Further thoughts on the “chairs vs pews” debate
Last year, our August post, Pews, perceptions and practicalities, offered some thoughts on the “chairs vs pews” debate. The recent judgment on the reordering of St Margaret’s in Rainham, Kent, has prompted further consideration, this time concerning the media’s selective reporting and interpretation of consistory court judgments, as well as other related issues.
Consideration by the court
In Re St Margaret of Antioch Rainham  ECC Roc 2 a faculty was granted for the reordering of the church, including the replacement of some of the pews with chairs. A short summary of the judgement is here and a link to the full judgment here.
For the purpose of the present consideration, a good starting point is the virtual tour on St Margaret’s web site; this clearly shows: the present layout with blue-themed carpeting, kneelers, notice board, and seats in the Chancel and Lady Chapel; and the East end which is certainly not apsidal as in some photographs used by the media. The 30 upholstered chairs in the Lady Chapel have been there since the 1980s.
The next point a commentator might observe is that unlike many “chairs vs pews” cases, it was not the removal of the pews that was objected to but the use of the proposed chairs, . Importantly,
“. …the chairs will normally be stored and only set out for major services and concerts and similar high attendance events such as funerals of the order of 10 occasions per year. The pews that are being removed are effectively redundant”.
“. …The only Victorian items in the relevant area of the church, apart from the pews [which were described as being “of minimal significance” by English Heritage], are the floor and a wall plaque which are being retained”.
Solely on the basis of photographs within the faculty application, the email response from the Victorian Society suggested that the replacement of pews would cause “gratuitous harm” to the Grade I listed church. It stated: “they make no attempt to blend in with the existing joinery or character of the building. The incongruous and inappropriate design and colour of these chairs will cause harm to the character of the church” . Chancellor John Gallagher was equally robust in dismissing this contention as well as the Society’s overall approach to this petition:
“. In passing I observe that had the Victorian Society been able to visit the church and see for themselves what had been done elsewhere, and been able to engage with the petitioners on what was proposed and needed, much time and expense might have been avoided. I appreciate that there may be financial constraints at work here, but communication is seldom costly and rarely creates problems”.
With regard to the workload of the Victorian Society, its latest Annual Report indicates that in addition to the 4,881 notifications of proposals for listed building consent in 2015, there were 758 notifications for proposed works to listed religious buildings that fall under the ecclesiastical exemption, the overwhelming majority of which had some element within its period of interest; of these 197 became active cases, receiving a detailed response.
See the comment, below, from Christopher Costelloe, the Director of the Victorian Society; he pointed out neither the Daily Telegraph article nor the faculty judgment made it clear that the Society did not object to the proposed removal of pews at Rainham, but solely to the choice of replacement chair. This post was based upon the consistory court judgment, and therefore did not include this important detail.
Comments in the media on cases such as this seldom have the same focus as the amenity societies, and reporting on St Margaret’s tended to concentrate on the “comfy chairs” aspect and other justifications for the retention of church pews. The Daily Telegraph contained the headline “Having comfy chairs in church is more important than preserving pews, church court rules“ and in a piece entitled “In defence of church pews: God save us from white plastic, stackable stainless steel and bright blue upholstery” the Archbishop Cranmer blog considered some of the more general issues posed by the use of chairs. In addition to there being “no theological basis “, it notes that neither is there one for church buildings:
“but since we have them, and many represent a thousand years of cultural religiosity and Christian order, we really ought to respect their historic interiors as much as we seek to preserve their Early English Perpendicular”.
Whilst factually many of the issues raised do not reflect the position in Rainham, [there was no mention of white plastic chairs in Re St. Margaret, nor the use of pews for firewood] it does echo the general points made by the Victorian Society which states:
“Victorian and Edwardian buildings are part of our collective memory, and central to how we see ourselves as individuals, communities and as a nation. When decisions are taken which affect their future, the debate must be open and informed. We need to understand what is special about Victorian and Edwardian buildings and landscapes so that any necessary changes can be incorporated without damaging them forever”.
This perspective is of relevance in relation to related moves in relation to the financing of cathedrals and churches removal of the ring-fencing around church grants by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the establishment of a working group by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to consider the way cathedrals are governed, their accountability and how financial decisions are made.
On the facts of the case, it is unsurprising that the Rochester Consistory Court came to its decision on the removal of redundant pews in Re St. Margaret of Antioch Rainham and their replacement with stackable chairs for use at high attendance events. However, this raises a number of questions: Are pews gradually being replaced in the Church of England? What are constraints and conditions are placed upon their replacement? How does this influence the mission of the Church, locally and national, and the sustainability of its many buildings?
Are an increasing number of pews being replaced?
There is undoubtedly a trend towards the replacement of pews, just as there was at the end of the nineteenth century when many of these Victorian pews were installed as a ”progressive replacement” for the former boxed pews, [See Faculties – then and now]. 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.
In the three years between 2011 and 2013, around 400 faculties were granted for proposals including the removal of four or more pews, and a further 370 for the removal of up to four pews in the same period [Mynors C, Changing Churches – A practical guide to the faculty system, (Bloomsbury, London 2016) 13.3.3 Seating and other furniture]. Some of the more recent considerations have been summarized in this blog for 2014, 2015 and 2016. However, further work on the above data is required to quantify the extent of pew removal, which ranges from the replacement of some of pews within specific parts of a church, addressing “densely-pewed” or “over-pewed” churches as in Re St Matthew Salford Priors  ECC Cov 4 and Re St Margaret Old Catton  Norwich Cons Ct, to their complete replacement as in In Re Holy Trinity Hull  ECC Yor 1.
