Q. Why are we introducing chairs? What’s wrong with the pews?
A. The replacement of pews with chairs is just a part of an ambitious and exciting vision for St Mary’s as a building that supports more flexible and comfortable worship but which also is better placed to serve the whole community for a range of functions that are at the moment quite out of the question. The grid-lock created by ranks of pews all facing the front is just about okay for more formal worship and for concerts but not very comfortable for parties and dances and not conducive to art exhibitions, conferences, workshops …
In addition, our particular pews are very uncomfortable, tatty and of no particular importance aesthetically or architecturally. Many would argue that they were insensitively introduced and detract from the integrity of a medieval building by butting up to and hiding the bases of 13th Century pillars.
Q. Why are we buying such expensive chairs?
A. St Mary’s, like many churches, is a grade 1 listed building and that obviously and quite rightly brings with it certain restrictions as to what can be done to the building and what can be placed within it. Many churches are looking to replace pews with chairs and regulations are being ever more tightly controlled.
There are many things we have had to consider when selecting an appropriate chair. Some of them are:
- aesthetic and architectural merits – does it work in the building or jar with it?
- comfort – a difficult balance and often at odds with other considerations. We’ve had a battle with this and considered many options (more below).
- practicality – durability is important but so is the efficiency with which the chairs will stack and the amount of floor space needed to store them when not in use. We’ve also had to look at how well they will link together (essential to meet fire regulations) and how some form of storage can be provided for books and service papers.
- value for money – all of the above comes at a price, unfortunately. We really have looked hard for cheaper options.
We believe the chair we have chosen is a good compromise of all of the above.
Q. Who has been involved in making the choice?
A. We’ve had many different chairs in the building and consulted widely with the congregation, the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) see below as well as national heritage bodies such as English Heritage and the Victorian Society.
The planning authority for buildings in the Church of England rests within the Church. Decisions taken at parish level are informed and passed by a group known as the Diocesan Advisory Committee (in our case in Hereford). Proposals then have to be agreed at national level and a faculty granted. That has been a lengthy process that has to a degree been held up by earlier choices of (cheaper) chairs.
Q. Wouldn’t chairs with cushioned seats and backs be more comfortable?
A. Yes, and we considered them, even proposed them at one stage (after consulting with the congregation) but our plans were rejected. We think it was the right decision to reject them.
We want St Mary’s to be a building which can accommodate all sorts of activities, the consumption of food and drink is high on that list! Clearly the potential for accidents exists and fabric chairs become tatty, quite quickly anyway. Many fabric chairs are also wooden in their structure, therefore heavy and inefficient when stacked. Fabric chairs also conflict with the architectural integrity of the building. Many such chairs introduced into churches some years ago are now being replaced all around the country with the sort of chair we are proposing.
Q. Can I see the sort of chair that is being purchased?
A. Yes, half of the chairs we need have already been purchased and some of them will probably be out in church, if not you’ll find them stacked in the building.
The Abbey chair is still quite a new design. You can see a very similar (and more expensive) chair (the Howe 40/4) in large numbers in the nave at Gloucester Cathedral, or in smaller quantities at our sister church in Walford. Incidentally, the same chair was introduced into St Paul’s Cathedral when it was first manufactured in 1973 (the chair, not the cathedral) and the originals are still there.
Q. Aren’t pews one of the things that identify a church building? Shouldn’t we hang onto them for that reason?
A. Our building, like most in the Church of England is medieval (1284). Pews would not have featured when it was built nor for the greater part of its history. Many medieval church buildings (especially larger ones) still have stone seats built into the outer walls, but most of the congregation would have stood. The phrase “the weakest go to the wall” comes from here.
Although we have no records in Ross of when pews were first introduced it’s likely to have been from around the 17th or 18th Centuries. The earliest record of pews anywhere in English churches is from about the time of Henry VIII. There will have been several different arrangements of pews in the church over that time. The ones we currently have date from 1862. The engraving below from earlier in 19th Century shows some earlier ones – box pews, (you will also recognise the font – now at the top of the north aisle). We know from contemporary accounts that the pews wer replaced around 1750 (presumably the ones below) and that implies that there wer pews in the building before that. So we’re at least on our third set!
Q. Why are the chairs being introduced in two phases?
A. The replacement of pews with chairs is just a part of a much broader scheme and it’s really an attempt to make things manageable. It also happens to be an approach that has been admired by the Church planning authorities.
The pews that have been removed in the first phase of work (yellow above) are those that would have impacted adversely on other aspects of the reordering (namely access to the new kitchen area and the need to relocate the “welcome” area.
We have a clear view of the whole “vision” though and we are especially clear that we want phase 2 of the work (the removal of the remaining pews – pink above) to follow on quite soon from phase 1. We have separated it from what will now be phase 3 for this reason.
Q. How can I help?
A. You can help by feeding through any thoughts and comments you might have and by spreading the word about the exciting developments that are taking place in Ross-on-Wye’s most important and impressive building.
You can also help by sponsoring one of the chairs. There’s more about that on this form: Chair donation form
Q Can I buy a pew
A. Yes, there’s more information here