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The Book that Could Change the Life of your Church…

Posted on: 16/08/2011

110816-pewsbookTrevor Cooper and Sarah Brown’s long-awaited book Pews, Benches and Chairs has just been published within the last few days. It is no exaggeration to say that this book could change the life or your church – at least for those churches that struggle with the formalism that comes with Victorian pews.

Often churches assume they are unable to change anything about their church, and particularly the pews, but usually there is more freedom than imagined. Conversely other churches may not understand the historic importance of some of their pews. Either way, the key to responsible management of a historic church, and to making the case for change, is a proper understanding of the significance of the items in question. This book helps to fill that gap.

The book results from many years of painstaking research, and Trevor himself says that the assumptions with which the editors embarked on this project were changed in the process of the research.

More information on the book is available from the Ecclesiological Society, including the following taster:

About the book
The book breaks fresh ground. Amongst other things, it is the first book to:
– describe how church seating has changed over the years
– tackle head-on today’s debate about pew removal
– show how the study of individual pews can reveal their past
– take a serious look at Victorian pews, and reprint pew-catalogues of the period
– explore the vigorous nineteenth-century discussions on pews versus chairs
– explain how to consider changes to church seating, taking account of heritage value
– give a range of case studies of recent changes (including a ‘loo in a pew’)

For a feel for the scope of the work and the various contributors, the table of contents can be accessed here. The book is copiously illustrated with black and white illustrations which are exceptionally clear.

The current cry from the heritage lobby, quite rightly, is for ‘Informed Conservation’. If your church is considering a reordering then this book will equip you with a great deal of relevant information; if you are a consultant working with historic churches then it is essential reading.

The book costs £35 (order details on the Ecclesiological Society page), or £25 for Ecclesoc members. At just £12, membership of the society is a bargain – highly recommended.

Trevor Cooper is Chairman of Council of the Ecclesiological Society.

Sarah Brown is a lecturer in the History of Art at the University of York and Course Director of the MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management.


Am I stuck with these Victorian pews?

Posted on: 15/02/2011

Pews at Histon Baptist ChurchProbably not, is the surprising answer. I’m a big proponent of taking out the pews because it can revolutionise the usefulness and the feel of the church space.

Some points to consider:

  • Were the pews designed for the building or, as was often the case, were they bought from a catalogue? The Victorians tended to cram as many pews into churches as they could, because there were subsidies to encourage this! In most cases these were mass produced and of little architectural merit, so can more easily be removed.
  • Is the church listed? If so, you will need permission for changes to the fixed furniture.
  • When were the pews installed, and have they already been moved around? Some homework here can help a great deal in making the case for change.

Clearly there are some churches where you are stuck with the pews – for example if the pews are medieval, or are an integral part of a very special and particular design. In most other cases there is scope for making changes. The key thing is to do the appropriate research and then make a good case for the change.

At Histon Baptist Church, which is a listed building, all the pews were removed; these were original to the Edwardian building but were of cheap construction. Having taken them all out, some pews were stripped and refinished and then put back around the edges, leaving the main part of the space beautifully open.

Coupled with a newly levelled natural oak floor and underfloor heating the space has been transformed. Here the Listed Building Committee asked us to retain 15-20% of the originals; the remainder were sold or given away.

There is also a ‘political’ issue, which is that not everyone likes change – many people are very fearful of it. There are many village parishes where those in the community feel a sense of ownership of ‘our’ church, even if they never darken its doors. These folk should not be ignored, and their concerns need sensitive handling – ignore them at your peril!

First steps

Always start with some historical research, and arrive at an assessment of how important the pews are to the significance of the building as a whole. You should already know this if you have prepared a Statement of Significance; if not, now is a good time to write one.

If you want to get a feel for the additional space you could create, you could consider temporarily removing a section of pews, perhaps for a specific event. Often existing pews can be ‘unbolted’ and moved into storage – this makes it easier to focus people on the benefits that the change will bring.