SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
Sit down, but don’t shut up!
14 March 2021
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
This time last year, we were busy selling the Victorian pews – they sold well and raised nearly £30,000 towards our refurbishment. This month we are buying chairs and benches – a whole 600 of them (well, in truth, seating for 800!). A lot has happened in the interceding twelve months – and that’s an understatement.
The pews were in their own way rather beautiful, not too ornate, sturdy and lovely wood. Of course, they weren’t the ‘original’ seating, in the sense that they came with the building. For many years there would have been no seating provided apart from a ledge to lean on by the wall.
We have knowledge of at least two sets of pews that were installed prior to the Victorian ones that we sold off last year. We have some interesting (though perhaps fanciful) engravings that show various internal layouts in the church. It’s hard to imagine our church looking like that. We even found some bits of ornate end pieces of 17th-century pews in among the junk of the basement. We have retrieved these to keep for posterity, just like we intend to keep some of the panels of the Victorian pews.
The earliest Christians were not known for sitting; rather, they are easily identified in first-century frescoes standing with arms raised as they prayed. No doubt people did sit, probably or at least often on ledges around the wall; there’s a story in Acts about the man who was sitting on a window ledge when Paul was preaching. He fell asleep and fell out. Fortunately, he survived!
In medieval English churches, the pulpit and the congregation were usually mobile: no doubt often following the braziers that provided the only heat. Eventually, however, pews as we know them made their debut – wooden benches became popular, as people could squash up together in greater numbers. Later, so-called boxed pews became the norm (you can still see excellent examples in St Mary’s Church, Whitby, or All Saints Church on the Quayside). They allowed more individual comfort, privacy and, at the same time, raised money for the church coffers. Rent was charged for each pew in an almost leasing system for wealthy families and their servants. They were often filled with rich upholstery, braziers and furnishings to make for comfort and even take some refreshment. They were sometimes surrounded by high ‘walls’ so that others couldn’t spy and people-watch (probably as the occupants slept through services). Free seating, on the other hand, was poor and very limited. Soon enough, pews packed every available space.
Post the Reformation, pews became common furniture, reflecting a greater emphasis on the preaching of the Word and often for long periods of time. You could even tell the churchmanship by just looking at the pews – one commentator tells us that the higher the ‘back’, the more Protestant the church style, while more Catholic-leaning places made do with a simple bench. Whatever the church tradition, pews soon were here to stay – well, most people prefer sitting to standing, don’t they?
It is uncertain when pews first made their entrance into St Nicholas’. Mackenzie, writing in 1847, tells us that there used to be a Pew Book kept in the church in 1579, which also referred to an older edition – sadly, we haven’t got a copy today. We know that in 1635 some new pews were built, and to increase capacity, a gallery built in 1620, mainly to accommodate boys from the Grammar school. The Corporation and some distinguished families were accommodated in stalls in the middle of the chancel – and still today, we have a Mayoral pew now placed in the eastern chapels. The major renovation instigated in 1783 opened up the chancel area. Pews filled the whole of the church. Mackenzie tells us that they were built ‘of wainscot in a substantial manner and are calculated to seat 964 persons including seats for the poor in the middle’.
Fortunately, by 1840 pew rental became a source of controversy – not least because it was estimated in 1815 that over 950,000 people would not be able to worship in a parish church because there weren’t enough free pew spaces. By 1853 an article in the Edinburgh Review said Anglicans had adopted the slogan ‘Equality within the house of God’ as free (and unreserved) seating became quite orthodox.
The elevation, in 1882, of St Nicholas to become the Cathedral church of the new Diocese of Newcastle had a perhaps unsurprising impact on the seating provided. You see, you can’t be a cathedral without a ‘cathedra’ – the Bishop’s seat – and a set of stalls for governing Chapter. A local architect, R.S. Johnson, was commissioned to provide both, and working with local craftsmen Thomas Hedley and R Beale, the Quire as we know it was created, though not quite in time for the inauguration service on St James’ Day, 1882. It was – and is – a stunning addition, expertly created in Gothic style, taking its inspiration from the medieval font canopy hanging at the west door. Round the perimeter are the Canon’s stalls, each with a name of a Northumbrian Saint and an individually bespoke misericord – a comfort ledge/seat for old tired Canon’s enduring long periods of standing during the Dean’s interminably long sermons! Five seats, however, have special canopies: two for Archdeacons, one for the Precentor, another for the Dean. Of course, the grandest seat and highest Canopy being preserved, close to the High Altar, for the Bishop – the ‘cathedra’.
Bishops’ seats fascinate me because they attract many different ideas, names and messages. I remember an old Bishop acquaintance once told me that the Bishop’s seat in every church was there ‘to acknowledge the presence of the Bishop, but being so often empty it could so easily speak of their absence’ but there again he had an impish side.
Nowadays, we baulk a little at calling the cathedra a ‘throne’; perhaps there are better descriptors – perhaps the ‘director’s chair’ or something similar might be a more creative possibility. In the interpretation panels we are preparing for the building’s opening, the one that describes the cathedra was originally given the title ‘Seat of Power’. I have to confess to uneasiness with affirming such an imposing hierarchy. Impishly I made a very small change – I added a question mark! But don’t tell the boss it was me.
More seriously, I think that a seated Bishop is a crucial image for the church. Not seated in judgement, power or even authority but in counsel. A Bishop’s place is amidst and among the People of God who they serve and lead: sitting to listen, to reflect and in meaningful conversation
It is in the same spirit that we have been pondering the seats for ministers during our liturgy – I guess they need to sit down sometime too! So, with that 19th-century comment about Anglicans 1853 – ‘equality within the house of God’ – we concluded that while the Quire should remain intact, at the heart of the cathedral, a symbolic presence used for significant occasions and more formal intimate worship, we would adopt a simpler approach for our regular worship. So, we have ordered chairs and benches to match the new folding that we have already purchased. A lot of them too – so we can 800 people in all. And no special seats for ministers.
The vast majority of the chairs can be tidied away when not in use, into the (now accessible) pit in the south transept. This means that during much of the midweek, we will see the wonderful uncluttered space of the so-called ‘long view’ from the great west doors through the Rood Screen and choir to the High Altar, with its spectacular backdrop of Reredos and east window.
But let us not underestimate the humble chair – though I think ours will be suitably elegant. They provide the opportunity we will have to sit with each other (soon I hope); to hear God’s Word and worship together; to converse, to laugh and to take counsel; to learn and to consider the deeper things of life. There is something beautiful about that, and Godly too. For I have a hunch that God likes nothing more than to sit with his people – after all, even the Ark was in origin a throne, a seat for God among the people, and it was mobile too.
I’m reminded of that wonderful George Herbert poem that begins ‘Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back.’ It ends with these words [my bold]
‘My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat’.
Newcastle Cathedral’s National Lottery Heritage Fund project, Common Ground in Sacred Space, is due for completion in summer 2021.