Of Lent and Church Architecture

Lent is coming, so let's talk about church architecture.


What's the connection, you ask?

Well, Lent is a time to prepare for the renewal of baptismal vows at Easter. And Holy Baptism is the sacrament of our union with Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.

Baptism tells us that we're all members of Christ. Baptism tells us we belong to God's loving purposes, that God has plans for us in the world. God tells us this. So this should mean we believe it, right? Well, as the old song goes, “It ain't necessarily so.”

It ain't necessarily so because there are all kinds of reasons that we tend to doubt this truth.

Sometimes, our reasons for doubting this truth are encouraged by a perception of church architecture.

In the last month, two newer members of St. Paul's have expressed to me their impression that the rood screen is a forbidding barrier to them.

What's a rood screen, you ask? It's that big ornate decorated iron screen that you see when you sit in the church looking forward to the altar. It's called a “rood screen” because of the cross on top of it. The word “rood” derives from the Saxon word rode or rood, which means “cross”.

These two people told me the rood screen seems to them a barrier which suggests to them that there is a special part of the church building that they are not really welcome to enter. These members have doubt in their minds that the church thinks they are “worthy” to enter. This isn't the first time I've heard this.

I sympathize with these people. I am always aware from where I preside of the dense wrought-iron screen that blocks my vision of the congregation. Sometimes I wonder how newcomers see that screen. Like any symbol, it can mean more than one thing, depending on who is viewing it. And if you've traveled much around the Episcopal Church, you know that to even have a rood screen is unusual, especially here on the West Coast of the United States.

Some years ago here at St. Paul's someone who is very fond of that screen was apparently afraid that I would have it removed, and so told me: “That rood screen will be removed over my dead body.” Yes, those words exactly.

Others have told me that they don't really care for it, but they've learned to accept it. One late member of the church told me made his peace with it, however, while up on a ladder dusting it off for the Easter celebrations.

The 9:00 am Sunday Eucharist was instituted in part to give people another option for celebration, with the use of a freestanding altar placed at the crossing.

Rood screens belong to the architecture of the medieval and renaissance period of church history. They are part of a more comprehensive vision of church architecture from that period, and I'll describe that in another post to come.

But here, let me just lay down something basic.

Baptism makes us members of Christ. Baptism names us as worthy of being co-workers with God's purposes.

No rood screen can come in the way of that.

And during every Eucharist that uses the high altar, people stream right through that gate in the rood screen right to the altar to receive the bread of life and cup of salvation.


Now, Lent is almost upon us. I invite us to Ash Wednesday to Eucharist to pray the Litany of Penitence together and receive the sign of ashes to remember that our mortal lives belong to God. I invite us to a Lent of prayer, fasting, and self-denial, of good works for the poor and powerless.  We'll worship at 6:30 am, 12:00 noon, and 7:00 pm on Ash Wednesday, February 10.