Posted by: aboutalbion | April 10, 2013

Priority seating

There seems to have been a time when seating in the mainline churches in England could be reserved.

I read that seating for the laity in church was not common until after the Reformation.  Wooden seats or benches then became popular.  And because social rank was believed to be an important aspect of divine creation, seating in churches was arranged accordingly.  For about two centuries, seating for high status families was prioritized near the pulpit.  Seating for lower orders was further back.

This was the time of box pews.  Box pews provided some privacy and allowed the family to sit together (and, some think, enabled the family to keep warm).  Some box pews could be bought by a family, who then had to pay an annual service charge to have their pew maintained.  Both the position of the box pew and the height of the box pew walls were indicative of the social status of the pew’s owner.  And some theorize that the elevated height of a pulpit was necessary so that all present (including those in the box pews) could see the preacher, and he (and it was a he) could see them.

I am interested in parallels between organized religion and the nation state regarded as a religion.  I have mentioned before the focal position of the Royal Albert Hall in the national life of the UK, because it is here that the annual ritual (shown on national television) of the patriotic singing of ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of hope and glory’ takes place.

And my refresher on box pews was prompted by a news item in my weekend newspaper [The Times, 6 April 2013] about the Royal Albert Hall.

I read that there is concern about the activities of some of the debenture box owners of the Royal Albert Hall.  Debentures seats are priority seats, and many of these seats are in boxes with superior views of the Hall proceedings.  Debenture seats were sold in 1866 on a 999 year lease to fund the building of the Hall.  These debenture seats are bought and sold on the open market for “up to £100,000” per seat.  And there is an annual service charge [which I believe to be currently above £1000 pa] to maintain the seat.

Currently there are “327 debenture holders“, and seat holders have automatic access to 200 Royal Albert Hall events per year.  The ongoing concern is about the options open to those with debenture seats in boxes who do not wish to take up their entitlement to attend 200 events per year.  Can they tout the seats on the open market for each event, or must they return any unwanted seats to the Box Office?

The newspaper coverage was triggered by an advertisement offering to sell a one-night concert ticket in a 12-seat debenture box for a mark-up of over 330% on the face value of the ticket.

The Royal Albert Hall is a charity and the concern reflects the tension between the Charity Commissioners who have rules preventing “charity members from profiteering unreasonably”, and the rule of law which gives debenture ticket holders the “right … to use their tickets as they wish”. This tension has yet to be resolved.

I conclude that high-status families have a preference for ‘boxes’ in the public playground.  What this situation highlights for me is that some people continue to maintain a narrow exclusive definition of who their peers are in the public playground, and others have a wide inclusive one.

The notion of ‘have’ and ‘have not’ continues to be believed to be an important aspect human evolution.


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