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The Ecclesiologist

Volume IV (New Series I). Number VI. November, 1845.
Cambridge: Walters, pp 270-272.

Open Seats.

OUR readers will not imagine that, in this stage of ecclesiological progress, we are going to descant on the evils of pues, or the advantages of open seats. We have a different end in view; and are about to offer a few remarks on a question, which becomes daily of greater importance, and which will probably excite attention when pues are forgotten, as the abomination of a past age.

We have always protested, and we need not here give our reasons for so doing,--against the employment of the Perpendicular style, and the adoption of Perpendicular arrangements. We approve of its short chancels and enormous lateral chapels, as little as we do of the horizontalism of its tendency, and the tautology of its ornaments. We regard both as the sign of a declining and secularized Church: and from both we take refuge in the purer ages of Early English or Decorated art.

Now, there is one arrangement of the Perpendicular epoch, which has been too unhesitatingly recommended, and too unquestioningly followed. We do not mean to hold ourselves blameless in this respect; though we believe that we have not been so guilty as others: and we can never too often repeat that while we have been trying to teach, we have been trying to learn, and we earnestly trust that it ever may be so.

It has been almost universally assumed, that a modern church, be it in whatever style, or an ancient church, be it of whatever date, must, when erected without, or freed from, pues, have every part available for worshippers fitted up with fixed seats: nave, aisles, transepts, chapels, tower, every thing but chancel, are thus treated.

Now, we naturally ask, What authority is there for fixed seats more than for pues? And the answer is plain;--as much more, and so much more only, as the Perpendicular has over the Elizabethan age--a wide, a most wide, difference, we allow; but yet not affording sufficient authority for the practice.

For we assume, and we think we have a right to assume, that before the fifteenth century fixed seats were unknown, just as pues before the sixteenth. There may be some very few exceptions, though we know of none, which are indubitably such; and a mass of evidence might be brought forward, to shew that seats, when then employed at all, were moveable stools or chairs. We shall content ourselves with one argument drawn (at the risk of offending Dr. Lee,) from Durandus. "There are stalls in the choir," says that Prelate, "because there is perpetual rest in Heaven." But if there had been fixed seats in the nave, this comparison would not only have lost all its beauty, but also all its sense.

Therefore, m the same degree in which -we assert the superiority of Early English, or Decorated, over Perpendicular designs and arrangements, in that degree we are bound to prefer churches with moveable, to churches with fixed, seats. The same spirit which led to the "stoolyng" of so many churches about A.D. 1500,--led (growing worse as it grew older,) to the pueing of so many churches about A.D. 1600. For it is a mistake to suppose that an entirely new spirit came over England at the breaking out of the Reformation. Growing worldliness in the Church had given birth to growing disaffection among the people. Henry VIII., if he had lived two centuries earlier, would have lost his crown had he persisted in attempting anything against the monasteries. In pues we can see the legitimate, though far more frightful, children of fixed open seats.

Let us now trace a few of the advantages, to which the introduction of chairs, stools, or moveable benches would give rise.

In the first place, a far larger number of worshippers would be accommodated by such an arrangement. During the actual time of service, the whole space, now unavoidably left as a passage, in the nave and aisles, might be, as it is in foreign churches, filled up with chairs or stools. Take now a church, the nave of which is 60 by 24, the aisles 60 by 12 feet. Filled up with fixed seats, such a church cannot hold, decently, more than 360 worshippers; filled up with moveable seats, it would accommodate 480: and this calculation is made without taking into consideration the necessity, in the former instance, of having a larger space unoccupied round the font, than would be requisite in the latter. We may, therefore, take the accommodation of the two systems as, respectively, 3 and 4.

Secondly,--In cross churches, the transepts cannot properly be filled up in any other way; make the worshippers face north and south, on the one hand, or on the other, east,--the arrangement is equally unsatisfactory.

Thirdly,--Moveable seats are also desirable, on the ground of expense. No one will, at this time of the day, suspect THE ECCLESIOLOGIST of wishing to teach people how they may build cheap churches: all we mean is, that the money saved on seats may be laid out to much greater advantage elsewhere.

Fourthly,--We should, by this means, get rid of much of that stiffness and formality, which is, with too much reason, alleged against Anglican services. If an empty space is wanted in any particular part of the church, (as on occasion of a confirmation, a visitation, catechising, or the like,) it may be had. If a person wishes to face the preacher, instead of sitting sideways to him, he can do so.

Fifthly,--There will be much freer circulation of air, and much greater cleanliness. For supposing the Sunday congregation to be 300, and the daily 50: then the 250 seats, unneeded during the week, will either be removed out of the church, or piled together in one corner. There will be no cells and standards where damp may collect, rottenness begin, and vermin lodge: the whole floor will be exposed to the action of the air, and may without trouble (no unimportant consideration,) be washed when necessary.

It may be perhaps asked, Can we not mix the two systems? May we not have a few fixed seats, and let the rest be moveable? We answer, We think not, in the same part of the church. The nave, we allow, may be furnished with fixed, while the transepts have moveable seats: but we cannot well mix the two in the nave. Such a practice would give rise to endless he art-burnings and jealousies. The rich would possess themselves of the former, and oblige the poor to confine themselves to the latter.

And let it not be said that, in our exultation over the defeat of pues, we are in danger, like many wiser combatants, of pushing the advantage too far, and thereby losing the victory altogether. To employ another metaphor, and to speak with Plato,--a wise physician, in curing a grievous disease, will seek, not to bring the body of his patient into the condition in which it was immediately before that disease broke out, but into perfect health. Pues are our disease, and fixed seats may be called its 'period of incubation.' We have not much desire to return to that.

If we recur to this subject, we shall, to avoid the circumlocutory and inconvenient phrases of moveable and immoveable seats, use the following terms:--we shall call pues, as before, pens; fixed seats by their proper term, pues; and moveable forms, chairs, or stools, by the simple name, seats.

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