Architectural cues to our past also tell us something of what people thought and expected. From the grand lines of the great cathedrals we get the impression not of man's greatness but of his smallness before the Lord Most High. Our church buildings, in contrast, emphasize the horizontal much more than vertical. Also clear in the pattern of the older churches, both large and small, was the distinction of space, as if the space is marked with clear reference to the holy space and deference to the holy things of God. People are present there not by some right or demand but always by God's gracious invitation and at the bidding of the Lord. It is privilege and blessing to which the people of God enter step by step toward the holiest of the holies at the high altar. In contrast today, there is less chancel and more a sense of the altar in the very center of the people, if not geographically at least in terms of viewing.
All of this would be merely curiosity were it not for how the style of our architecture is also reflective of our own views of ourselves and the world in which we live -- as well as God. From a twenty-first century perspective, the purpose of the rood screen is to hide what happens at the high altar and to distance the people from what takes place there. But to the medieval world and earlier, this was to the people a sense of order and space -- the way of approach to the presence of God -- and a reflection of the privilege of viewing the very sacred space where God and His gifts are made accessible to us. Of course, we treat those things much more casually than did the people of that era. I am not at all this is progress. To confuse the sacred and the divine, to treat as ordinary the things of God and extraordinary the things of this life is a distortion of the whole of the Scriptural witness. What we have lost with the disregard of holy ground, reverence, and awe has been replaced with virtual reality -- screens that make everything less than transparent but mundane and technology that has not so much served the Gospel as distracted from it.
Even with respect to heaven and hell, we have blurred the distinctions and even reasoned our way out of hell altogether. It is not uncommon even for Christians to joke about whether they just might be more familiar with what goes on in hell than comfortable with the holiness of heaven. Even such a joke betrays the fact that we no longer fear or see the torment of the judged as something terrible and, in comparison, no longer long for or view the things of heaven as the consummation of all that we are and hope for by God's grace and design. The distinctions once preserved not simply a real and awful punishment which ought to be feared but the purity and blessedness of the heavenly hope made possible by Christ's suffering and death for sin and His mighty resurrection. Perhaps this shows up in our modern day funeral practices and the message of hope which we find more tangibly in the memories of the past than in the hope of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Anyway, here is a little video on the rood screen -- something which was largely removed long before even the modern liturgical movement. With it, our view of God and ourselves was changing and, after the Renaissance and humanist movements, we began to look at ourselves more than God when we came together on the Lord's Day in the Lord's House. It could not help but affect the buildings we remodeled and the new structures erected. The changes were not sudden but they have appeared to be sudden -- especially because the pace at which we ditched the older views and style and replaced them with horizontal structures to fit our theology has finally caught up with us. Hopefully, we will realize that we might have lost more than an architectural perspective.