Go to any town or village in Suffolk (or anywhere else in this country for that matter) and you will find a church somewhere.

It might not be massive, but a surprising number are much larger than their community has ever needed, but it is usually in a pretty dominant position.

But far too many of these are under-used and a drag on their local communities rather than the centre of their lives.

Which is why I sincerely hope that the example we're seeing from St Edmundsbury Cathedral, which is removing its pews and replacing them with chairs, is followed by more of our churches.

As someone who was born into an Anglican family and whose childhood Sundays were centred around going to church, I've retained a connection with the Church although my attendance at services is pretty rare these days.

I love visiting churches and cathedrals - and it was on a visit to Bury last week that I found out about the Pew Project.

When I asked about it for my story, it was pointed out to me that very few cathedrals still have pews these days.

Ipswich Star: Pews are becoming vanishingly rare in cathedrals these days.Pews are becoming vanishingly rare in cathedrals these days. (Image: Paul Geater)

It was something that I hadn't noticed - but when I looked through my photographs I'd taken over the last few years on visits around the country I saw instantly what they meant.

St Paul's, Winchester, Salisbury, Canterbury, York Minster, Ely, Norwich, Peterborough, Lincoln, Gloucester, and Britain's largest at Liverpool don't have pews (and many don't have seats that are as good as those that are coming to Bury!).

Has the lack of pews damaged their majesty, the feeling of peace and calm you enjoy when visiting these places? Absolutely not.

The change will make the inside of the cathedral much more flexible - and much more welcoming to a wider range of events. It will make the cathedral much more accessible to the community as a whole.

I know some will regret a change to the familiar - but I suspect that in most cases that concern will have been forgotten by the time we get to this year's Harvest Festival!

Which comes back to the point I made earlier - I hope the cathedral's decision will be watched by some of our glorious parish churches and inspire them to find new ways to use their space.

Many already have other uses - a few years ago I visited Little Bealings which was installing facilities to create a pop-up cafe which brings people in the village together.

It isn't as easy, of course, for parish churches to just replace their pews - and many of these are much older and historically more important than the Victorian "off the peg" benches that were installed in Bury St Edmunds' St James Parish Church in the 1860s.

But if a church wants to make changes to improve its flexibility and make itself more accessible to its local community then that has to be good.

The days when each village had its own vicar or rector - and every church was full every Sunday are long gone and are never likely to come back.

But that isn't to say that the parish church doesn't have a place at the heart of a village. If you haven't got a village hall, why not use the church social events? 

It's all very well to say "Use it or Lose it" but churches need to be flexible enough to have a use in the 21st century.

They need to follow the example of our cathedrals and adapt. While they should always be respectful of their heritage and the beliefs of their regular worshippers they also need to make themselves relevant to the needs of the communities they aim to serve.


The opinions expressed in this column are the personal views of Paul Geater and do not necessarily reflect views held by this newspaper, its sister publications or its owner and publisher Newsquest Media Group Ltd.