The Church of England is a funny old fellow. No sooner had the debacle on blessing same-sex marriages died down a little does an even hotter topic stoke the embers of controversy. Only this time it isn’t about permitting gay marriages in the church but the temerity, nay the impertinence, of St Margaret’s Church in Rainham daring to remove the pews in favour of manoeuvrable, and eminently more comfortable, stackable chairs. How dare they?!
Now, in fairness to the complainants, the church is a 14th Century Grade I listed building. In fairness to the church, the pews were installed in the late Victorian era. In fairness to the complainants, they are a conservation society who are concerned the new chairs won’t fit in with the style and character of the building. In fairness to the church, the complainants have never bothered visiting the church and seeing the other alterations that have already been done and how new chairs would actually fit in. In fairness to the complainants, they are seeking to maintain the character of an historic building. In fairness to the church, as the Chancellor for the Diocese of Rochester notes, there is ‘no theological basis’ for the retention of pews, 70% of the actual attendees of the church approve of the new chairs and the leadership want to be able to move them to improve the use of the building.
What’s that you say, dear reader? It all seems like a ridiculous and over-the-top reaction to seating arrangements that are neither particularly old, theological or ecclesiastically significant and which those in attendance at the church broadly favour? Well, that would be your view. Tell that to the Archbishop Cranmer blog. They are more than a little dischuffed at the thought of sidelined pews.
At the same time, one can understand the disquiet. One of the central reasons for the church agitating for new seats is the unwavering belief that more comfortable seating would improve church attendance. Is this what the CofE are now resigned to? Apparently the means of halting the decline and reviving flagging attendance is to install comfier seats. The Evangelical Free Churches did it decades ago and our numbers are soaring. If only they’d made the link earlier! All these larks about female bishops and gay marriage and the answer was staring them in the face all along – it’s the pews!
Of course, it’s easy for me to point the finger from the relative freedom of the dissenting tradition. But we too find ourselves embroiled in such jolly japes. In fact, those of us with congregational polity nigh on force ourselves into such discussions every quarter by insisting on members’ meetings. Here, everything from the theological purity of the church down to the latest decoration job are up for discussion.
I’ve long said you could change significant chunks of your theology overnight and many in your congregation wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but dare to change a point of practice or – shock horror – rearrange the chairs and Hell hath no fury like a members’ meeting (or PCC if you’re Anglican) not consulted. Many folk simply don’t like change. Change your theology and, as far as some are concerned, that doesn’t really affect me. You can have your views and we can carry on as before (even if you are denying the resurrection now). But make me sit in a different seat, or dare to change the order of service, or make the church more accessible so that “new people” come in and want to change things and we’ll get mad. We’re pretty comfortable as we are thanks!
Sadly, far too many people are happy to die in comfort. And ironically, those who are desperate to keep the pews are often those who find chronic back pain less uncomfortable than new people coming in and changing the way we’ve always done things. And the great thing about pews – especially conservation arguments that sound more reasonable than petty and childish arguments that I don’t want new people coming in and spoiling my club – is that they are immovable, much like the views of the people that want to keep them. Their immovability stops any gospel work from taking place in the church, that is both the pews and views. If we can’t move the chairs, we can’t run anything in the space they occupy. That will stop us engaging new people or using our resources to meet the needs of those around us. The great thing about that is it means not only do I not have to bother moving chairs around (I mean, who wants to do that!) but it also means I don’t have to go to the hassle of serving in new works or getting to know new people or doing anything that changes the comfortable status quo.
Often, agitation about the petty and insignificant highlights a deeper spiritual problem. The reality is the configuration or style of our chairs is not a Biblical issue. Jesus gave no command to sit in rows or on hard benches. If all can agree it is not a matter of Biblical imperative, we must ask why the deep feelings? If the case is made that X or Y impedes gospel work and weakens our efficacy in mission and ministry, we can all get behind that. Otherwise, we are likely discussing a smoke screen for some other deeply rooted problem that may impede the church far more than any seating arrangements.
The true spiritual health of our churches might be simply diagnosed this way. When a theological change of direction is nodded through but non-Biblical practicalities are deeply divisive, we have serious problems. Those who take a real interest in our theological positions and challenge any positional changes they perceive are genuinely a blessing. These are the folks who are hearing the Word, care about getting it right (even if we disagree over the bounds of faithfulness) and want to keep the church in line with scripture. Not least because a gospel-centred church is nothing without faithfulness to the gospel. Those who spend more time carping about the carpets or slagging off the seating – who don’t care one jot about your view of the atonement but get very exercised about the order of service – evidence deeper spiritual problems.
The style and arrangement of your chairs really doesn’t matter. What matters is whatever best serves the glory and gospel of Jesus Christ. Though the seats aren’t really the issue, those who get exercised about them might just giveaway what the real issues are.