Dean Letter: Flexible Seating in the Nave: Q&A

From the Dean: 

For some years I have been posing the question about replacing our fixed pews with more flexible seating. Here are my reasons: 

The flexibility afforded by chairs will allow us to create different formats for worship and concerts. It will also open up the possibilities for bringing non-ecclesiastical activities into the cathedral, such as galas or art shows, expanding opportunities to bring new people into our space, serve our community more fully, and hopefully offset declining attendance. 

The European cathedral tradition is to have an open nave with flexible seating. The medieval cathedrals were used for agricultural fairs, political events, hospitals (St. John the Divine in New York City was able to offer hospital overflow space during this pandemic), and places of refuge in times of war. They were regarded as the central gathering place for the city. In the USA, a number of Episcopal cathedrals, including St. Paul’s, started life as parish churches in the 19th century with a closed membership: renting pews to families was the chief source of revenue, so pews were important. Of course this also restricted membership to those who could afford to rent pews. We would be embracing our cathedral identity and our mission statement more fully if we cleared the nave of that reminder of our less welcoming past. 

As we saw at the 150th Gala last December, removing the pews opens up the nave as a glorious and gracious space, allowing people to appreciate the beauty of Frohman’s design more fully. A number of the loudest opponents of the idea of removing the pews completely changed their minds after seeing the nave without pews. The experience of actually seeing the reality was powerful. (Moving and storing the fixed pews temporarily was very expensive and several of them broke in the process: they are not designed to be taken out and put back in repeatedly.)  

About 40 years ago, church scholars around the world started to warn us that the church would have to make profound changes in order to survive. We were seeing the beginning of a sea change in “how we do church”, and the pandemic has both accelerated the need for change and provided an opportunity to re-envision and refresh the ways we bring the Gospel to the world.  

With all the uncertainty created by the pandemic, there is more urgency now around ways to diversify our appeal and broaden our reach in the community (part of our strategic vision going forward) 

Once we resume in-person worship, we will need a way to limit seating and spread it out so that people feel relatively safe in worship. Removing the pews and initially providing (for example) seating for only 100 gives us an easy way to limit attendance and will be less work for the cleaning crew, who will have to clean every surface after every service. If we retain the pews we will be challenged to clean them adequately while preserving the wood: the current finish won’t stand up well to repeated disinfection. 

In short, if we are going to make the change, this is probably the best time, provided that we can do it with minimal cost to the cathedral.  

Fortuitously, a generous parishioner who wishes to remain anonymous has come forward unsolicited and offered to buy flexible seating for the nave. 

Chapter discussed this opportunity and there were many questions, which I have replicated below along with my attempts (in red) to answer them. 

Chapter Comment and Questions with my responses in blue. 

I know this subject matter came up in the past. Was any formal decision ever made as to whether we keep the pews or replace with chairs? Is it a matter of “when” rather than “if?” 
No formal decision has been made, but there has been periodic conversation about it and Chapter is now open to considering it. In my view it’s a matter of “when”. 

Has the congregation given us any indication as to their thoughts on replacing pews with chairs? Was a formal survey ever conducted? 
A formal survey has not been conducted; the generally positive response, including as I mentioned above the conversion of several vocal opponents, to the empty nave for the Gala 150 is the strongest indication to date.  

What costs are involved with disposing of the pews and do we have funding available this year to do this? 
We may be able to use a salvage company for this; they may pay us or we may have a consignment arrangement with them. So there is a good possibility that it won’t cost us anything. If there is a cost it can be absorbed by the facilities budget. 

Was the suggestion made by a parishioner/group of interested parties/the reopening committee/other to replace chairs with pews at this time? 
This is something I have wanted to do for years, and this may be the best time to do it. A generous parishioner reopened the conversation by saying, “I would like to buy chairs to replace the pews”. 

How open would the donor be open to waiting until the pandemic is over? 
Not known at this time; however, if we were going to do it, this would be the best time for reasons stated above. 

Do we need to make that room/flexibility in the cathedral itself or will we gain that space once the new building is completed? 
The cathedral itself is a unique space with extraordinary acoustics which would likely be extremely desirable as a venue for all kinds of events. Flexibility in all our spaces is desirable. 

Acoustics?  What does Martin say, and what do our AV folks say, about potential effects on acoustics.  
When we took out the pews in December the musicians generally liked the effect on the acoustics. 

Is the donor also going to cover the extensive floor makeover?  Of course we have to strip & recoat to fill the holes where the pews were bolted down.  What about grinding out differences in floor texture/level, flat under the pews and cut elsewhere to create a faux tile effect? 
This wasn’t an issue when we took the pews out in December. 

Is any well-made chair that is suitable for sanctuary use actually easier to clean? 
There is less surface area on 100 chairs than on pews for 500. And, if we have 300 chairs we can rotate them in and out instead of cleaning them if we wish. 

A lot of our facilities projects seem to be initiated by anonymous donations. Of course, it is wonderful that we are benefiting from this generosity. However, I think there are a couple of risks associated with this process. One is that it creates confusion about our financial situation. Even though it is carefully communicated that a particular project is funded by a specific donation, I have still had people ask me “why are we doing this if we are barely able to balance the budget?” 
It is indeed very difficult to ensure that everyone reads and hears the communications we put out there. Churches have always benefited from the generosity of individual members: our gift acceptance committee was created to help ensure that we would accept only appropriate gifts. Every change starts with an individual’s idea, and in this case, it was an individual who knew of the desirability of flexible seating and made the offer, unsolicited. It is entirely separate from the individual’s pledge to the operating budget. Chapter discussion was the first step in a process of communication and consultation, and we now move on to congregational discussion. 

When renovations of my former church resulted in removing some pews, they were auctioned off and raised a pretty decent sum. I wonder if there might be similar interest at St. Paul’s? 
I doubt if we could sell the large pews: they are very unwieldy. However, the small side pews might be sale-able, and we are talking with salvage companies as mentioned above. 

Can we see a photo of a selection of chairs and how they will look in the nave?  
Yes, we will have options, and at least one manufacturer can provide renderings of what their product would look like in our nave. 

Following are photos of examples of chairs from two beautiful cathedrals:  The National Cathedral and Vancouver BC.  The chairs are comfortable, sturdy and stackable.  

How will elderly and infirm parishioners manage if they cannot hold onto the pew or chair in front for stability as they sit and stand? 
The flexible seating will typically be arranged in rows, so there will be something in front for them to hold onto. 

Is there any kind of market study that tells us who might be interested in using the Cathedral as an event space? 
Not currently. We would develop relationships with event production companiesthe city’s Tourism Bureau, and the SD Chamber to partner in the marketing. The Cathedral already has relationships with two major event companies in San Diego.  

Why can’t the existing pews be refinished? Why can’t they be cleaned effectively? 
We are researching the potential refinishing if the pews with material we could easily clean without damaging the finish. Early stages of research currently.  

How much time would sextons need to set up and remove chairs for services? 
Time required for set up of chairs in the nave will depend entirely on the chairs chosen. It will depend on how/if they interlink/interlock, their roll out carts, etc. Unless we decide to rotate chairs in and out instead of cleaning them, moving the seating will not be something that happens all the time. 

The Cathedral in Garden City, Long Island, recently took delivery of a new, flexible, stackable seating system to replace their pews. Photos follow. 

A reminder of how St. Paul’s looked in December without the pews. 

And a reminder of how St. Paul’s looked with rented chairs (these are not the chairs we would choose) 


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