Take a pew minister, but not all sixteen

`Living' church fights for seats taken from `dead' parish

Parishioners in a quiet Lincolnshire village are enraged after being ordered to return a set of 16 wooden pews to a "dead" church from which they were borrowed. They claim their church is well-used, with a growing congregation, but that the donor church is little more than a "monument''.

The pews were acquired by All Saints church in Orby last year, after the original seating had succumbed to dry rot. They were taken from a church in Little Cawthorpe 15 miles away which has been condemned as structurally unsafe and was up for sale. But now the village has been told the pews must be returned. One young parishioner wrote to The Independent saying his church was being "killed".

The sale of the redundant church at Little Cawthorpe for a dwelling was never likely - not only is there subsidence, but it is surrounded by graves - and it will be taken over this month by the Church of England's Churches Conservation Trust.

The Trust looks after more than 300 redundant churches and insists on fixtures and fittings being retained so that the buildings are as they were when last used for regular worship.

Canon Stanley Jackson, chairman of the Lincoln diocese redundant churches uses committee, has some delicate negotiations ahead. "We have got to reclaim those pews," he said. But All Saints is unimpressed by the trust's rules and Lincoln's pleadings. Orby is a farming backwater where the Lincolnshire Wolds meet the "marshes" along the east coast, not a place where folk normally make a fuss.

In his letter, Adrian Lockwood, aged nine, said All Saints had "come alive" since the villagers got together to raise money for painting. The church was also left pounds 3,000 by a benefactor and this has been used to carpet the nave.

"The pews come from a dead church to make ours alive," wrote Adrian, supported by 17 other parishioners, young and old. "Now [the trust] want them back again to make a church nice for a couple of people a year."

Father Terry Steele, vicar for the group of village churches that includes Orby, contrasted the struggle All Saints has had to raise money for repairs with the trust's ability to spend tens of thousands of pounds on "something which is just an empty monument".

He asked: "Is it ethically right to ask a living church with a caring congregation to give back the pews in those circumstances?" The monthly family service is attended by 30 to 40 people out of a village population of 250.

The trust is sympathetic and this weekend Orby was told there was no rush. Work on repairing Little Cawthorpe will not begin until 1998 and it was suggested that Orby could find replacement pews in the meantime, although Fr Terry doubted it. Tim Beetson, case officer for the trust, said the redundant church still occupied a place in the hearts of the people of Little Cawthorpe, and it could still be used occasionally, such as for harvest festivals or carol services.

Though the east wall is unsafe, the Victorian church is just as it was when built in 1860 for pounds 800. At the time, the Ecclesiastical Society considered it "a paradigm of the church which could be built for parishes of modest resources".

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