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Leaving room for me and God

20 March 2015

I WOULD never have admitted this to the ABM selectors (as they were when I was an ordination candidate), but one of the reasons I felt drawn to ordination was the spiritual claustrophobia that comes from church seating arrangements. Although I am quite friendly, and happy to be at one with my neighbours, in church I crave a bit of silence, and space. It is never easy to be oneself in the presence of God when breathing in someone's aftershave, avoiding their shopping, or worrying that they are sitting on your coat. Even if attendance is sparse, the sheer presence of an abutting chair can make you feel hemmed in. This is why newcomers often instinctively make for corners and pillars, avoiding unwelcome exposure.

Since the demise of pews, no one has designed a form of church seating that really helps the delicate negotiation of personal space. Easy stacking chairs are sometimes difficult to separate, because they are designed to be moved about in rows, and are often laid out still attached to one another. Bigger chairs are unwieldy; the longed-for flexibility that the chairs are meant to ensure comes at the cost of hours of heavy lifting. Chairs are also subject to entropy: human bodies push them out of line with one another, which brings out the OCD tendencies in many a churchwarden or parish priest who then feels compelled to straighten them.

There are alternatives. A quick trip to Paris last week took me to the Church of St Gervais and St Protais, one of the centres of the Jerusalem Community. I arrived in time for vespers. The church was semi-lit. In the chancel, the members of the community were facing east, kneeling or standing in prayer. All down both sides of the long nave were simple, backless stools with a rectangular seat; three abreast, separated by at least eight inches.

People came in one by one off the streets, and did what people will do if they are free to find their own way in church: they looked for the greatest space, and either sat, or knelt, or stood, using the stool as a personal anchor. By the time vespers began, about 70 individuals were present, each with a decent amount of personal space. It was all very simple, uncluttered, and prayerful.

The eucharist followed, and the members of the community came down the nave smiling, to exchange the Peace. At the Lord's Prayer everyone held up their hands; in the act of worship, we became a transient community. I had never been there before, but I felt entirely at home among strangers and God-seekers. Could parish churches learn something?

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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