Reprinted from Newsletter 124, dated 2007 November

Change in the churches, old and new

Jim Nagel

A drawing showing a church interior. At the west end is a glass entrance. Above this, with stairs leading up to it, is a balcony area. On the east end are chairs arranged in curved rows. A drawing of a church interior as seen from above, revealing more of the layout. We now see that the east end has chairs arranged in ring segments, all surrounding a circular raised area near the front of the church. They are split into sections to provide walkways. At the north end of the church a door leads to an annex building. A drawing of a church as seen from an outdoor viewpoint above and to the northwest of the church. A roughly-square building has been added to the grounds on the north side of the church. It is shown with a green roof with a slot running through it north to south.

Three drawings showing the possible new look for St John’s inside and out. (Michael Drury Architects, Salisbury)

Both of Glastonbury’s parish churches are proposing the most extensive interior reorderings that have taken place in 150 years. In both cases the idea is to clear away the fixed Victorian pews, leaving a flexible space that would allow a range of community activities.

This would return the buildings to the open appearance they had several centuries ago. Cathedrals and most Orthodox churches have never had pews.

Traditionally, the rector (in both Glastonbury parishes that was the Abbot, and now the Church Commissioners) is responsible for the upkeep of the chancel, set aside for worship, and local people built the nave, the main body of the building. The nave was the town’s largest covered space and was used for everything from festivals to markets till the Reformation and Victorian reserved-for-religion attitude set in.

St John’s and St Benedict’s PCCs (parochial church councils) have both decided that changes today are essential if the church buildings are to survive for future generations. Small congregations and other financial supporters cannot alone bear the burden of maintaining a Grade I heritage building; moreover, the church’s purpose is for all in the parish.

After several years of discussion, architects showed proposals in October to church and public meetings. Detailed measurements at St John’s enabled computer-generated views from all angles. Pews would be removed and the floor made level throughout. The movable altar could be placed more centrally. Glass inner doors under the tower would let the great west door be open for a view down the whole length of the church. A gallery floor in the west end would have rooms for interviews and offices, with glass walls to let light through. A new low-level vestry outside the north door — for robing, choir practice, storage and accessible loos — could have a turf roof.

Proposals at St Ben’s are at an earlier stage. Acoustically, the building is better than St John’s for concerts, and flexible seating would be an improvement over pews. Kitchen and loos would be made in the tower and present vestry.

It’s happened before

Neill Bonham put a historical context to the proposals in his illustrated talk, “Five centuries of change at St John’s”, in the church on Friday (November 9). Neill has been part of St John’s for 46 years, for many years as a churchwarden, and studied his predecessors’ records going back hundreds of years.

The theme of his talk was how attitudes to worship and life after death have shaped what people do in churches and why successive ages furnish them as they do. The medieval church had many chantry altars with priests paid to pray for souls in purgatory — more was spent than on modern insurance. The Reformation swept altars away, along with rood screens, frescoed walls and stained glass. Box pews and pulpits and organs and a gallery in the tower came and went, and John Cammell’s tomb trekked to all corners.

The last major refurbishment was in 1857 by George Gilbert Scott (in the news as his St Pancras station reopens, high Gothic and hi-tech). His pews have stayed put but his pulpit and font and the organ, and Mr Cammell, have moved often.

Friday’s talk was to about 60 members of the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society plus visitors. A fuller report will appear in the next newsletter.