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
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.