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Not the comfy chair!

21 October 2016

Decisions about pews and reordering reveal the very purpose of a church, argues William Whyte

FOR journalists, it was a simple silly-season story: “Not the comfy chair! Parishioners given Spanish inquisition by church court over cushions,” as The Daily Telegraph put it (News, Press, 26 August). For writers on Twitter and Facebook, it was an equally unproblematic example of old-fashioned thinking, as an ambitious little church was bullied by diocesan authorities. “Disgusting news,” wrote one. “For goodness sake — just give the church its chairs,” declared another.

For the parishioners of Long Itchington, Warwickshire, who were denied permission back in August to replace their Victorian pews with padded chairs, it is an ongoing “nightmare”. It has continuing resonance, however, far beyond the initial story — not just in terms of the Church’s mission, but of its very purpose.

The decision, made by the Chancellor of the diocese of Coventry, the Worshipful Stephen Eyre QC, is, on the face of it, quite simple. Following the advice of experts — Historic England, the Victorian Society, and the Church Buildings Council — he rejected an application to replace the pews in a listed church with upholstered chairs.

He did not, it is worth noting, rule that the old and decaying pews should be retained. Indeed, he was clear that they could and should be removed, and modern chairs be put in their place. This was a clear judgment: not no to chairs; but no to padded chairs.

For some, it seems, it was the very precision of this decision that made it so ludicrous. That was the line taken when the story was picked up by the BBC. But to treat this as nothing more than a Lilliputian dispute about upholstery would be a mistake. Not least, it is worth listening to the people of Long Itchington; for, when a churchwarden, Maureen Mitchell, ruefully observes that the whole business is nightmarish, she is telling us nothing but the truth. It has taken two years to reach this point, and the trouble rumbles on.

Members of the congregation are understandably disappointed, and feel, in her words: “This is going to knock us right back.” This decision — about padded chairs, of all things — undoubtedly matters to them.

It is worth listening a little longer if we are to understand why this judgment is so important. It matters because these chairs were meant to be an instrument of mission: they were meant to be “warm and welcoming”; to help a growing church grow still further, by attracting new members of the congregation, who would be enticed by comfortable and contemporary furniture.

“The church needs to be welcoming, and the two churches nearest us have both got these chairs,” the other churchwarden, Sam Salt, says. If padded chairs worked for them, why should they not work for the parish of Long Itchington?


SIMILAR arguments are reshaping churches across the country. Cushions and carpets, comfortable chairs, and well-equipped kitchens and lavatories are springing up in church buildings all over England. As the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, put it a couple of years ago: “We are currently seeing the greatest alterations to the interiors of our churches since the late 19th century.”

In the belief that, if only we could make the place more appealing, more people would turn up to our services, thousands of pounds are being spent in parishes each year, ripping out the old and uncomfortable, and then installing the new and more congenial.

In that sense, this one case speaks for many others. And it raises questions that the Church as a whole has failed to get to grips with. In the first place, one might reasonably wonder whether the journalists were not on to something in their implication that furniture did not matter as much as churches often thought it did.


CHAIRS — padded or unpadded, stackable, packable, foldable, or movable — are not some secret weapon for defeating the forces of secularisation. Even the most enthusiastic surveys of the subject, such as Becky Payne’s Churches for Communities: Adapting Oxfordshire’s churches for wider use (Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust, 2014), are hard-pressed to find any link between new furnishings and renewed congregations. Churches are welcoming because their members are welcoming, not because their chairs are.

More than this, parishes would do well to heed the argument that Chancellor Eyre made in his judgment at Long Itchington: “The interior appearance of a church should, if at all possible, not be off-putting to those who are new to it. However, it is to be remembered that an overly casual appearance can be incompatible with a house of God, and can be as unattractive to newcomers, as an appearance of excessive rigour.”

Both these points are surely spot-on. Most non-churchgoers have a particular expectation of what a church should look like, and may be deterred by something that appears more like a doctor’s waiting-room. Certainly, the architectural historian Richard Halsey, who has spent years on the Ely Diocesan Advisory Committee, has amassed anecdotal evidence of many couples who have cancelled planned weddings in reordered churches that — because of their carpeted aisles and stackable chairs — now no longer fit the bill.

Still more significant is the Chancellor’s point about the proper treatment of the house of God. We are in danger of forgetting what churches are for, what makes them special and different from other buildings, when we focus primarily on ourselves. More than anything else, churches are about God: about encountering the divine. If we lose that, we are lost.

A church is not just a comfortable place to meet friends. It is not even just an attractive means of recruiting new members. In the words of the Slovene architect Jože Plecnik: a “church is not a cinema, or a bar, or a theatre — it is a Calvary.”


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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