The other day while I was reading up on the historic practice of parishoners renting or buying private pews in churches, I happened upon this fascinating article: “Sacred Mysteries: Renting the Best Seats in Church.” When I lived in England I visited a church which still had some old pews with locked gates that had been historically reserved for members of the gentry. I assumed the practice had fallen out of fashion long ago, but in the article Christopher Howse observes that the practice only ceased in 1970.
Howse also includes this 1882 description from a non-church goer who finally decided to visit the local church, only to realize all the pews were already spoken for:
“I did go once, but the people were all shut in, and the folk in the boxes looked at me as if I had got in without paying: so after walking up and down several times, like a man in a station trying to get a seat when the train is full, I went home.”
What a heartbreaking image. And you can’t help but wonder: how many visitors have ventured into churches over the years only to find all the pews paid for?
But lest we spent all our time in self-righteous indignation at the appalling blind spots of churches in a bygone era, let’s instead use the locked pew and cold stare as the opportunity to ask ourselves some hard questions: how many people dare to visit churches today only to receive a cold stare in return? How many people walk up and down the aisles several times, trying to find a seat, only to leave unwelcomed and defeated? How many people come seeking God only to find that all the pews are already paid for?