Pulpit and Pews: My Homosexuality Question

This post really has nothing to do with homosexuality – it’s more about how people can try to size one up when arriving in a new church.  When talking to ministers in the United States, I have had a few tell me that within a week of their arrival someone (or a few) asked them, ‘What’s your stance on homosexuality?’  The answer more or less determined how the person (or church) judged the minister.

I haven’t encountered that question in my churches, or any other theological question, or at least ones that try to ‘peg’ me.  Within a week of my arrival in the Blackburn Circuit, the question I got bombed with is, ‘What do think of the pews in the church?’ or, ‘Do you want to remove the pews?’ And, like homosexuality for some of my American counterparts, some have judged me based on my answer.  I was a little unprepared for it, and I answered, ‘Well, I prefer not to have them.’

This church has been quite traditional, and seems to regard changes like this as an attack on who they are. I am told this became an issue when one of my predecessors walked in the church and made an announcement, ‘These pews will have to go.’ That particular minister was pulled out to help another circuit, so he didn’t get to make any progress.

It’s interesting how churches will view what ministers do with the furniture as the key to knowing who they are, and interesting to see what they consider essential for ministry.  Another issue becomes where I preach on Sunday morning. I don’t use the pulpit.  For nearly two years each Sunday I preached, we went through the same litany:

Steward:  Are you going into the pulpit?

Will:  No.

So there is this underlying pull between who the church fears I am and what I am going to do to them and me, who really isn’t trying to do this to rile them up – just trying to imagine where God is calling us.

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18 thoughts on “Pulpit and Pews: My Homosexuality Question

  1. This battle of pews versus chairs is never-ending and gets everything else out of proportion. We have replaced the front four rows of pews with chairs, and that gave us a lull for a time. However, at our church council this week someone brought it to a head again by proposing that next year being our centenary year would be a suitable time to sweep away all the remaining pews and replace them with chairs. When the property steward told us how much it would cost, the motion was lost and we remain with our strange mixture!

  2. As you know, I have a church who have a theological identity and a preferred worship style that’s radically different than mine.

    I’m fortunate in that they are very good-hearted, Godly people and have not turned our differences into a battle-ground.

    I made it clear when I arrived that my first year would be spent in listening and learning. When I had a natural opening at a Church Council meeting, I verbalised the fact that I was on the other end of the spectrum theologically and in terms of worship style but that I didn’t think I was there to turn the church into what I wanted it to be, but I was there to help them be who God wants them to be.

    I know a church that already had old chairs and then had a 5 year battle over which new chairs they were going to purchase. It completely dominated church life. Does that really honour God and advance his kingdom? (Rhetorical question, of course.)

  3. Interesting! Thanks for this. It’s fascinating seeing the pet issues that grip each church.

    By the way, if I were to attempt to touch the pews in our church…I’m trembling so much I can’t even finish the sentence! 🙂

  4. I have question that may seem stupid, but what does it really matter whether there are chairs or pews. I never gone into a church and thought this church better have pews or I’m outta here or vice versa. Are people really that petty? It does not seem like a religious question just interior decorating. Or did I miss the part in the Bible about Jesus saying “Let there be pews (or chairs) in all my churches.” Churches scare me most of the time because of things like this.

  5. Oh Kelly!! You’re awesome — you’re exactly right but over here in the UK the church’s identity is so wrapped up in the building. Pews = traditional, tow the line, how it’s always been and chairs= non-traditional, radical, CHANGE, tearing away at the way it’s always been done.
    I pray all the time that this church will get this fired up and passionate about spreading the message of God’s love and compassion throughout our area. I can’t imagine all we as the church could accomplish if that energy was directed.
    What is it about change that simply terrifies people from losing sight of what church is anyway???

  6. Olive: I hate how all these issues come down to money. I understand it, but I think it is sometimes used as a last stand of those who don’t want to change. I hear the money issue a lot, too. But, churches can do great things when they get behind something!

    Dave: I never thought I would say this, but I would love those questions now! I thought I would be dreading them. Most of the issues we talk about are property-related (and since this post, I can add the organ to the list).

    Pam: There were a number of things that prohibited me from taking that route. First, I didn’t fully take into account how hard moving would be and I tried too much too fast. On the other hand, the question caught me off guard and this church kept describing themselves as ‘needing change’. I admit I goofed. But, these are the issues that I seem to talk about the most. Maybe before my time is up, we will talk about the kingdom. Still, they are understandably scared of change and want to hold onto what they know.

    Wyman: Then you might be right when leaving the issue alone! You’re right about pet issues. All of us have ‘hills we find we will die on’.

    Natalie: I told you I would!

    Kelly: April has summed it up, but as Wyman shows, this isn’t a problem only over here. It seems to be everywhere. Everyone has their idea of what is church, and as Pam and April both question, what has this to do with building the kingdom of God?

