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Hallo again to all.

A conversation with a friend in Minneapolis last week fixed on pew rentals. Our interlocutor expressed incredulity that such a thing had ever existed, and we insisted that it did.

Rented pews were a major source of income in Anglican churches for most of our history since the declaration of independence from universal papal jurisdiction. Families paid a sum annually—or even in perpetuity—for ownership of their own pews and benches in a parish church, forcing those with no leases to sit in designated spaces often far from heat and easy sermon-hearing. Pews could be conveyed as property in wills and divorces, gained or lost as the fortunes of a family waxed or waned. The inventories of rented pews are a fascinating source of social data in the places where they survive, as they do, for example, at St Mary's, Hamilton Village in Philadelphia.

The movement to have 'free sittings' was a major if now nearly forgotten social reform of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The support of a parish church by voluntary offerings or pledges is a still-new development in our common life. Its emergence—supported by membership organisations on both sides of the Atlantic, buoyed by novels*, sermons, pamphlets and speeches—was meant to help the Church to reach the masses, to disentangle true religion from the squirearchy, and to help ecclesiastical structures resemble the kingdom of heaven. Almost nobody remembers it today, though centenarians and nonagenarians were born in a world where it was a normal dimension of churchgoing and church-belonging.

The conversational exchange on the far northern banks of the Mississippi sent us down a rabbit hole of trying to find out when the last pews were rented by Anglican worshipers.

Having consulted the excellent 2011 dissertation on Anglican pew-renting practices, we were surprised by how long the practice persisted in the Global Northern Anglosphere.

In the United States, Trinity Church, Wall Street rented pews until 1 May 1919. St James, Madison Avenue rented pews until November of 1957. Grace Church on Broadway, St Thomas, Fifth Avenue, and (mirabile dictu) the Church of the Transfiguration held out until 1961.

In Great Britain, Christopher Howse finds rented pews at Shropshire's Much Wenlock, in the Diocese of Hereford, as recently as 1970. On Sark in the Channel Islands, the parish church was still charging an annual 2p for pew rental in 2008, though it is unclear if this practice obtains still. A glance at the informative parish website, with a chart of free and assigned sittings, gives the sense that it may still be practiced.

The Free and Open Churches Movement, with its urgency and sincerity about a perceived social wrong, puts us in mind to ask what the forgetting of its significance may have to say about church life today and in the future.

Will today's urgencies seem implausible and obvious a hundred years from now? What clarities of hindsight can help us understand that there will always be things about which Anglicans can push in organised ways for the greater good of the world around us? What are today's rented pews, and how do they keep us from being more like the

Blessed city, heavenly Salem,
vision dear of peace and love,
who of living stones art builded
in the height of heaven above.

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana

All of us at Anglicans Online

2 October 2016

*Our favourite is the 1842 Milford Malvoisin; or, Pews and Pewholders.

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