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Hallo again to all.

Have you paid your pue dues?It occurred to us this week that some of the biggest changes in Anglican life over the last two centuries have been about which people can sit where. This was not directly about race, and is lost on most today, who have never known about the system of pew-rental and pew-ownership that obtained until a relatively short time ago in Anglican churches. But for a significant part of the last 200 years, households bought or rented pews for their own use, in some cases installing their own locks on pew doors and even small stoves for heat. It was an exclusive form of church belonging—and not exclusive with respect to belief or earnestness, but a moneyed, often class-based exclusiveness.

Today we know better, and we have never met someone who laboured under the terrible understanding that church attendance and membership are only for those who can pay for them. We like to think that in this instance our life today comes closer by far to the picture of Christian community shown us in the pages of the New Testament: the Bread of Life as the substance, symbol, source and nourishment of the people God has adopted in baptism, without regard to their ability to pay up front for a place to sit.

Emblem of the Free Church AssociationThis is only so today because of the ardent work of an initially quite small group of people who set about making the case against pew-rental. They wrote tracts, sermons and even novels about the evils of the pew-rental system—or, as they often spelled it in barely-disguised derision, the 'pue' system. They formed voluntary associations. They made diocesan policies about 'free and open churches.' Leaders of the movement, like John Mason Neale, suffered obscurity or opprobrium in their careers. They led an uphill battle against people with custom and money on their side, but in the end it was the Gospel that triumphed in fulfilment of the prophetic imperative that God's house should be a house of prayer for all people.*

With our current woes of all sorts in mind, it is comforting, encouraging and inspiring to look back on the Free and Open Church movement—on its successes, of course, but also on the difficulties it faced. It was a quick-moving reform movement after its own fashion, but if we set its beginning date at about 1830, we are sorely disappointed to find out that there were still owned and rented pews in Anglican churches after the First World War. And so much more than that, we were astonished to learn recently that parishioners rented pews as recently as 1960 in one large New York City church. That is all very well in the past, but it took 130 years to work out the kinks of vested interests and the force of parochial habit. We are confident that all shall in the end be well with today's controversies even as it has become well with yesterday's controversies.

We do not know when or how this will come about, or by whose agency it will take place, but we have a hunch that it has something to do with serious use of the free pews and kneelers we have come to enjoy through the hard work, sorrows and ardent principles of those who have gone before.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 15 June 2008

* And lest anyone think this was a matter of clerical concern rather than a broader issue, herewith an on-the-ground account from 1874: THE PEW SYSTEM IN NEW YORK.—A correspondent of the Brooklyn Argus calls attention to a grievance of New York church-goers. He says:—“I, as a stranger in this great city of churches, desire to ask you if there is any place of worship where I and my family can go to without having to stand during half the service? I am not surprised that Brooklyn and its morals are discussed by the press and ridiculed at the theatres, when some of the churches are only churches in name. Webster defines the word ‘church’ as ‘a body of religious people;’ but the definition might sometimes read, ‘a body of well-dressed people, anxious to see their neighbours and discuss their finery.’ The handsomest dress and the grandest display of jewellery always seems to secure for them the first and front seats. If they happen to be as unfortunate as I am—unable to purchase a pew at the exorbitant prices at which they are sold—they are not deemed worthy of notice. My wife has been a member of the Presbyterian Church for ten years, and on her first visit to a church in this city, about two months ago, she was obliged to stand a full hour. At last, tired and exhausted, she was about to retire, when the usher, who stood at the farther end of the church, reluctantly motioned to her (over his shoulder) to take a seat, just as he would to a boy who was about to black his boots for a nickel. My little boy for the past two Sundays has attended Sunday-school with his companions; but last Sunday my wife, who is anxious to have him attend regularly, thought she would go with him for the purpose of securing for him a permanent seat, and also become acquainted with the school and its teachers, but returned as she went, disgusted with school and church alike in this great city of churches, and mortified at the treatment she received. No person even recognized her, or even motioned her to a seat. I have tried a few other churches with like results, with the exception of one. Now, Mr. Editor, will you be kind enough to advise me what I can do to secure for my family the religious privileges to which they have been accustomed? I cannot afford to purchase a seat, neither can I deck my wife in gaudy attire or glittering diamonds, but I can always drop a dollar-bill in the contribution-box when it comes round. Am I and my family to stay away from church and Sabbath-school until I am able to pay hundreds of dollars for a pew?”

A thin blue line
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