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The Ecclesiologist

Volume V (New Series II). Number 8. February, 1846.
Cambridge: Walters, pp. 41-45

The Separation of the Sexes in Publick Worship.

IN a former number of the Ecclesiologist, we expressed our deliberate opinion that the internal arrangement of our churches would never be satisfactory until all fixed seats, excepting of course a bench-table running round the walls, were excluded from the parts intended for the accommodation of the laity. One or two correspondents have since written to defend fixed seats or pues; but we see no reason to alter in, any respect our conclusion. There is however another principle equally true and equally necessary, whether moveable seats or fixed pues be adopted, which, though, it has often been alluded to in our pages, has not received the particular attention we now propose to devote to it: we mean the propriety and necessity of dividing the sexes during the publick offices of the Church.

Such a division is almost impossible in churches that are still encumbered with pens, which symbolize, as has often been pointed out, quite a different principle. The notion of Common Prayer becomes almost necessarily lost in a penned church: a sort of exclusive family worship is the very highest idea suggested or allowed by this arrangement. On the other hand, a church with fixed open-seats or pues, properly distributed, and of course still more easily a church filled with moveable seats, are well suited for the proper and ancient arrangement of the worshippers in different parts according to their sex. It becomes the more important to insist upon this point at the present time, because many people seem inclined to think that, now pens are fast disappearing and the principle of open seats is established, we have done all. But this is far from being the case: both because there is something further which is right and which we must not cease to contend for till we gain it; and also because it has been found by experience that the mere introduction of open seats is not sufficient to destroy the moral evils which the modern system has engendered. Much, doubtless, has been gained. The equality of rich and poor in the sight of GOD is more acknowledged; marks of exclusive ostentation in the house of prayer are no longer tolerated, and much consequent jealousy, and pride, and envy, have been prevented. Still the open pue, when appropriated, reserved, and specially furnished, however harmless and even becoming this license may be in certain excepted cases, may be found to give not much less occasion for the display of wicked feelings than its predecessor the pen: and the testimony of many parish priests, who have succeeded in substituting open seats for pens in their churches, will confirm this to any one who may choose to examine the matter. The adoption of moveable seats is the only thing which will cut this class of evils to the root: but another class may be got rid of move readily by carrying out the principle which we are now especially urging.

Here again, as in every thing else which conduces to holiness and reverence, we are contending for no new notion or practice. On the contrary, it is a primitive usage,--one which obtained in the best ages, Is still in force in the Eastern Church, has been prescribed, and is not even yet lost in our own,--that we are wishing to revise. Every reader of Bingham knows that the division of the sexes is of the highest antiquity in the Church. He himself speaks strongly on the subject, "Only this," he says, "is certain from good authors, that anciently men and women had their different places in the nave of the church. The author of the Constitutions speaks of it as the custom of the Church in his time, when he gives directions about it, that women should sit in a separate place by themselves, and accordingly makes it one part of the offices of deaconesses to attend the women's gate in. the church. S. Cyril also takes notice of this distinction as customary in his own church at Jerusalem, saying, 'Let a separation be made that men be with men, and women with women in the church.' This distinction was so generally observed in the time of Constantine, that Socrates says, 'His mother Helena always submitted to the discipline of the Church in this respect, praying with the women in the women's part.' And it was usually made by rails or wooden walls, as S. Chrysostom terms them, who has these remarkable words concerning the original of this custom: 'Men ought to be separated from women by an inward wall, meaning that of the heart; but because they would not, our fathers separated them by these wooden walls; for I have heard from our seniors that it was not so from the beginning, for in CHRIST JESUS there is neither male nor female.' [This cannot fairly be used as an argument for pens, (1) because it is an Oriental arrangement, and the Eastern Church treats women much more as the Jews did than was ever the case in the Western Church. (2) Because the division was between classes, not between individuals, and the idea of including men and women within the same wail would clearly have been monstrous to this writer. We may also refer to Amalarius Fortunatus, iii. 3; to S. Ambros. de Virg. laps. 6; and to Amphilochius in his life of S. Basil, who gives the reason why that Father appended a veil to the cancelli. In the early Latin churches this place was called matroneum, as Ciacconius testifies. In the Roman Ordo, it is called the pars mulierum.] Yet Eusebius makes this distinction as ancient as Philo Judaeus and S. Mark; and many learned men think it came from the Jewish Church into the Christian, not long after the days of the Apostles." Sir George Wheler also devotes some space to this subject in his book on the Primitive Churches; and we shall be pardoned for quoting at some length from his article. After mentioning several early customs in assigning different parts of the church to the sexes; as, for example, that the men should occupy the nave, the married women one aisle, and the unmarried women the other, he adds;--"That the men were anciently separated from the women, and the men again subdivided m the Latin Church, also is manifest from that fragment of an inscription found at Rome, and mentioned by Dr. Cave, 'Ex dextra parte virorum.' So that there were stations for the men on the right hand and on the left; and that the stations for the men is mentioned, it shows also that there was a distinct station or stations for the women. For the virgins also had a distinct station from the married women, as Origen shows. Which were undoubtedly cither the aisles, on either hand, or the galleries over them, or both, as it is in the Greek Church to this day. Which seems not only very decent, but now-a-days, (since wickedness so much abounds,) highly necessary. For the general mixture of men and women in the Latin Church is notoriously scandalous, and little less is their sitting together in the same pues, incur London churches."--This is said of 1688. And a few years earlier, Pepys, who certainly cannot be called over-scrupulous, says in his Diary, "I to church, and saw my Lord Brouncker and Lady------in one pew,"--mentioning it as something scandalous. We could name large parish churches in London and elsewhere, which are now generally notorious as places for assignations and other infamous practices. Again, after strongly urging amendment the learned Prebendary continues, "I believe this division of sex was formerly in our churches. For in many country churches (where the grandees have not deformed them by making some high and some low, to he tenements for their whole families) is yet to be seen not only "Dextra et sinistra pars virorum," but also the right and left hand seats for the women. The seats for the men being next the chancel and the seats for the women next from the middle doors to the belfry, with an alley up the middle of the church, and another cross to the north and south doors." To prove the extent to which it was felt that there was a propriety in a division of some sort in the seventeenth century, he mentions that the French Protestants, as he saw them at Blois and elsewhere, sat in their assemblies, "the women in the middle, and the men as their guard round about."

