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Kneeling is one thing, but the removal of the pews is another

04 April 2014


From the Revd Ian Walker

Sir, - Canon Angela Tilby (Comment, 14 March) makes a valuable point about the disappearance of kneeling in the Church of England. Linking it to the removal of pews, however, may well be a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and she comes out with many of the caricatures used by those who say that pews will be removed "over my dead body". To them, the pews will be replaced by plastic chairs: the change is driven by shallow, trendy clergy, and who is going to move these chairs when we have them?

Here at St Andrew's, Epworth, the historic parish church of the Wesley family, we have recently completed a restoration and regeneration project that took 15 years, and has transformed the church from a damp and crumbling building, which was on the way to becoming a ruin, into a warm and adaptable worship space, which is also equipped to tell the story of its place in history to the many visitors who come from all over the world.

We have achieved this transformation through the skill and vision of our churchpeople, and the generous support of English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

As parish priest for the past six years, my task has been to encourage the people in this project, which started before my arrival, and to reassure those who felt that they were losing something precious.

It has been a long and sometimes painful process, but the end result has been well worth it. Our chairs are not plastic, but high-quality wood, with rush seats of the same design as those recently installed in Ripon Cathedral. They are supplemented by folding rush-seated chairs from the same manufacturer. We do not sit on top of one another, and some of us still kneel.

Of course, removing pews was only a part of the project, but it was what attracted most of the attention. Our church now looks better, and works better. If I may be permitted to drop a name, the Revd John Bell, who led a weekend last year, said that we had restored St Andrew's as a medieval church.

The challenge is now to use this reordered church building for renewed worship and mission. One of my churchwardens - who was perhaps not the keenest to take the pews out - said: "They keep you in order, do pews," and, now that our building has been opened up, we have to learn to use it creatively and reverently.

Yes, we do take out pews at our peril, but surely the Church of England, of all bodies, has learned that no worthwhile change is without some peril.

St Andrew's Rectory
16 Belton Road
North Lincolnshire DN9 1JL


From Mr Stewart Burton

Sir, - I read with some disappointment Canon Tilby's article on church furniture, as it seemed to me to be ill researched. Canon Tilby fails to appreciate that churches can actually be used all week rather than for one hour on a Sunday morning.

We have recently replaced our pews with high-quality chairs, which have provided us with the opportunity to engage with worship in new ways and settings (including the opportunity to kneel), and to explore other ways of being church which the pews would have made difficult, if not impossible.

Our church building is the only space available to us, and we would be letting down our community if we did not use it to its fullest and most creative extent.

11 Tavistock Close
Hartlepool TS27 3LB


From Mr Stephen York

Sir, - Canon Angela Tilby's comments on pews and kneeling demonstrate the danger of generalisations. In the case of the small village church that I attend, almost every one of her comments can be turned on its head.

We are considering removing some or all of the pews for the very reasons she cites as the disadvantages of chairs. We have a large set of hassocks, lovingly created over the years by parishioners. Alas! they are merely decorative. Any attempt to kneel from one of our pews would result in severe dislocation of the spine, since the inter-pew space is so cramped.

None of our "comforting ledges" can hold a hymn book, or even a service sheet or pew leaflet. Chairs would give us the opportunity for decent spacing between rows, so that kneelers could kneel (and at last use those lovely hassocks for their intended purpose).

Chairs would give us the flexibility to accommodate congregations that vary enormously in numbers, from well-spaced Sunday-morning services to tightly packed funerals, weddings, carol services, and so on. Privacy during worship (an odd concept, surely) is not an issue where all of the regular congregation know one another, and shy newcomers can still sit in the back row if they wish.

We might aspire to holding coffee mornings, but just to have room to gather for coffee after a service would be luxury enough.

Hawthorn Cottage
Cambridgeshire PE27 4TQ

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