Afterlife for doomed church pews

Design: specialist companies are making converts by refurbishing redundant religious furniture and selling it to the secular world
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The Independent Online
THERE is a new Australian restaurant in Dorking, Surrey, which serves kangaroo steaks on tables that were once church doors. At the front of the bar is a pulpit. Once the backdrop for sermons aimed at those thirsting for righteousness, it now serves diners wanting Castlemaine XXXX.

There is no doubt a suitable text for Sunday morning in the social changes that have brought about such a fundamental change. But the harsh economic reality is that the decline in church-going is providing ample opportunities for those in what is rather grandly called the "ecclesiastical reclamation" business.

Of the five specialist companies, the biggest and fastest-growing is Pew Corner of Guildford, Surrey. Rapid expansion led to a search for extra storage space. The operation recently moved to a six-acre site of once- derelict farm buildings just off the A3100. "It is seven times larger than where we were before and a bit daunting," says Mark Groes, 35, the founder of the company, "but the opportunity was just too good to miss."

Spotting an opportunity was what pushed the former building contractor into the reclamation business in 1987. "I went up to Tooting to buy a pew for my own house but ended up buying a church-load," he recalls. "The demolition contractors were about to drop the roof and burn the lot."

If he liked pews, he reasoned, there must be others who felt the same. So it has proved. A third of sales go to private home owners. Restaurants, wine bars and pubs have also provided a lucrative market. Pew Corner has successfully tendered for more than 60 Firkin pubs in four years. A growing export market accounts for 25 per cent of business. The Japanese are particularly keen on English church fitments for their wedding chapels.

Today Pew Corner has a turnover of around pounds 500,000 and the team that works for it has grown to 12. Tact as well as technical ability is sometimes required. Women who arrange the flowers could easily be alarmed by the sight of two men with chain saws slicing into the carved oak. "We try to keep the public out while we are working," says Mr Groes. "Most of the opposition comes from local people who rarely go to church. But we do understand how to handle the job sympathetically."

He is also conscious of the finite nature of the business. Tendering has to be competitive. Advertising is carefully placed in the Church press and he has set up a joinery workshop, partly as a hedge against the day when the supply of church furnishings begins to dry up. That day could be a long way in the future. For the time being, three ecclesiastical trends are pushing work his way. Mr Groes calls them the three Rs: refurbishment, reordering and redundancy. The latter involves demolition or the conversion of St Mark's or St Matthew's into another outpost of Sainsbury. Reordering is removing a few pews to provide more space, and refurbishment is the replacement of all pews with chairs. Evangelicals, known in the trade as the "happy clappies", require a more flexible floorspace.

"Apart from that," says Mr Groes, "great big buildings need to be used these days seven days a week rather than for just two hours on a Sunday." Underlying it all is basic economics. "Over the past eight years we have paid out around half a million pounds to English churches," he says.

In return he has acquired a treasure trove of ornate, carved wood that can be sold as it is or used as the raw material for quality bespoke furniture. "We do interesting one-off expensive sofas and beds, or mirrors steeped in Victorian Gothic. Economies of scale mean that we have to do those in batches of 20."

The new premises have provided space for a 3,000sq ft showroom and stock controls are carefully monitored by computer. "We are conscious, though," says Mr Groes, "that some customers love to poke around in a junk-shop atmosphere. So we keep plenty of stock piled up in the barn."

A recent addition came from a Methodist church in Hull. Pew Corner lorries brought back 120 pews, a 50ft high pulpit, six Art Deco screens, doors, dado panelling and three and a half tons of stained glass.

In a way never quite envisaged by its leaders, the Church is getting out into the community.