23rd April 1908

Jersey tries to abolish church pews sale

Your seat in church once said a great deal about your social standing, so many of the great and good wanted to bequeath their regular pews to their offspring when they died. The matter came to a head when the States passed the “Loi au Sujet des Bancs dans les Eglises Paroissailes de l’Ile” – the law on the subject of benches in the island’s parish churches. In essence, it looked to ban either the sale of pews or their passing on in wills.

Family assets

Until that time, the Royal Court considered pews to be property that could be bought and sold, just like a house or field. Their owners were responsible for their upkeep and could thus will them to whoever they chose on their death. If someone wanted to sell a pew, it would be up to the parties involved to decide on a fair price. So long as the church in question agreed to the transfer, and a small contribution was made to the parish poor, the sale almost always proceeded without issue.

It had worked like this since the 16th century, but after the 1908 law change, each pew was the property of its owner only for the length of their life, and couldn’t be sold. Those who had invested in or inherited a pew petitioned the king to refuse to give the law sanction.

An iniquitous trade

However, not everyone felt that way. An editorial in the Jersey times described the pew trade as “iniquitous”, saying that “it makes the House of God a house of merchandise and reduces it to the level of an auction mart”.

The Loi, as passed, once again made the pews the common property of the parishes, to be used and enjoyed by any local who so chose. Should any parishioner “own” a pew, and find they no longer had need of it, it would pass back into collective ownership, as it was no longer theirs to sell.


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