In confirmation of the last remark we may add that in an ancient church in the duchy of Nassau, now in the hands of Lutherans, we have found the following arrangement preserved. Unmarried women sat on the north, married on the south side of the nave; unmarried men in a north gallery, the married ones in that to the south; the old men in a west gallery, the youths at the eastern end of the nave, and the children in the chancel.

It may reasonably be doubted whether such minute subdivision as this ever was the English practice; but there can be no question that the general division of the sexes was our invariable rule. Probably a majority of our country churches retain the custom, or traces of it, in spite of the disturbment made by pens, for the men and women to sit in different parts. How often for example a batch of open seats, spared from the encroachment of pens, will be seen filled with women, while the men congregate in a west gallery. It seems to have been the more prevailing custom for the women to sit on the north side, the men on the south; although in some parts, for example in Northamptonshire, near Daventry, the men occupy the upper or eastern part of the nave, and the women the lower or western part. There is ancient authority for both arrangements; as in Durandus (Rat. I. i. 46. Translation, p. 36.) "In church, men and women sit apart; which according to Bede, we have received from the custom of the ancients; and thence it was that Joseph and Mary lost the child JESUS, since the one who did not behold Him in His own company, thought Him to be with the other..... But the men remain on the southern, the women on the northern side..... But according to others, the men are to be in the forepart [i. e. eastward], the women behind." Upon which passage the translators, having mentioned the existence of the practice in some parts of England, more especially in Somersetshire, and the traces of a still further separation on each side of the married and unmarried, proceed to quote Bishop Montague in, his Visitation Articles (Camb. Ed. p. 17.) "Do men and women sit together in those scats, indifferently and promiscuously? or (as the fashion was of old) do men sit together upon one side of the church, and women upon the other?"

We may refer also to the account of the abuses which had crept into Great S. Mary's, Cambridge, sent to Archbishop Laud while preparing for a visitation of the University (quoted by Mr. Venables in his interesting paper on that church in the Transactions of the Cambridge Camden Society, p. 277) for another proof of the mind of our Church with respect to the promiscuous arrangement of the sexes in publick worship. We may also notice the fact that the north door of a church is often traditionally called the " Bachelors' door," doubtless from its having been used for the entrance of the young men; a circumstance which would show the great importance our ancestors attached to this principle of separation.

It is very important also to notice that in the first Prayer-book of King Edward VI., there is a rubrick requiring the men decently to place themselves at the right hand, and the women at the left in the celebration of Holy Communion: a practice retained not only in some parish churches, but in Winchester cathedral. Again, we are informed that in some parish churches it is still the practice for the men to go into the chancel to communicate first, and the women afterwards.

Having thus shown, we believe conclusively, the authority for this division, more particularly in the English Church--(we need not say it is quite lost in the later Roman Church)--we must again press on our readers the importance of attempting to revive it as well in old churches, as especially in new ones. We may mention two new churches, S. John's, Harlow, and S------, Wareside, where this rule has been observed, with the best results, ever since their consecration. There is also a distinct place assigned to females in the Temple church as restored. It appears to us that by this separation there is a great gain. in reverence, in purity, and avoiding of temptation, and that scarcely a prejudice is shocked by it. The only plausible thing we have ever heard advanced against our principle is that it will destroy the possibility of families worshipping together; an argument always shallow, but most unreal when used, as it generally is, by the favourers of Sunday and infant schools, who always so far adopt our plan as to take children from their parents' sides and place them together in a gallery.

The only family to be recognised in publick worship is His family, in Whose House we meet, the Church, Of course the one grand division of the worshippers which we are recommending does not in any sense destroy this idea of communion in prayer.

In churches where there remain no vestiges of an ancient practice in this respect, we should recommend for uniformity's sake the north side to be assigned to the women, and the south to the men. We are convinced it will be found easy to make the change gradually, even in London churches, which maybe happy enough to be free from pens. In conclusion we wish GOD speed to all who shall attempt so good a work.

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