter Welford-on-Avon, and the Guidance stresses that for health and safety reasons, “more than four chairs in a row need to link together”, noting “most designs come with an optional linkage system“. This advice relates to the need to ensure an escape route to comply with fire regulations on which detailed specialist advice is available here, here and elsewhere. “Health and safety” is often a “reason of last resort” cited to support a particular point of view, and whilst suitable precautionary measures for moving heavy pews (and chairs) should be a consideration in such a change, it is unlikely to be the reason to do so.
Changing seating from pews to chairs will reduce the number of seats available, and removing pews and associated pew platforms may also uncover archaeology and burials, or necessitate a new floor surface by virtue of increasing visibility of the floor or revealing existing finishes are of poor repair. Some pews also support existing heating installations so consideration may need to be given to alternatives.
In cases such as these, the courts’ primary concern has been the decision whether or not to remove the pews, rather than a particular choice of chair, Re St. Peter Welford-on-Avon  ECC Glo 1 [at 112]. Furthermore, unless the case for change is well made, the petition is unlikely to succeed, Re All Saints Ockbrook  ECC Der 1.
Recent cases have demonstrated that whilst the petitioners have sought chairs of a particular design, upholstered in a given colour (based on their perceptions of need), the faculty granted has been for un-upholstered chairs of a different design (based upon the courts’ assessment), for example: Re Holy Trinity Long Itchington  ECC Cov 7; Re St Matthew Salford Priors  ECC Cov 4; Re All Saints Shawell  ECC Lei 3; Re St. Peter & St. Paul Rustington  ECC Chi 6.
[Note: Following much research and consultation, the Chancellor granted an amendment to the 2016 faculty which authorized a different type of upholstered chair with upholstered seats and upholstered back pads within a wooden frame, Re Holy Trinity Long Itchington  ECC Cov 3].
As indicated in the Guidance, the replacement of pews with chairs is one of the most frequent changes made to churches; it is also a very emotive issue, with strongly held views from both the “Remain” and the “Leave” proponents, to borrow an analogy from Brexit. This has a number of impacts on faculty petitions: a sometimes lengthy period of gestation during which consultations are conducted, often resulting in a “compromise solution” in the proposed scheme in terms of which pews are replaced and the design of the chairs to be used, or a lack of specificity within the petition.
Reflecting the comments in the Guidance, the court’s decision to remove pews will be made following careful assessment of significance, needs and impacts of the church in question. The recent 26-page judgment Re St. Peter Welford-on-Avon reports in detail the Petitioners’ case [21 to 31] and letters of objection [35 to 58] in addition to the Deputy Chancellor’s visit to the church [67 to 75] and the Consistory court hearing [76 to 82]. This case report should be added to the Guidance as “essential reading” for those contemplating replacing pews with chairs, since it addresses most of the objections likely to be raised in such cases.
This is an interesting post, but it doesn’t address the cultural issues which have often been behind such changes during the past 30 years, i.e. the incumbent’s desire to move from a formal liturgy based service to a more open format. Some would argue that moveable individual chairs and open spaces are more conducive to allowing the movement of the Spirit in a service. This issue has split congregations.
“the incumbent’s desire to move from a formal liturgy based service to a more open format” – or the incumbent’s (and PCC’s) desire to move to a more liturgically creative form of service, or to introduce additional, less formal services (e.g. Taizé-style). When the pews are wall-to-wall with a narrow central aisle, there is no open space before the chancel step and the chancel is full of unused choirstalls, there is barely room for a couple of servers to turn around, no scope for processions, and great difficulty in introducing any form of service which doesn’t require the whole congregation to face forwards the whole time.
We need guidance and leadership. The cofE needs to help us rid ourselves of regiments of heavy victorian pews to create some space for drama exhibition etc. They should find us a ready market for our antique oak so we can afford well designed stackable wooden chairs.
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