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Remove the pews at your peril

14 March 2014

FOR many new incumbents, getting the pews removed is a kind of virility test. Pews are thought to be grim and forbidding. They separate people, and darken the church. Today, everyone wants their churches to be flexible and user-friendly, adaptable for concerts, coffee-mornings, and different styles of worship.

There is, however, a significant downside. What replaces pews are typically flexi-stacking chairs, plastic or wooden; usually too many, and placed too near each other. They create work. Someone has to line them up before and after each service because getting in and out of them leaves them untidy and askew. There are no comforting ledges for gloves, hymn books, and pew sheets, and if there are pockets on the back, they are invariably too small.

Chairs change the dynamics of worship. A chaired space has little privacy. You cannot feel protected in a chair; you cannot hide your face effectively without looking evasive and unfriendly. Chairs expose people.

Worst of all, you cannot kneel. I know some pews have hassocks attached or underneath but, given the way in which chairs crowd together, there is rarely enough room to detach a hassock, place it on the ground, and kneel on it, without doing damage to oneself or seriously intruding on the back of the head of the person in front.

This is serious, because kneeling is a posture that properly belongs to worship. The Church of England had to fight to retain the right to kneel after the Reformation; now, it has been banished in a couple of generations.

Many of the clergy do not mind this a bit. They are the breezy ones who make jokes about the "humble-crumble" (the Prayer of Humble Access); who claim (incorrectly) that kneeling never occurred in the Early Church, and so we should not bother with it; who insist that it produces a guilt-ridden spirituality.

It is certainly easier to sit, and many with bad knees, me included, find kneeling a trial - but, unlike our Nonconformist brethren, we have never learnt to sit reverently.

From time to time, however, you can see that people sense what kneeling is all about. There is that strange shuffle forward on the words "Let us pray," or, if there is room, the half-attempt to bend over in one's seat, elbows on thighs, head bowed. The instinct for prostration (and kneeling is a half-prostration) must out. Our bodies want to bow down before the Lord, but church furniture prevents our doing so. Take out the pews at your peril.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.


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