This weekend I’ve been gently taken to task for moving the chancel screen in St Michael’s. My kindly critic was someone who worshipped there forty years ago and who had only just visited the church again.
The top picture shows St Michael’s as it was when this part of the church was consecrated in 1915. The lower one was taken from the same spot earlier this year, and captures the way in which light can flood the chancel rather than the nave. They don’t capture the intermediate stages: the cross and gallery on top of the screen were lost in the 1970s and a nave altar was placed in front it about then; for a generation the screen hasn’t looked like the top picture nor has the chancel been used much at all.
I’m sure the heritage bodies which consented to the recent moving of the remainder of the screen wouldn’t have done so if the cross and gallery had still been in place. I’m also sure they appreciated one of the aims which was to eliminate the nave altar and bring the architecturally distinguished chancel back into use.
Eliminating the nave altar has also allowed us to move people forward in the nave, thus creating space for the font at the back of the nave, and thus creating space for kitchen and toilet facilities at the back of the older part of the church where the font had stood. The chancel screen has not been lost but has been relocated to divide off this area at the back of the older part of the church.
For me the most interesting part of this weekend’s criticism is that it didn’t simply come from a ‘I like it as it was’ point of view. Rather my sympathetic critic understood very clearly what the original architect was seeking to achieve: for him the act of going up to Communion was to enter a very different sacred space, which can often have felt like passing through a barrier into the light; he observed how much more casual people appeared to be as they went up to Communion today compared with his own day.
For what it is worth, I’ve thought for a long time that there is an unresolvable tension in how a church is set out. It is a tension between the otherness of God and the intimacy which God offers, between awe at God’s majesty and being welcomed by God’s accessibility. The mediaeval sense of the ‘sacred space beyond the screen’ (consciously recreated by the architect in 1915) was to speak of the otherness of God. The bringing forward of altars at the Reformation was partly to speak of the accessibility of God. The moves in the seventeenth century to place the altar back behind rails (solid enough, it was said, to keep a dog out) were to reassert the sense of the majesty of God. Moves in the twentieth century such as the introduction of the nave altar in St Michael’s were to reassert the possibilities of intimacy with God.
It is as if any arrangement which provokes a sense of awe will appear to under value the humanity of Christ, and any arrangement which provokes a sense of welcome will appear to under value the divinity of Christ. It is my hope that the new arrangement in St Michael’s at least attempts to hold the tension by having the altar in the pool of light in the centre of the chancel but nevertheless has the chancel totally open. But I don’t think any church building can actually get it right.