Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Question from Nikki - Layout of English churches

I know this isn't Tudor related, but I cannot find anyone to answer this question so I thought I would see if one of you can!

Why are the church pews in English churches facing each other, rather than the altar? I noticed this in the Temple Church. I also noticed this in Bermuda, which is of course an English territory.

4 comments:

PhD Historian said...

How very observant of you! Actually, not all pews in English churches face each other. Those closest to the altar sometimes do, however. That section is known as the "choir," regardless of whether or not a singing choir actually sits there. This is a hold-over from much older Roman Catholic tradition. The choir, or quire, was the portion of the church in which those in religious orders sat, as well as the wealthier congregants (sometimes). The area was usually separated from the "common people" standing or seated in rows in the largest section of the church, or nave, by a screen. Members of the orders, whether monks, priests, nuns, or a combination, sang the entire church service, or mass, from beginning to end ... not just "hymns" ... following a liturgical song book. Placing the more active participants closer to the altar and facing each other allowed them to keep track of each other as they progressed through the service. It also allowed the celebrant of the mass (the priest) to be located more nearly in the center of the gathering of the active participants. The "common people" were expected only to stand and watch from a distance, preferrably in awestruck prayer.

After the Reformation, and especially in the mid-17th century, there was considerable debate about church architecture and the placement of worshippers. Many favored a table in the center of the church surrounded on all four sides by pews (Puritans, for example, favored this arrangement). Others favored the more traditional arrangement (so-called "High Anglicans" and American Episcopalians) with an altar separated at the eastern end of the church. Blood was shed over this controversial issue.

The arrangement of a church today can sometimes offer clues to when it was built, or which denomination originally built it, based in part on the placement of the pews. If by Temple Church you mean the one in London near the law courts, that is a very old church built during the Roman Catholic era, so it has that architecture. Monks would have sat in the pews facing each other, at least prior to the 1530s.Many of the churches in Bermuda, especially those a tourist would likely visit, date to the 17th and 18th century, the very period when battles were being fought over how churches should be built and run. In those Bermudan churches with facing pews, the wealthier members would have ast facing each other, seeing and being seen.

You have probably seen mostly older churches, and thus an older style of choir and pew arrangement. Churches built in England and Bermuda in the 19th and 20th century are more likely to have all pews facing the altar and none facing each other. There are, of course, exceptions.

Nikki said...

The church I visited in Bermuda is the oldest church in the western hemisphere, built in the 1600's I think, and I can't remember the name of it off the top of my head. I did notice that the quire pews face each other, but that in some churches all the pews faced each other. The Temple Church, which is the one featured in The Da Vinci Code, is older, so that explains why all the pews are facing each other. (I am suprised I was able to take pictures in there, you can't take pictures anywhere inside buildings in London.) That has bothered me for 2 years and nobody could answer it for me! haha

I am Roman Catholic so I will have to research this more, it's interesting!

PhD Historian said...

Glad I was able to give some answer to your longstanding question.

Anonymous said...

All of the pews in the Temple Church, whether for the choir or the congregation, face one another in the monastic or collegiate style. The same is true at St. Brides (off Fleet Street) and at St. Bartholomew the Great (in West Smithfield), although I did notice that in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" the pews at Great St. Bart's had been rearranged to face the altar for the purposes of the movie.