    April: Great summary!

  7. On the ‘chairs verses pews’ question – one fairly understandable reason was articulated by a very elderly woman at a friend’s church: ‘I remember sitting in my grandfather’s lap in that pew as a little girl. I was bored, but grandpa would cuddle me and I knew I was safe. When that pew comes out, Grandpa will be gone.’

    Physical, tangible things connect some people to the past. When you are 85 years old, you don’t have a lot of time left where you are going to continue to become yourself. Much of who you are – your ‘self’ – is in the past. Particularly if you spent your entire life as a very active person and are now infirm. When pews, paintings, communion rails, etc. are removed, it can feel like part of oneself is removed.

    When major renovations are done, it’s often helpful to have a church history project and take photos and have a scrap-book telling the story of the church. That helps to keep people connected.

    I read somewhere recently a very insightful statement from a minister: ‘Ministers spend most of their time with two sorts of people: those who will be wrenched by change and those who are demanding changed.’ It seems to me that walking between the two positions requires a lot of wisdom!

  8. The thing is Will the minister before you early caused a riot when he announced he was going to rip all the pews out in the first month or two after he arrived.
    That is probably why you were asked about it immediately!

  9. Pam: While I haven’t heard those stories in the church I am serving, I know they are out there. Other excuses I’ve heard – some valid, some… meh – try a more practical approach. But, in some cases, they’re told in a way to shut down discussion or pull at the heart strings to guilt the ideas away. Still, it isn’t so much the pews any more: it appears to indicate an unwillingness to think through ministry and an entrenchment on holding things the same. There is no thoughts in overcoming the potential hurdles. But, I am realising more and more the church will not move forward on Sunday morning, or even whether or not we have pews (not that I didn’t know it before). I completely understand about attachment to tangible things – I get very attached!

    Kirstie: That’s the story I was implying, but didn’t want to be too specific! 🙂

  10. Pews are not so adaptable and friendly for wheelchair users – who tend to have to be “parked” in the most convenient space for the rest of the congregation.

    Is this what Jesus would have us do?

    Maybe you have no wheelchair users – maybe they are fed up?

  11. Being the living presence of Christ in the North Lancashire district.
    it is our aim to offer good quality worship in a welcoming building.
    To continue making our churches warm, welcoming and well equipped to serve the needs of our communities, and I would add comfortable seating, get the pews out and open it up to those we are supposed to be serving. it is a lot easer to move to chairs to accommodate wheel chairs than to leave the user isolated.
    if you want I will come and take them out!
    After our holiday

  12. Laughing at Mikes response above… I do find it strange how attatched folk become to their pews, and how they feel that the minister should use the pulpit!

    Being judged on our response to these things is tough, I have learned to turn the questions back around to folk so that I catch the undercurrent of feeling….

    As for Mike; he could become the Connexional midnight pew raider- I am sure there is a ministry there…

    Next morning- ” No officer I have no idea what has happened, it is a mystery, but there are reports of pews disapearing all over the country!”

  13. kay: We do have a section of pews taken out for wheelchair users, but I am told it caused turmoil. I think that added to the sensitivity.

    Mike: Nice plug for NorthLancs! Our president would be proud!

    Sally: I think you have found a job for Mike! He has already torn down a whole church! It is difficult to be judged by decisions and positions one takes. I try to keep that in mind when I am quick to do the same thing.

  14. The pews you mention as being removed for wheelchair users, would these be where we now sit? Tim has informed me this happened as they had dry rot and to stop it spreading. Also this area is up a step.

    On a seperate note I am being to think I need to try and defend the one sided view Wilpshire seems to have on pews. The point April makes about pews = tradition is very important. England is very into history (for example English Heritage, The National Trust & tourist sites like Bolton Abbey). The congragtion is older and do not understand a need for change within the church as people came before with the pews so they can not be the problem.

  15. Hi Natalie: I think we have discussed this before, and I am not so sure that the desire to hold onto tradition is due to the emphasis on heritage, though that may be part of it. If it were true in the “English Heritage” sense I wonder if people would tell me, ‘Oh, I haven’t been there before’ when I speak of something like Sawley Abbey or a nearby castle. I figure they would visit the extremely rich varieties of history Lancashire have in this area. I don’t doubt that tradition in the heritage sense has something to do with it (but after all Wilpshire is not a listed building). I think the pews do create an atmosphere of worship that people like and, as I have heard some say, almost demands a traditional worship, and that may be more of a pull towards pews. That’s not a dig at those who like traditional worship, though. Just an observation.

    I think you are spot on with your final sentence, though. I could not have said it better myself.

    As far as the pews taken out, go to the front of the sanctuary and you will see a space of carpet laid down that is different coloured. That’s where. As you said, the part you sit in was due to dry rot.

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