There has been much fun, and much outrage, about a Coventry Diocese decision to prevent a church having upholstered chairs. The parishioners of Long Itchington had gained permission to replace their Victorian pews, but were refused upholstered chairs. The Daily Telegraph story is here.
A couple of things to clarify. Firstly, churches have to apply for the church’s planning permission (a ‘faculty’) to do stuff like this. After consultation the permission is given by the diocese’s senior legal figure, the Chancellor, and for these purposes it’s a court decision. However this was not a court case, with barristers and things, though this is possible if the matter goes on to be contested.
Secondly, the ‘amenity societies’ (like the Victorian Society) are statutory consultees in this process, based on the wisdom that without such campaigning bodies many things we currently value would have been lost. In this matter the Victorian Society did not take the church to court or anything. They expressed their strong view, as they were required to do. It’s not clear whether they objected to the removal of the Victorian pews (which is probably the extent of their remit) or to the type of chair (which I reckon goes beyond their remit if the church is twelfth century).
So: is there anything wrong with chairs? No. Pews, at least of the kind we see in most churches, are a reasonably modern thing. The Victorians were keen to ensure a place in church for every member of the population, and pews are an efficient way of doing this. But most were utilitarian, and, though long lasting, have little aesthetic merit. My heart sinks when I walk into a church packed with a sea of pitch pine boring uncomfortable pews. Let them go.
There are some pews which are rather wonderful, beautifully crafted and of real aesthetic merit. Some box pew schemes survive from the pre-Victorian period. Even in Victorian times there were some schemes which made real sense and, if you like that kind of thing, are tremendous. Some are even comfy, and the design, craftsmanship and overall scheme can be a heritage asset, capable of being interpreted and understood. Actually, my heart sometimes sinks when I see these kind of pews too, because the heritage asset doesn’t always sit well (pun intended) with the current operation and mission of the church concerned.
The magnum opus on pews is edited by Trevor Cooper and Sarah Brown. No, I’ve not read it, but was pleased to see it’s available here for free.
Anyway, if the pews are to go, and chairs are to be introduced, what should guide the choice? I was on the Church Buildings Council for a bit. It offers guidance and oversight in all fabric matters, and Diocesan Chancellors take notice of its guidance notes. There’s a really good one on church seating here, and I think that’s what guided the Chancellor of Coventry.
Simply put, upholstered chairs might look comfy, but they are often not. The fabric is difficult to care for. Not all are of great quality, and you will probably find yourself bequeathing a replacement problem to people in only a couple of decades. They get grubby very quickly, especially if you want to use them flexibly – which is what Long Itchington want to do – and they are difficult to stack. Putting a couple of hundred chairs covered in blue or purple fabric in a church has an instant aesthetic effect which can detract from the historic aspects of the building. They dampen the acoustics.
So, the advice says, please consider using wooden chairs or moveable/stackable benches. The interplay between wood and stone and glass can be really pleasing. Some wooden chairs are ergonomically surprisingly comfortable. In the church I serve we had a big consultation, and went for a wooden chair which the vast majority of people really like – and can sit on happily for the three hours of a Messiah without complaint. It’s no wonder that the chair we selected is also found in half of England’s cathedrals. We’re assured that it will last for decades. (I should say that we never had pews in the Nave, so it was a chair-for-chair replacement. Good luck to those of you removing your pews).
I’m a chair evangelist. I came to agree with the CBC advice that upholstery is to be discouraged, especially when you take a long term and aesthetic view. I’d happily see most churches lose their pews, and even those who have fab pews should be helped to reorder them in a way which works with inheritance but is not bound by it. We should be able to tell the story of how the church has been ordered and used without it being permanently frozen in a previous era.
As it happens I think the comment of the Chancellor of the Diocese of Coventry about upholstered chairs being ‘overly casual’ was a hostage to fortune. But I do agree with the general point: upholstery isn’t always the most comfortable or the most wise choice.
Here’s what did we did: chairs with leather seat pads which were at the end of their life and hard to stack were replaced by all wood chairs (with a metal frame).
Don’t get me going on carpets…