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Removal of Victorian pews from a 700-year-old village church at the centre of row gets underway

The removal of 32 wooden pews from a 700-year-old village church is underway following an unholy row between the ecclesiastical authorities and parishioners.

Church officials have controversially decided to rip out the traditional seating in Grade II listed St Andrew’s in Okeford Fitzpaine, Dorset.

They cited various reasons for doing away with the pews, including health and safety fears, improving disabled access, making room for a toilet and avoiding potential embarrassment for obese couples who may struggle to walk down the narrow aisle.

A fierce row over the removal of the traditional Victorian pews at St Andrew's church in Okeford Fitzpaine has come to an end as replacement work gets underway

A fierce row over the removal of the traditional Victorian pews at St Andrew’s church in Okeford Fitzpaine has come to an end as replacement work gets underway

Parishioners of the 700-year-old church clashed with Reverend Lydia Cook over the decision to remove the wooden seating and replace it with Ikea-type chairs

Parishioners of the 700-year-old church clashed with Reverend Lydia Cook over the decision to remove the wooden seating and replace it with Ikea-type chairs

The Victorian pews will be replaced with dozens of Ikea-type chairs that can be removed to create an open space in the nave so the church can hold other events.

All of the pews have been snapped up for £200 each.

Customers have been arriving at the church to collect their reserved seating which has been seen being carried through the graveyard into the back of waiting vans.

Some have been bought by resigned parishioners wanting to stop the pews from leaving the picturesque village.

The landlady of the Royal Oak pub has bought one for her customers to use while another local resident will put one in her entrance hallway marked with a plaque acknowledging its provenance.

The ugly row led to claims that the Reverend had locked parishioners out of the church as a result of their protests

The ugly row led to claims that the Reverend had locked parishioners out of the church as a result of their protests

Villagers wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury and held a demonstration where they held banners reading 'Save the pews from the devil within'

Villagers wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury and held a demonstration where they held banners reading ‘Save the pews from the devil within’

Villager Louise Udell said: ‘When it became apparent that we could not stop the process I made arrangements to buy a pew, I hope that I am saving a piece of village heritage.

‘I would’ve paid more to have it remain where it currently sits though.’

Helen Sherwood Clinkard, a spokeswoman for the Save St Andrew’s Pews group, said over 500 people had signed a petition urging the church to halt their plans.

But their letters and appeals have been in vain.

Their efforts were in vain and the pews went up for sale in the parish magazine and on Facebook and were all sold for £200 each

Their efforts were in vain and the pews went up for sale in the parish magazine and on Facebook and were all sold for £200 each

Buyers have been seen arriving at the church this week to collect the 32 wooden Victorian pews

Buyers have been seen arriving at the church this week to collect the 32 wooden Victorian pews

Some have been bought by the parishioners wanting to stop the pews from leaving the picturesque village - including the village shop and the village pub, the Royal Oak

Some have been bought by the parishioners wanting to stop the pews from leaving the picturesque village – including the village shop and the village pub, the Royal Oak

She said: ‘We have been trying to communicate with the Church of England over this but it has been impossible.

‘I have written to the Archbishop of Canterbury, to four different bishops, the Archdeacon of Salisbury and the Parochial Church Council and not one of them acknowledged my appeal.

‘We have pointed out the the church had supposedly leafleted the village in 2016 explaining what they were planning to do but the 500 people who have signed a petition have said they did not know about the pews being ripped out.

‘We had asked for a halt on the pews being removed but we have been ignored.

‘The church has managed to alienate almost the entire village of this. Plenty of people will no longer be putting any money into that church again.’

In a statement, the Diocese of Salisbury said that all of the correct processes and procedures had been carried out by the church ahead of the work.

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam, said: ‘The changes have come after a very wide consultation and ample opportunity over a long period to comment on the proposals.

The controversial decision to remove the pews was made because of health and safety fears, to improve disabled access and to avoid potential embarrassment for obese couples who may struggle to walk down the narrow aisle. Pictured: The Dorset village of Okeford Fitzpaine

The controversial decision to remove the pews was made because of health and safety fears, to improve disabled access and to avoid potential embarrassment for obese couples who may struggle to walk down the narrow aisle. Pictured: The Dorset village of Okeford Fitzpaine

One parishioner said: 'The church has managed to alienate almost the entire village'

One parishioner said: ‘The church has managed to alienate almost the entire village’

‘I am fully supportive of their plans which are designed to enable the church building to continue to be a valuable asset to the community into the future.’ 

Dilys Gartside, a member of the Parochial Church Council who has overseen the sale of the pews, said having chairs will mean more people will be able to attend services while Covid-19 social distancing restrictions remain.

She said: ‘The majority of the pews will be staying in the village, such as in the pub and the village shop.

‘We have worked to make sure that every local person who wanted one has got one.

‘The money received will go towards the cost of reordering the church.

‘Churches across the country have been removing pews for years.

‘By doing this we now have the opportunity to have a more flexible space and make the building accessible to everyone.’

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