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Chancel Screens since the Reformation, edited by Mark Kirby

20 May 2021

Chancel screens have had changing fortunes, Nicholas Cranfield finds

THE central focus of the parish church where I serve (Benjamin Ferrey, 1857) is the War Memorial Screen that was dedicated on St Mark’s Day in 1920 to honour the 195 men of the parish who served in the Great War. Julian Bowsher FSA and Robert Williams have published (2018) a widely illustrated history of the screen with biographies of all 39 who died, and have visited all but three of their graves (obtainable at www.allsaintsblackheath.org).

In the last of seven chapters in the Ecclesiological Society’s publication, which in part commemorated the centenary of the 1919 Assembly Powers Act and the establishment of the diocesan advisory committees for the care of churches (DACs), Clare Price shows how such memorial screens occasioned much of the early work of the DACs, as screens were often thought controversial in parish churches. Many had been removed or disfigured at the Reformation and later (71 medieval screens were taken down between 1727 and 1737 in the diocese of York), and in the 19th century their erection had been questioned as a tendency towards Romanism.

The wide scope of these essays begins with the theology of enclosed space. Peter Doll reminds us that the Temple veil and the screen, “stand symbolically and functionally at the interface between Earth and Heaven, humanity and God”. This derives from the sense of a sacrificing priesthood, whether of the ordained priest or of the priesthood of all believers.

In the West, screens differ from the iconostasis in Orthodox churches behind which only the ordained enter in the service of the altar. They largely resulted from the requirement of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that a separate space should be designated for the Sacrament. In England, in particular, this screen often later supported a rood loft, on which was erected a Calvary.

The dado of the screens was often decorated with apostles and saints (much as icons are hung across an iconostasis), but many such features were destroyed or damaged by the iconoclasm of the 16th century, as they risked encouraging invocation of the saints depicted.

As Eamonn Duffy showed in The Stripping of the Altars (1992), others survived, especially in Devon and East Anglia. Lucy Wrapson has written of them extensively, and here examines the production of such painted Tudor screens. The saints on the screen at St Mary’s, North Tuddenham, for instance, are particularly associated with healing — no doubt because it was erected during a bout of the plague.

A royal order of 10 October 1561 managed the changes in communion practice, arguing that a “comely partition” be appointed if none had been left in place, but enjoining that no further alterations take place and that the medieval survival “be suffered in quiet”.

Trevor Cooper has identified 14 dateable screens to the 40-year period before the English Civil Wars which resemble rather more the domestic furnishings of manorial halls. Some are richly carved (“frilly Jacobean tracery, pointless and pretty”, at Holy Trinity, Barsham, and those of St John’s, Leeds and All Saints’, Wakefield, both 1634), but others are much simpler: All Saints’, Hargrave (1609), and St Bartholomew’s, Vowchurch (1613).

A great opportunity to rethink sacred space came with the rebuilding of City churches in London after the Great Fire of 1666, but the editor, Mark Kirby ,shows that in only two of the new churches were screens erected, both in parishes where the incumbents were interested in Patristics and the practice of the Early Church.

The volume also includes two chapters on the 19th century, and we can read John Roberts on the Cambridge Camden Society and the Oxford Movement and trace similar developments in Roman Catholic churches (Andrew Derrick).

The Society offers a bridge between lay and academic interest in churches, and the wealth of illustration in this volume of proceedings will further encourage many readers to join.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London


Chancel Screens since the Reformation: Proceedings of the Ecclesiological Society Conference, London, 2019
Mark Kirby, editor
Ecclesiological Society £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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