Bath Abbey is going to be the unusual setting today – Wednesday, October 4th – for a ‘courtroom’ drama as the ‘battle of the pews’ gets underway.
The church is having to remove its Victorian pews next year as the floor of the building has to be stabilised. Once the work has been done – it will be undertaken section by section – the authorities do not want to put the pews back.
The Abbey argues that the church was built as a big empty space and – being able to return to that format but with removable chairs replacing fixed pews – the building will be made more flexible and improve access for all.
However, The Victorian Society believes their removal would have ‘an extremely detrimental effect on the historical significance of this important religious building.’
They will now be a ‘party opponent’ at a Consistory Court hearing being held over two days next week. The hearing will be held today and tomorrow – October 4th and 5th – and each session will last from 10.20 to 4.30 pm.
Though the Abbey will be closed to tourists for those two days, Bathonians are allowed to watch proceedings – ironically from the pews in question. The hearing will be held on the crossing – under the tower.
Each side will have a barrister present to argue their case before the Diocese Chancellor who will make a decision based on the proceedings.
Church of England places of worship are exempt from the requirement to obtain listed building consent from local councils. Decisions are instead made by the Chancellor of each diocese – a lawyer appointed by the church to adjudicate on these matters.
The pews were designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott – the architect of St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial. He was one of the most successful and highly respected church architects of the period and his major restoration of Bath Abbey in 1859-74 was intended to ‘complete’ the church as it would have been if the Reformation had not stopped its construction.
Scott completed the stone fan vaulting above the nave and designed a chandelier lighting system for the church – as well as designing the pews, which were modelled on those in other 16th-century Somerset churches.
Christopher Costelloe, Victorian Society Director, said: ‘Bath Abbey is one of the best examples of Victorian church restoration by perhaps the era’s most prominent architect – Sir George Gilbert Scott.
There is no doubt that removing these pews would harm this Grade 1 listed church’s significance, and there is no need for such drastic changes in a thriving church when other options are available. The last decade or so has seen Victorian church schemes ripped out all over the country and once they’re gone they’re gone for good.
Bath Abbey has a different point of view and is at the start of a massive multi-million-pound project – boosted by the Heritage Lottery Fund – to deal with the threat of the church floor collapsing because of massive holes discovered beneath it. They have been created as a result of the six thousand odd people who have been buried below the stone flooring.
It means all the fixed furniture – including the pews – will have to be lifted as the repair is carried out – section by section – so the Abbey can stay in business throughout.
According to Charles Curnock – Director of the Footprint Project – once the floor has been stabilised and underfloor heating, powered by energy from the hot spring nearby, installed – they intend reinstating the hand-carved Corporation Pews and most of the machine-tooled pews behind them.
However, they want to leave the nave clear – the way it was when the church was built. It would mean people would get a clear view of the hundreds of ledger stones that have been hidden beneath the pews for nearly 180 years.
It would also give the Abbey more flexibility in how the space was used – with chairs replacing pews for seated events – allowing different layouts for gatherings big and small. It would improve access for those with disability issues and allow visitors more freedom in exploring the church.
The Victorian Society argue that the pews have protected the ancient ledger stones from heavy foot traffic and that just removing the pews from the aisles would ease the flow of visitors.
They have launched an online petition – which has attracted over a thousand signatures – and say the complete removal of the nave pews would ‘ strip the Abbey of a major layer of its interest and richness, permanently harming the interior.’
Bath Abbey feels this is an opportunity to change how the floor space can be used to better serve the city, its visitors and future generations. That an open nave will release the Abbey’s potential as a place for worship, celebration and community events in a way it previously hasn’t been able to offer.
It is going to be an interesting hearing. History in the making.