SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
Take a seat, please!
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
We’re selling the Pews!
Don’t worry this is not an advert – honestly, they’re selling like hot cakes. Some people have travelled huge distances to choose their favourite, others including some schools and institutions and local families have a real connection to the Cathedral and we have tried to give them first dibs. Most of all we are keen to treat the pews (and the wood for that matter) with some respect. Now, I know that for some this can feel like an act of cultural vandalism, others are understandably emotionally attached, and for some any ‘change’ especially if it happens too fast is hard to swallow. On the other hand, some folk see all this as liberating, not just for them but also for Cathedral and its mission: No longer will seating be fixed, immoveable and no longer will magnificent ledger stones be covered with wooden platforms, hidden from human inspection. And hopefully the new open and flexible space will reveal the magnificence of the Cathedral in a completely new light for a whole host of newcomers. Well I suppose, ‘you pay your money and take your choice!’
There are some things I should make clear from the outset:
Of course, we have been selective so we’re not selling all the pews. There is a long scallop type pew that sits in the south aisle near the vestry. It is old, perhaps medieval, but definitely older than all the others and it will stay firmly put. There is another pew, near the south porch with the most beautiful carved armrests shaped as sea horses. Sea horses you will recall are a symbol on the City of Newcastle’s crest, they form the crown of the civic centre tower and constantly remind our citizens of a sea-faring heritage. We will not part with it.
And then there is the Mayoral Pew, sitting proudly at the front of the nave. It serves as a visible reminder to us of the close links between city corporation and church – a complementary concern for the common good of the citizens. We are in discussion about how we can find a fitting place in the Cathedral for this particular and special pew to rest. We are also making sure that we photograph and document all the pews that we do sell so that we have a record for posterity.
It is also important for us all to remember that the pews that will go are of course Victorian, new additions at that time and certainly not the first seating to be placed in the Cathedral nave. Indeed, the Cathedral has lived more of its life without seating than with – and even today there are only three Cathedrals in England that have fixed pews. No one is quite so clear when the previous set of pews, presumably removed in 1882 were installed. There was a pew book belonging to the church in 1579 and that indeed refers to an older one. In 1635, some new pews or seats were built. In another refurbishment in the late 1700s new pews were built of wainscot ‘in a substantial manner, and are calculated to seat 964 including seats for the poor in the middle aisle.’ With the seats in the School gallery there was accommodation for 1000 persons. In fact, not so different to today.
And surprise, surprise, I found, hanging in Cathedral House a lovely picture showing not only the old organ high above the Rood Screen but detail of the pre-Victorian Pews. Just look at the sad benches for the poor in the middle – I guess they would have been for me and you!! Then just to add the final twist, deep down in the hall basement behold two details (very dusty and in poor condition) or remnants of those very same 18th Century pews were hidden behind some rubbish. Time to dust them off and let you see!
Now all this talk of pews makes me feel like I need a lie down – and let’s be honest even recently it is not unusual to find our pews providing a good place to sleep! And I don’t just mean during sermons.
The history of our pews helps us to see that the Cathedral has survived, for better or worse, many changes over the years – perhaps that is inevitable for a building with such a long and distinguished history. It is also inevitable for a building that continues to matter, to be alive to the people who, for now at least, have found a home in it. Our story, our experience, our prayers, our joys and our tears will add their indelible mark within its walls, perhaps indeed into its very stones. They will join those of past generations and they will be the legacy that we leave for future generations to share … and add to themselves.
We are not custodians of a heritage site, or a museum or even a fine civic building but in spite of our inadequacies, our flaws and sometimes flagrant indiscipline we are today’s people of God here, building his church to witness to his kingdom. In his graciousness he will take what we offer and use it for good. And, perhaps especially, as we struggle and learn to love each other he will be among us working his ways, making us more than we could conceive or desire and sharing in the building his kingdom.
If seating arrangements have changed over the years the same is also true of the postures people have adopted for prayer. Liturgical fashion changes too just as necessity demands sometimes we do things differently. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are much more at home standing for prayer, rocking to the rhythm of their chanting. Muslims friends fall prostrate whereas Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists take up a host of meditative postures. In the early days Christians regularly stood to pray with arms held wide and high. More pietistic approaches followed and with the revivals of the Eighteenth Century even sitting at prayer (what I call the ‘hair shampoo’ posture) became a necessity in crowded Chapels. Posture helps and matters but to be honest not that much. The real danger in all this discussion is that in worrying about the ‘how’ that miss the so important ‘what’: Simply put, it is the prayer that matters.
‘Standing upright or sitting down; on chair or pew; hands together or held open to receive; holding silence or praising out loud, familiar and cherished words or simple conversation Lord, teach us to pray. Drench this Cathedral in the prayers of your people so that the very stones may weep your praise.’