A charity campaigning to preserve historic buildings has hit out at plans to remove pews at Hadleigh’s medieval St Mary’s Church.
Tom Ashley, churches conservation advisor to the Victorian Society, said the group was fighting an application to remove all but eight of the 70 oak pews and replace them with modern chairs.
The Grade I listed church runs an award-winning youth programme called the Porch Project, with some 300 young people attending a twice-a-weekly youth club, and playing for a youth football team.
The Victorian Society says the youth project has plans to remove the pews to make more space for activities such as pool and snooker tables, and that disposing of the pews would be a loss to Hadleigh’s heritage.
Mr Ashley said: “We all recognise the need for historic buildings to adapt to meet the changing needs of the modern world, but such changes must be made with care.
“Removing pews may be necessary, but we have not seen any evidence that removing all the pews in the nave is necessary for the parish’s outreach work.
“What is certain is that disposing of the pews will be a permanent and substantial loss to Hadleigh’s heritage.”
Mr Ashley said the pews were high-quality and decorated with details of local flowers and foliage.
“The children who picked those daisies and primroses are most likely to have been the grandparents and great-grandparents of some of Hadleigh’s current residents,” he said. “We hope that St Mary’s can find a way to modernise without sacrificing the contributions of past generations.”
But the Dean of Hadleigh, the Very Rev Martin Thrower, said plans to the church had been on-going for three years and the Victorian Society had not objected to them when they were first put out for consultation by the Diocese Advisory Committee, which was backing St Mary’s.
He said: “We held a big open meeting and we had no contact from the Victorian Society at the time and now it has waited until the final hour to make its views known. I despair really.
“Our church is the fifth biggest church in Suffolk, it’s a big space, but we have limited space because of the pews. We have an art exhibition on at the moment and some of the works are having to be placed on the pews because of the space issue.
“This building is part of the community and we have to ensure it meets its needs. It’s not going to be a museum.
Mr Thrower said the church had carried out its own independent evaluation of the oak pews and they were not deemed to be of any significance.
The church had hoped to sell them, but it was unlikely they would fetch as much as expected as some of them were in a poor condition.
The church had chosen to replace the pews with a chair called Cathedral church chairs which are in use at places like Canterbury Cathedral.
“We didn’t just decide to do this overnight and replace them with a very cheap plastic chair,” he said.
“A lot of thought has gone into it.”