The commodious main galleries (left) at St James's Church provide much needed overflow accommodation for large services, but not every knows about the other set of galleries, just below the ceiling of the aisles, that are known as the Paupers' Galleries.
There are four Paupers' Galleries, one in each of the four corners of the building. In the days when the seats downstairs - and probably in the main gallery, too - were reserved for those who could afford to pay a 'pew rent', the Paupers' Galleries were there to provide free seating for the very poor.
On a recent tour of hidden parts of the building after church on Sunday, members of the congregation climbed the long narrow staircase (right) to the north-east paupers gallery.
If you were a pauper, you couldn't see much up there, but you could hear, particularly when the vicar was preaching from the three-decker pulpit, which gave him a commanding position, to proclaim the word to his congregation spread over all three levels.
What should we make of the Paupers' Galleries? One way of looking at them is to say that the founders of our church were inspired by Christian love and compassion in providing for the paupers. It was what today called be called an 'inclusive approach.' Everyone was welcomed, and there was space for rich and poor alike in Bermondsey New Church.
I like that thought, but there is another way of looking at the galleries and it is this: how did the poor feel when they came to church, not entering through the main doors and the majestic portico, but entering the back door, climbing an interminable narrow staircase, to an uncomfortable perch just below the roof.
|The main gallery showing the identation where the paupers' gallety, now boarded up, was located|
Is it any wonder that the Church of England has found it so hard to connect with ordinary working people when it treated them like that?
I don't know when pew rents fell into disuse in Bermondsey, but it wasn't until the middle of the twentieth century that they were abolished altogether in the CofE. Until then, the rich could still pay for the best seats in the house of God.
In our Lent Groups this year at St James and St Anne's we are studying the Letter of James in the New Testament, and I'm struck by what James has to say in chapter 2:
Suppose a rich man wearing a gold ring and fine clothes comes to your meeting, and a poor man in ragged clothes also comes. If you show more respect to the well-dressed man and say to him, “Have this best seat here,” but say to the poor man, “Stand over there, or sit here on the floor by my feet,” then you are guilty of creating distinctions among yourselves and of making judgments based on evil motives.
So, the Paupers' Galleries are and remain a fascinating piece of social history, in our fascinating historic building, but I am glad they are long disused, and, today, every seat in St James is free, and that we strive to live up to the high calling of James 2.1: 'My brothers and sisters, as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, you must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance.'