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Hallo again to all.

One of the most lovely features of the church where we worship each week is its roodscreen. A roodscreen has nothing to do with rudeness, and everything to do with the Rood. Think Holyrood, the Dream of the Rood, Hamlet swearing 'Not by the rood' etc.: it is the 'the faithful Cross, above all other, one and only noble Tree' of Fortunatus's old poem. Roodscreens are screens (of wood or metal or stone) that mark the place where the nave and chancel meet one another in a church building. The scene of the crucifixion is at their top and center in many older western churches. As often as not, the dying Christ is flanked by the only two members of the apostolic band who remained with him until he gave up the ghost: St John the beloved disciple and St Mary the blessed virgin.

Rood beam at Washington National Cathedral
Photograph of (US) National Cathedral rood beam by Andrew Bittner
A few decades ago, a priest who thought himself forward-looking planned to modernize our worship space, eliminating the roodscreen, pews and choirstalls. The rage just then was for worship in the round, people arrayed in a circle around altar and celebrant, all fixed in the midst of the cruciform building. We have visited churches that were subjected to similar renovations around the same time. Some of them have become places of reverent and serious liturgy, focused well and deliberately on the Body of Christ as it becomes manifest weekly and daily there. Other such renovations have destroyed entirely the architectural integrity of their surroundings, breaking up lines of sight and obscuring aspects of church buildings that their architects likely envisioned as integral.

We are thankful that this would-be improvement was not carried out in our church because our fellow layfolk decided that they wished the church to remain as in times past. Indeed, the mostly intact interior of the building is one of the reasons why we choose to worship there rather than in other local churches. The screen in our church is mercifully transparent, allowing sight and light in both directions, but still marking a place of unmistakeable transition and significant change. We never feel excluded by our roodscreen, though we do see everything happening in front of us at church through the rails of its clear distinction of where we are now and where we will soon be. It adds so much to our worship that it's a puzzle to us that roodscreens are such a standard target of soi-disant church-improvers. (Pugin called screen-destroyers ambonoclasts.) And it's a further puzzle that we haven't visited a church including a rood screen or beam that was built in our lifetime.

Scholars argue about whether history can show that the screen is intended to obscure the activities of the chancel.* Does it mark an area as holier than others in the church? Does it distance the congregation from worship or invite them into it? Does it provide a kind of veil for the altar, increasing our desire for sacraments that we will only be able to experience when the veil has been breached? Does the screen make a frame for the congregation viewing the priest, and for the priest viewing the congregation? We suspect the answer to all of these questions is a qualified Yes and a gentle No. The roodscreen is a mystery, the constant reminder of our friend 'who for our sins was lifted high upon the cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself'.

Today, the holiest week of the Christian year is here. We have come to think of it as something of a roodscreen built into the church calendar. The events of Holy Week are tender, violent, confusing, inspiring, devastating and utterly necessary. Without them, we will not reach Easter, and without Easter, our religion is less than a sham. So to reach the resurrection, we will gladly and seriously gaze through whatever is on the way to it: crucifixion of the innocent Lord of Love, a full week of church ceremonies whose intricacies boggle the mind, a persistent disappointment that this all must happen again each year, and screens with the holy rood mounted above them. The church year, and our church building, give us these truths over and over again. The message seems to be that our desire for immediate knowledge and gratification must be tempered from time to time, whether it is by a built-in delay or a slight hiding of what it is we want to see.

Like the shepherds whose words begin the gospel story, we say to one another 'Let us go and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.' We want to see the miracle God has promised, the miracle we have seen afresh each Easter Even, and for which forty days of Lent have now sharpened our vision. We will see it in the near term, but not without passing through and under the Rood. This is as it should be, as it must be, and as it will be.

See you next week, on the other side of the screen.

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Last updated: 5 April 2009

* The best discussion of various aspects of church screens we have ever seen is the fine recent book Thresholds of the Sacred: Architectural, Art Historical, Liturgical, and Theological Perspectives on Religious Screens, East and West, edited by Sharon E. J. Gerstel (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, 2006). If you buy this book, you will treasure it. Good old standards on the topic are A Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts, by A. W. N. Pugin (1851) and Screens and Galleries in English Churches, by Francis Bond (1908).

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