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New chairs

07 September 2012

"Of course, we are planning to remove the pews, and put in chairs."

I HAVE heard this comment on so many occasions, and, having experienced the benefits of pews, especially for seating large numbers, I decided to collate my impressions.

Why do people want to change to chairs? Most often, clergy talk of wanting flexibility for worship: in the round, south-facing, west-facing, and so on. I have, in the past 40 years, seen perhaps two or three situations where the "flexible" position is used. So there is more to it.

People who have gone to a particular church their whole life, and cannot remember not going, tend to like to keep pews - not for comfort, but because they have become part of feeling "at home". This is not so relevant for clergy, as they are more transient. Part of being at home also means not worrying so much about the heating, or even the lighting.

One element of contemporary mission has been a realisation that newcomers to church life, or to occasional services, see quaintness and oddities: from using a small bowl on a table instead of the font, to sitting in church in your outdoor coat, and sitting on benches or pews. For them, also, chairs are more ring-fenced than pews; that is, everyone has their own defined space, such as on aeroplanes or in the cinema, and people do not have to risk being touched or leaned on. It is just like garden fences on even the smallest plot - they are designed to define the space, and exclude others. It is our culture.

So perhaps this is a good reason to change to chairs - for the newcomers. Do remember, however, what we are in church to do. This is not "couch-potato" time for chilling out. Worshipping God, listening to the word, and focusing on the sacraments are not the time for disengagement; it is time to be alert. It all very well to accommodate something familiar - chairs - but they must also support the activity that we are undertaking.

Often, there are no hassocks, because we no longer kneel to pray, and, again, we are reducing our active engagement in worship, the bodily action reflecting our attitude to God. Of course, we can pray sitting down, sing sitting down, and listen sitting down, but let us not reduce worship to mush. What will help all of us be alert, focused, on "the edge of our seats" when God speaks to us? Have this conversation when you discuss whether to have cushioned seats; bats are not the only issue.

Do we still want to worship in the round, by moving all our chairs, or do we want them in serried ranks, like the pews? If we are extending our church's use to arts and performance, or even exhibitions, when we need open space, then chairs are the obvious choice. One or two churches have added castors to their pews, but this will not work in all locations.

Even if you do not now use your choir stalls, and have abandoned the high altar, leaving the chancel furniture accommodates that visual sense of the church as it has always been: our worshipping home.

Send your questions and comments to: maggiedurran@virginmedia.com.

 

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