Width restriction: church pews lose their position, to make way for the 'human form of today'

·6 min read
Parishioners gather to protest in the grounds of the Grade II listed St Andrew's Church in the Dorset village of Okeford Fitzpaine -  BNPS
Parishioners gather to protest in the grounds of the Grade II listed St Andrew's Church in the Dorset village of Okeford Fitzpaine - BNPS

It is meant to be the happiest day of couples' lives. Yet for some newlyweds in Salisbury, the thought of having to squeeze through the narrow Victorian pews has proved too much. 

Now an historic village church has been forced to remove its wooden pews in a bid to curb the "embarrassment" of obese and overweight brides and grooms squeezing down the aisles.

In a decision which has sparked outrage among parishioners, 32 Victorian pews have been put up for sale for £200 each as part of alterations to the Grade II listed St Andrew's Church in Okeford Fitzpaine, Dorset.

The 150-year-old wooden seats, which are currently fastened to the floor, will be replaced with modern chairs that can be easily moved to create space when necessary.

Church authorities have said that replacing the 16 rows of pews would remove the potential 'embarrassment' of overweight brides and grooms squeezing down the narrow aisle, and that the current pews are ill-suited to the “human form of today”.

The 32 Victorian pews inside of Grade II listed St Andrew's Church in the Dorset village of Okeford Fitzpaine - BNPS
The 32 Victorian pews inside of Grade II listed St Andrew's Church in the Dorset village of Okeford Fitzpaine - BNPS

They also claimed that the new seating arrangements will make it easier for wheelchair users and parents with prams to access the nave in the church - which dates from from 1865, with small parts of the Tower dating from the fifteenth-century - as well as to enable the congregation to socially distance.

According to a recent report by the Parochial Church Council (PCC), they said: "We have also had occasions at weddings where the couple have been too large to be able to walk side by side down the aisle. With chairs we would be able to widen the aisle."

It also added that the pews are also ill-suited to the “human form of today” and that by removing them, it would also remove the health and safety risk of people tripping over them.

As a result of the report, the pews were listed for sale in the parish magazine as well as on Facebook, and will be collected by the buyers next week ahead of building work.

However, the controversy has led to an ongoing row which has blighted the bucolic village, with claims and counter-claims directed at the rector, Reverend Lydia Cook, and her parishioners.

Among the allegations are that the rector locked parishioners out of the church following their protests, which have included a demonstration with banners reading 'Save the pews from the devil within'.

Rev Cook has also reported a perceived threat of criminal damage to the building to the police.

Helen Sherwood Clinkard, a spokeswoman for the Save St Andrew's Pews group. said: "There are about 1,000 people in Okeford Fitzpaine and I would have said three quarters of them are against what is happening.

"We were totally unaware about the gutting of the church and the removal of the pews until they were recently listed for sale. The pews are part of the history and heritage of the church. If you strip out the pews then the soul of the church is gone.

"I have seen a picture of the chairs that will replace them. They are horrible. They look cheap and cheerful. I wrote to the vicar and she sent me this statement of needs from the PCC.

"I was gobsmacked when I read some of the reasons for wanting rid of the pews. There have been weddings in that church for generations and to my knowledge there has never been an issue before about large people not being able to fit down the aisle.

"How is it that the human body is now so different to that of our great-great grandparents?

"I am 68 and I have been to that church most of my life. I have never seen or heard of anyone trip over one of the pews before. It all seems like a poor excuse to rip out the pews."

Grade II listed St Andrew's Church in the Dorset village of Okeford Fitzpaine - BNPS
Grade II listed St Andrew's Church in the Dorset village of Okeford Fitzpaine - BNPS

A spokesman for the Diocese of Salisbury confirmed that the central aisle within St Andrew's church is 3ft 8inch, with the gap between the pews being 1ft 1inch.

He said Rev Cook had received an email that led her to inform the police of a possible threat of vandalism to the church, and officers advised her to lock the building.

The PCC statement was issued to the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches (DAC) as part of its request for permission for the pews to be removed to make the church more accessible for families and disabled people, and to fit in a toilet.

The PCC cited an example from another church of a newly-wed couple who were left distressed and embarrassed that they could not fit down the aisle, and they wanted to avoid a similar situation at St Andrews', which has a particularly narrow aisle.

The church claimed by creating a more open space, it will be able to host more community events, such as messy church and jumble sales, yet objectors said that the village hall, which is unconnected to the church, already holds such events.

The decision to strip out the pews was made following a four year legal process and consultation with villagers that was undertaken by the PCC. 

In 2016, leaflets were delivered to every household in the village and a public meeting was held. The changes were for underfloor heating to be installed and a toilet added.

Yet the objectors claim they were not aware the re-ordering meant getting rid of the pews until they read an article in the parish magazine about the 'replacement of the Victorian pews with new chairs' last Autumn. Since then the pews have been listed for sale in the same magazine.

Responding to the claims, a spokesman for the Diocese of Salisbury said that none of the current protestors offered a response to the leaflets detailing plans for the reordering of the church. 

In a statement, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam said he fully supported the changes to St Andrew's Church.

He said: "Churches are community buildings which have to adapt to the needs of the community as those needs change.

"The changes have come after a very wide consultation and ample opportunity over a long period to comment on the proposals.

"Although I am unable to control what the PCC does with the church building, I am able to say that I am fully supportive of their plans which are designed to enable the church building to continue to be a valuable asset to the community into the future.

"Some pews are being removed and have been offered for sale on Facebook. Such a public sale is hardly consistent with a suggestion that has been made that the works are being conducted secretively. 

"The removal of the pews will make it easier to achieve social distancing at public worship."'