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Under the shadow of the great Rood!

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes:

You wouldn’t recognise the Cathedral right now. It looks different, strange even. In our absence a whole new group of people have made their home within its walls. It even sounds different, to be fair there is no radio blasting rap, pop or the latest re-mastering of Madness singing ‘Our House’! The workforce is remarkably respectful – I never even heard a whistle, never mind an expletive. I was surprised at the latter particularly when I jumped on the digger and looked for the ignition. But then I noticed their total lack of shock or fear and large grins as Paul, the Foreman, held the jangling keys before me. See who’s in control!

The huge ledger stones, (over a hundred of them and some weighing over two ton) cover the floor like mortuary slabs awaiting their cadavers. Thick dust fills the air catching the back of your throat with every breath and every step is treacherously threatened with holes, wires, rubble and sundry trip hazards. Burly guys wander around in hard hats, high viz jackets brandishing frightening tools. Without the back track of organ or radio there is the occasional shout across the space, a burst of muted laughter or voice giving a usually polite direction and this along with the constant humming motors and pounding hammers against stone provide a novel, if intriguing, Cathedral soundtrack.

Amid this busy building site there is an unusual air of calm and my eyes were quickly drawn to the old crossing at the very centre. The altar platform is now just a heap of rubble yet I muse it has been the place of many an experience, many a historic moment and happening: ordinations, installations, school concerts, choir performances and of course our weekly gathering for worship around bread and wine. Behind it a large temporary screen separates the Quire from the Nave. It is there of course not just to delineate the ‘work space’ or to act as a dust sheet but also to protect the magnificent wooden Rood Screen that separates Quire from Nave – the hanging plastic sheet is like a contemporary urban/industrial take on a traditional church artefact. Behind the opaque plastic you can still make out the shape of the Rood: The painted figures of Mary and John and in the centre the magnificent gold painted crucifix. I recall the night of our fundraising dinner which now seems a life time away. That night the extra uplighters installed made a huge cross shape shadow hover in the ceiling above us and now even amid the work-chaos it seems like the Rood casts its shadow over everything we are doing. No surprise then that people down the ages have sworn their oaths as, ‘by the old rood tis true.’

Rood Screens were more than popular in late medieval churches, for a while they were almost essential furniture. In effect they separated the Nave from the Quire or chancel. Though the eastern end wasn’t always set aside for surplice choirs that came later. I suppose in many ways it was the equivalent what in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is called the Iconostasis though it is thought that they had a different origin. In that tradition a wall of icons separates the chancel and more especially the altar from the nave. The opening its three doors signal significant moments of the Divine Liturgy and a breaking through of heaven to earth. The Rood Screen too acts as a marker between chancel (Quire) and nave but in our tradition, it has some particular qualities. The word ‘rood’ or ‘rode’ comes from the Saxon ‘cross’ which is a good indicator to the actual Rood which is not in fact the screen itself but the large figure of the crucified Christ that rests on the rood bar. Traditionally to either side of the cross there are figures of saints or apostles and usually (echoing John 19:25-27) we find them to be Mary, the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple, John. Screens were often elaborate and made of stone or wood and included much lattice work so that the congregation could see through to the altar. Indeed, the word ‘chancel’ derives from the Latin ‘cancelli’ which means lattice. Often built into the top of the screen was a loft used for candles to illuminate the Rood and sometimes even big enough for musicians to sit during divine worship. Mackenzie’s guide to Newcastle – a wonderful history source for us at St Nicholas quotes a rather wonderful passage from Fuller’s History of Waltham Abbey that gives a real insight into the Rood:

“And wot ye what spiritual things was couched in this position thereof? The church (forsooth) typified the church militant; the chancel represents the church triumphant; and all who pass out of the former into the latter must go under the rood loft, i.e. carry the cross and be acquainted with affliction.”

Yet the Reformation changed everything. In 1548 Edward I ordered that images were to be removed from Rood lofts and often they were replaced with texts from scripture. Queen Mary commanded they be restored. In St Nicholas the then Rood Screen survived until sometime between 1632-1645 when the King ordered the Bishop to instruct the Churchwardens to remove it. Afterwards the loft was chosen for the organ gallery.

The alterations of 1783 aimed to throw open the whole church and cleared out many of the erections and sepulchral monuments. The Chancel was wainscoted at a cost of £126 and a simple screen “executed in a miserably bad taste”. The altar was moved from the crossing to the East end and in 1818 a picture was placed above it. The painting – a gift from Sir M W Ridley – by Tintoretto was of Christ washing the Apostles’ feet. ‘But’, added MacKenzie, ‘the light does not shew it to advantage.’ Therein lies another post!

Yet the story of the Rood does not end there and with the elevation in May 1882 of St Nicholas to the Cathedral for the city and Diocese of Newcastle, the Chancel and the Screen were reborn. A local prominent architect R J Johnson was commissioned to design the furnishings needed to make the church a Cathedral. He took his inspiration from 15th Century craftsmanship most visible in the wonderful font cover – which is now so carefully covered for protection. Ralph Hedley, the local artist and craftsmen chosen to execute the work, was an inspired choice. That inspiration reclaimed the notions of heaven and earth, Chancel and Nave. Worthy of a different post the Chancel is richly ornate full of angels, (Hedley reputedly used his daughter as a model for their design), but to get to it one has to pass under the Rood and through the gates of the latticed Rood Screen. Elijah and Moses are on ‘guard’ at the gates and just like on the Transfiguration mount they give witness to the glory of Christ. At the centre of the screen stands the beautiful gilded Rood – a crucifix with Mary and John on either side. The cross casts its shadow on the nave crossing even when protected by that huge sheet of plastic. I hope it will long be the case. Not that such a magnificent shadow restricts what should happen below it. For me the ‘crossing’ is exactly that: a place of meeting, transaction, a threshold or pavement inviting dialogue, engagement between earth and heaven and of course transformation. The glittering cross casts a blessing in its shade. A reminder that in the coming of Christ and in his passion the temple curtain was torn in two – heaven and earth were joined and in him there is no separation between holy and secular.

Soon (well in the next year) the plastic sheet will be removed to unveil the Rood Screen again for all to see and I hope that we keep the gates open as often as is possible. We hope too that the crossing will not just be an empty space but instead a meeting point. A place of beautiful music (choirs and orchestras, rock bands and folk gigs), robust debate, intriguing speakers and conferences, lectures and dinners, activities for every age, people at prayer and awed by the space, Bread and Wine to feed God’s people. All in the shadow of the Rood, just as it should be.

In Flagships of the Spirit, a book about the role of Cathedrals in contemporary society, Stephen Platten and Christopher Lewis wisely remark;

‘A cathedral is not only a place to which people come. It is also a place through which they go, and from which they emerge renewed. It is a place of interaction, between people and with God: not in order to escape from the world around, but rather to renew commitment to it.’[1]

I couldn’t agree more and I couldn’t be more thrilled that we will offer this refreshed possibility in the shadow of the Great Rood.


[1] Stephen Platten & Christopher Lewis; Flagships of the Spirit p. 179; DLT. 1998