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Reform Magazine | December 5, 2023

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Jumble sales of the apocalypse: The inhumanity of pews

Jumble sales of the apocalypse: The inhumanity of pews

Simon Jenkins on the inhumanity of pews

One of the worst things in the world is having to stay awake when your brain has already decided it’s time to shut down. This mostly happens to me as I slump in front of a computer after eating a decent lunch. The problem is, I really do need to get some work done in the afternoon, so these days I turn for help to the most terrifying videos known to YouTube. Top of my playlist is an urban explorer scaling a derelict, rotting chimney stack, 280 metres tall, in Pitesti, Romania. As he climbs the rusty, rickety ladder to a truly fearful height, my hands grip the edge of my desk until my knuckles turn white, and bingo! I am wide awake.

While that antidote to sleep works brilliantly just after lunch, what about that other invitation to slumber, the beginning of a long sermon? Unless you’ve mastered the art of watching videos on your smartphone while appearing to listen to the preacher, YouTube cannot save you. Fortunately, the theologians of the past understood the problem very well, and responded by devising one of the most cruel and unusual forms of seating ever known – the pew – as an all-purpose solution to the problem of dozing off.

One of the best demonstrations of the inhumanity of pews I ever witnessed happened in the 1970s at The Heath, a nonconformist chapel in Cardiff, where every week the minister, a jot and tittle man, took a microscope to the epistles of the Apostle Paul. He could exposit a semicolon in the book of Romans for 50 minutes to the satisfaction of his Calvinistic congregation. The summer evening I was there was exceptionally hot, and gentlemen were permitted to remove their suit jackets to listen to the sermon. After 50 minutes of preaching, several of them started awake as the organ struck up the final hymn, and, as everyone rose to sing, there was an almighty tearing noise, like 1,000 Velcro strips ripping apart at once. This was because the backs of their sweaty polyester shirts had stuck like glue to the hot pews.

Sometimes hard pews are not enough to stave off the dreaded sermon sleeping sickness. And that’s when you must pray for the kind of preacher who tackles their preaching as an extreme sport. The congregation of the Rabboni Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, were recently blessed in exactly this way when their pastor bizarrely told them to graze on grass like sheep, which they went outside to do. Previously he told them to fall asleep on his command, which is something many preachers never have a chance to do as their congregations get there first.

John Wesley tells a fabulous mirror image story, where the preacher sleeps while his congregation listens. Apparently, a visiting preacher woke everyone in the house where he was staying by abruptly starting a church service at 1am while he lay soundly asleep in bed. The groggy household gathered round his bed to hear him announce the hymn, preach a closely argued six-point sermon, break off in the middle to deal with a heckler, and conclude by bidding his flock farewell at the church door. The logical next step must be the preacher and congregation all fast asleep, their snores ascending like praise.

Church history abounds with inspiring extremes of preaching. St Francis once responded to an Alfred Hitchcock moment, in which a large flock of crows and other birds massed nearby, by preaching them all a sermon on how they should praise God (and, by implication, not peck people to death). Meanwhile, St John Chrysostom, who frequently preached to crowds of adoring fans for two hours, anticipated the rock stars of the future by stationing his donkey outside the front door of the church while he made his escape at the back. His deacons were left to announce: ‘John Chrysostom has left the building.’

One of the best sermons ever was made up of nothing more than six words and a tree trunk. Its subject was ‘Backsliding’, and it was delivered by the excitable Connecticut preacher of the early 19th century, Lorenzo Dow, (pictured) to a large crowd which had gathered in the woods to hear him. Dow arrived without saying a word, shinned up the smooth trunk of a sapling, and clung on for dear life. As gravity took hold and he slithered back down, he cried out: ‘Hold on there, Dow! Hold on!’ As soon as his feet touched the ground, he put on his hat and left. Which only goes to show that preaching and sleep don’t have to be such cosy bedfellows.

Simon Jenkins is Editor of His book, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse, was published in March by SPCK at £9.99. Reform readers can get the book for a discounted rate (£8.99) via this URC Shop link:


This article was published in the June 2017 edition of  Reform.

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