Are you a hoarder or a ‘chucker-out’? Our church at Astbury is a wonderful historic collage of ages and eras, but I am mindful of the irony that whilst history has often been preserved by the hoarders it is created by the chuckers-out!
Currently the wardens are considering how best to go about clearing some of the accumulated clutter of recent years. In the coming weeks the Church Council will be seeking Diocesan advice on the matter. Good advice is invaluable in such circumstances. Church furniture, especially where you sit and what you sit upon, has been a source of contention from the time of Christ1, and the earliest recorded English dispute in 1287 was lamented as having caused ‘great scandal to the church’2.
Most churches of the earlier mediaeval period would have been relatively clear of fixed seating. It was only during the 15th century that the introduction of benches gathered momentum, though even then naves would essentially remain open spaces particularly towards the back of the church. Initially the introduction of pews
could be haphazard and piecemeal. Some arrangements were described as ‘unfitt for persons of anie good sort to sitt in, being confusedly sett up with olde broken bordes’. You weren’t even guaranteed that the pews would be facing the same way!
The Reformation emphasis on reading scripture and preaching was the impetus to sitting people down to listen, as opposed to the peripatetic dramas and processions of pre-reformation worship. Ephraim Udell in 1641 lamented however that such
seating arrangements scattered a congregation into ‘so many single societies of twos and threes’4, which led a number of Bishops to actively oppose
church seating altogether.
Such arguments provide us with some of the more colourful minor episodes so beloved of local
historians. William Moreton was a notoriously contentious resident of Astbury. The family grave lies at my feet where I robe. In 1576 he also had a pew in
Congleton Chappell (St Peter’s church in town). Someone clearly had it in for the Moreton pew. Records show that belligerents brought a horse into church in
an effort to get it to defile where William sat. Fortunately for him it ‘did not dunge in the said pewe but very nere unto yt’. You can lead a horse, as
they say! The vandals were nothing if not persistent however and, for whatever reason the said seating had caused offence, it was ultimately ‘cast downe by
nighte in the said chappell’ by person or persons unknown 5.
Spare a thought for the poor churchwardens at the centre of all this chaos, trying to establish order and decency in worship. They were often abused by parishioners using ‘alehouse language’ and ‘the most lothsome fa*tinge stinckinge & scoffinge speache’. In one pew dispute one George Chapman6 was accused before a church court of the use of ‘unreverent speeche in the time of divine service & said would the Churchwardens had kyst his A*se’ when they tried to restore order.
I trust our own considerations will run a somewhat smoother course, with the generous exercise of Christian charity and the humility of Gospel values. To be on the safe side, in the mean time I would ask you all to speak politely to our wardens and refrain from bringing your horse into church!
1. Luke 14:7-11
2. Cox & Harvey, English Church Furniture, p287
3. Evans, ‘Re-pewing the Parish Church’, Local Historian, 1992, p203
4. Addleshaw, Architectural Setting, p120
5. Marsh, ‘Sacred space’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 2002, p302
6. Marsh, p305
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