Friday, March 22, 2013

What does it mean to be a "Free" Methodist Part 3

Freedom from Pew Fees

A common practice in the 19th century American church was pews could be bought, and those pews became the exclusive use of whichever family had paid the price. With the sermon becoming the central focus of the worship service, having a place to sit became a necessity, and in order to pay for the pews and have them installed, families would pay for them, and in turn those pews became the property of whoever bought them.

Some of the pews were enclosed and outfitted with coal boxes that served as heaters. It became their own personal spot. What that meant was nobody else had use of that pew, even if the family that owned it did not show up on a Sunday.

What was initially begun as a fund raising mechanism soon became a means by which middle class and wealthy families took up all the available space inside the church and kept out the lower class and poorer people.

B.T. Roberts saw this as a big problem. He, like John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) before him believed that the gospel should be made available to all people regardless of their economic standing and societal prejudice. Therefore he and other early leaders in the Free Methodist Church did not follow the common protestant tradition in charging for the use of the pews.
This particular freedom might be harder to think about in terms of today as even the churches that traditionally charged for pews don't anymore. So, with this freedom we have to look at the attitude that developed from it perhaps more than the implementation of the fee itself.

Like with many things, the original intent (raising funds to build the church building) might have been a good one, but it was lost along the way and the tradition was held onto for several generations without an understanding as to why. By the 1800's only families that could afford a pew, and purchase one, could use them. Whether intentional or not, this said to people of lower economic and standing in society that they were not welcome inside the church, an attitude that was reinforced by the practice that even if a family did not show up on a Sunday, nobody else was allowed to use their exclusive property.

Whether we like to admit it or not, though the practice may have died out across the board, the attitude that undesirable, unseemly, and supposedly unruly people are not allowed in the church persists in a lot of places.

Some churches may have a dress code that may be spoken or unspoken, and a certain conduct that must be upheld at all times. Those who do not conform to those may be dismissed from the worship service. Grace might be demonstrated by allowing them to stay that week with the understanding that if they wish to come back the next week and after they need to look appropriate.

Even if the person or persons has the right attire and attitude upon coming into the church, if they are known to smoke or drink or have some other sin in their life they may be excluded from participating in worship or may be kept out of the church altogether. Anything that does not conform to some perceived normal standard is dismissed.

Sadly this has been true even in the Free Methodist Church and other holiness churches. The external trappings and standards of holiness living were upheld to the point that, if your life wasn't already cleaned up prior to coming to church, they weren't welcome. They may not have been formally dismissed from the premises, but the underlying attitudes did nothing to make outsiders feel welcome.

So perhaps to uphold this freedom in a culturally appropriate way, we must look at our attitudes concerning those who come into the church and strive to see them as Christ does, with a humility of heart that matches said vision. Do we tell people that may step outside for a cigarette that they are welcome to smoke elsewhere? If someone wears faded blue jeans and a dusty pair of boots into the church as it represents the best clothing they have, do we turn them away at the door?

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