As we noted in a recent round up, Re Holy Trinity Hull is particularly significant, since in the words of Chancellor, Canon Peter Collier QC:
“. …given all that I have rehearsed of the evidence I have no hesitation in concluding that the loss of the permanent fully-pewed state of the nave will be a serious loss to this aspect of the Victorian heritage which forms a part of the architectural and historical heritage of Hull Holy Trinity”.
Nevertheless, the petition for their removal was granted. The next high profile example of complete pew removal is likely to be in relation to Bath Abbey, where there is “one of the best examples of Victorian church restoration by perhaps the era’s most prominent architect – Sir George Gilbert Scott”. The decision in Holy Trinity Hull adds more weight to the argument for the retention of one of the decreasing number of complete Victorian interiors.
Legal constraints and guidance
Last year we published some thoughts on the “pews vs chairs” debate in Pews, perceptions and practicalities. We noted that whilst the ChurchCare Guidance Seating [“the Guidance”], is not mandatory, the courts generally take note of its recommendations; 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.”
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.
The latter issue was of central importance in Re St Michael & All Angels Croston  ECC Bla 5, which concerned remedial work including the repair, replacement and treatment of rotten/infested roof timbers and flooring; unless these works were completed the future structural integrity of the church would be threatened and the building could be completely lost. A Lottery Heritage Fund grant made it possible to undertake the works “without massive and possibly unachievable fundraising”, and conditional on this grant were improvements in disabled access: this involved: ramped disabled access adjacent to the main door; a disabled toilet within the disused south porch; permanent removal of some pews to create additional space for movement around the church and disabled/wheelchair access; and the creation of a larger family-friendly pew area at the rear of the south aisle by the removal of two pews.
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, although they have been permitted by the courts in a number of cases.
With regard to the replacement of pews with plastic chairs, this is seldom, if ever, approved, and where petitioners propose such an option, the relevant part of the petition is generally adjourned 6 months or so in order to permit the selection of a more suitable alternative, e.g. Re St Katharine Holt  ECC Sal 2. In Re St Peter Brighton  ECC Chi 2 the Chancellor granted a limited licence for a much longer period – five years – after which the petitioners were required to produce more appropriate long-term proposals to the wall-to-wall carpet and the ‘bland’, black chairs.
A further legal consideration is the disposal of unwanted pews. As with any such ornaments of the church, whether introduced by faculty or otherwise, a faculty is required for their removal and subsequent treatment, (or a bishop’s direction where the S76 Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 is applicable). Options for unwanted pews include: use by another church or in another part of the same church; storage during removal on an experimental basis; or the re-use of particularly notable pew-ends, e.g. Re Holy Trinity Hull at , as well as, in the last resort, disposal. Some of the dilemmas faced by chancellors are explored in Re Brighton St Peter which is interesting since: the reordering took place over a number of years; to date has been considered by the consistory court in 2012, 2015, and 2016; suggested options have changed in relation to the choir stalls, which were of higher quality than those in the nave; the storage of a substantial number of pews was impractical. The 2012 judgment permitted the permanent removal of most of the nave pews and disposal: ““save for six specimen pews…the petitioners are to be at liberty to dispose of the nave pews on such terms as they see fit”, [22(2]. Reference to the “proceeds of the sale” implies that there is an expectation by the court that they will not be destroyed. [Read summary to the “boxed set” here].
Impact of replacement of pews with chairs
In the majority of cases, 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.
In general, however, there is no opportunity for a judicial assessment of the impacts of reordering; apart from the formalization of interim provisions or consideration of a subsequent phase of the reordering scheme, a court will not return to the reasons submitted in support of a petition. Nevertheless, these are scrutinized to a greater or lesser degree at the faculty hearing, as demonstrated in Re Holy Trinity Hull in relation to the three components of the justification: the liturgical need; the practical need; and the underlying financial needs. Chancellors are generally aware of the potential for “salami slicing” and in his conclusions, Peter Collier QC commented:
“. I note the concern of the CBC that this might only be a phase of the development of the building and that there could come a subsequent phase when the church would ask to remove all the remaining pews. Obviously I cannot ever say what would happen in any subsequent petition. However it will always have to be noted that a part of the justification for my permitting this degree of significant heritage loss has been the commitment of the petitioners to keep more than just a memory alive, but to curate and exhibit the significance of what remains. It is a significant body of the original which will remain and which the petitioners have committed themselves to maintaining”.
The consistory courts fulfil an important role in the consideration of such remedial work and reordering, and in Re St Peter Brighton  Chichester Const Ct, Chancellor Hill stressed [our emphasis]:
“. The balance between mission and heritage, the spiritual and the secular, creates a dynamic tension into which the Consistory Courts are obliged to enter on a regular basis … Not everyone will share this particular style of worship and evangelism … Success in the numbers game promotes the redeeming work of Christ and produces much needed income for the building and its contents. Such success, however, does not give carte blanche to alter the building of which the current congregations are but temporary custodians. It is for the court to balance the competing interests, and the starting point is always a heavy presumption against change”.
With regard to the opinions of those who occupy the pews on Sunday-by-Sunday, reference should be made to the humorous take on this in the Revd Gary Alderson’s book Writes of the Church – Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews, illustrated by Dave Walker, is to be published on 22 September 2017. Strangely, however, the monthly Letters to the Trim Valley Church Magazine on which the book is based, seldom feature issues associated with chairs vs pews.
What this post doesn’t make clear (and neither did the Daily Telegraph article nor the faculty judgment) is that the Victorian Society did not object to the proposed removal of pews at Rainham, but solely to the choice of replacement chair. I would be grateful if you could clarify this.
Thank you for the additional information, Christopher. I have added a footnote to this effect beneath the description of the judgment – our posts tends to be based upon a primary source, i.e. the consistory court judgment in this case, and therefore this relevant fact was not included.
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