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Going back to the future

19 July 2013

For churches thinking of new furniture, it is important to consider needs above cost, Rebecca Paveley discovers

Craftsman's art: Wakefield Cathedral with its ambo, handmade by Dovetailors, of Blubberhouses, in North Yorkshire, from oak and burr oak and featuring a height-adjustable lectern

Craftsman's art: Wakefield Cathedral with its ambo, handmade by Dovetailors, of Blubberhouses, in North Yorkshire, from oak and burr oak and featuri...

IN THE doing up of a church, as in the doing up of a house, the furniture can often be an afterthought - unless, of course, it is a matter of replacing pews, which often makes headlines.

If the furniture is bought when most of the money for refurbishment has run out, churches are forced into making decisions purely on cost. This often results in stacks of plastic chairs that are suited more to a classroom than to a historic building.

This concern is what motivated the Church Buildings Council to come up with the idea of running a "Design a Church Chair!" competition to raise the standard of church chairs (News, 22 June 2012). There were 117 entries, in three categories. Catherine Townsend, who helped to run the competition last year, said that the council was concerned that, in many cases, "not much thought was being put into replacement furniture."

"We wanted to promote good quality, and encourage better design of church furniture," she said. "We don't want furniture that would look better in NHS waiting-rooms in our historic churches.

"Often, we found that churches were tagging furniture on at the end of a reordering project, whereas, in fact, good furniture design really completes a scheme. We want churches to think 'Yes, this might be cheap now, but what about its longevity?'"

CANON Janet Beadle looks after three churches in Lincolnshire. In her 15 years there, she has been through reordering projects in each of her churches.

Improvements at St Firmin's, Thurlby, were forced on the PCC in dramatic fashion after the floor collapsed during a wedding, and the bride and groom sank with it.

"The pews had to be taken out because they were absolutely rotten," Canon Beadle said. "In a way, the floor falling through was a blessing, as we had to get on with it. The Victorian pews we had were nothing special, but we consulted round the village, and brought in chair companies, and had around 15 or 16 samples that people could come and look at and try out.

"We chose chairs with a rush seat, as the seat could be taken out and replaced at minimal cost if need be. They are cool in summer and warm in winter."

The chairs were paid for by sponsorship: members of the congregation, wedding couples, or families attending a baptism sponsored each chair, or, in some instances, a chair leg. One of Canon Beadle's other congregations has also replaced pews with chairs, among other improvements, and has even been able to host a barn dance in the church.

The changes, which make the church building more flexible, had won over even the most reluctant parishioners, she said. "People who were against chairs in the beginning have come round, and value the versatility it has given us."

The Thurlby scheme has been commended as an example of good practice by the Church of England's senior churches officer, Jonathan Goodchild. While many churches opt to replace pews with chairs, there are, he says, "some really successful schemes [that] have involved the replacement of pews with new ones, or by making the existing ones movable". In fact, one of the winners of the church chair competition was a stackable pew (News, 16 March 2012), which is already appearing in more than 100 churches. 

THE managing director of Treske Furniture, Justin Bartlett, understands the financial pressure on churches. His company has been making church furniture since the 1970s. "Churches are under a lot of cost pressure. It takes an enormous amount of fund-raising to pay for projects for the fabric of the building, and they can often find they have little left to sort out their furnishings.

"Obviously, we'd like people to think of their furniture first, but we understand that it is not always possible. Bills for preserving the building can mount up; so churches have to economise on the furniture."

Treske sells a range of pre-designed furniture, but also offers a bespoke service. Individual chairs cost from £140 upwards, and top of the range is a celebrant's chair that costs about £2500. A Treske chair with a rush seat was commended by the church-chair-competition judges for being particularly suited to rural churches.

"There is a quality issue in churches," Mr Bartlett said. "Higher quality does mean more expense, but bottom-end chairs and furniture are bottom-end for a reason. We like to visit the church, where possible, to ensure [that] the integrity of what is already in the building is kept with the new furniture."

He understands that church-furniture projects often take time, particularly when a Chancellor and the DAC get involved. "We have to work very carefully, as there are so many different views and bodies to be consulted."

The climate for selling church furniture was "not easy, but we're holding our heads up". He believes firmly in the regenerative power of a church reordering project - not just for the church, but for the whole community.

"Doing a church up does have a regenerative effect. People take pride in it, and travel to see it. Somewhere like Ripon Cathedral can expect a high amount of visitors coming to see the changes, and that has a spin off for shops and cafés and restaurants. Local pride in a good project definitely filters out."

WAKEFIELD Cathedral, which this year finished a £2.5-million restoration project, hopes to see increased visitor numbers as a result. New chairs were important in its plans to reorder the nave, and were the subject of one of the first decisions made, the Dean, the Very Revd Jonathan Greener, said.

"We had a very clear vision of what was required. Right at the be- ginning of the project, we chose the chairs. We allowed the congregation to test them, and we chose wooden rather than fabric because of durability.

"They had to have strength and linkability, and stackability and detachability; and we had to think about people getting in and out of the chairs, so some have arms and some don't. We also tested for comfort for people who are more amply proportioned.

"We also had a new set of altar furniture from a local firm, who had done nothing like it before. It was in oak and burr oak, and is delightful, and serves our purpose, because it's mobile; it's very versatile. We wanted quality furniture; we wanted to give something to successive generations. Whatever we put in had to complement the space and enhance it, if possible, tying together the old and the new."

For him, the success of the project lies in the fact that he prefers to see the nave full of furniture rather than clear. "I think that's a sign we have done a successful project. Our new furniture is a pleasant addition to the whole rather than just functional."

NICK CLARKE combined his love of cabinet-making with his Christian com­mit­­ment six years ago, when he took the plunge and left his desk job to make furniture full-time.

He specialises in making one-off pieces for churches, including altars and lec­terns, as well as much simpler pieces needed to hide electrical equipment. He also makes furniture for domestic use.

He works on his own from his home in Bedfordshire, and many of the churches in the area display his handiwork. "I have quite a deep experience of church life, which helps me in my work," he said. "Church work doesn't pay the bills, though, but fortunately the other sort of furniture does; so that means I can indulge my love of church furniture. The thought that I'm making something that has a fighting chance of lasting for cen­turies is what I love."

Often, churches come to him with an open brief. He spends time visiting and getting to know the building, to ensure that what he makes will complement it. Although price is always a factor, many PCCs and churches are also motivated to create beautiful pieces of furniture that will be their gift to future generations, he said.

"If I was making lots of chairs, then I would be competing against cheaper imports, and I wouldn't be able to com­pete; but because what I do is bespoke, and I spend time with customers, then price isn't always the first consideration for them."

His larger pieces can take months of work to finish, and can cost between £2000 and £3000. "I try not to charge very much, and often churches - though they don't have money for heating or lighting - are left money in people's wills for pieces like altars or other furniture.

"To add a piece to such ancient and historical spaces is a real privilege."

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