Wow! My simple Baptist soul is reeling under an overload of new impressions.
As you know if you've been reading my posts, I spoke 2 or 3 weeks ago at the evening service of a Pentecostal church in South Wales, and yesterday morning I attended our nearest Orthodox church, just across the border in England. I said the Pentecostal was 'alien' (I think) to what I'm used to, but the Orthodox was entirely new. Let me explain...
Forty years ago I was attending a Baptist church on its last legs (it eventually closed when thieves stole the lead roof) which had no evening service, and I used to drive regularly to a nearby town and attend the Pentecostal, or sometimes the Pentecostal in my own (then) town. There was very little difference between Baptist and Pentecostal services in those far-off days, except the Pente's put rather more vigour in it. But now in what was a large redundant Baptist church, I find they have removed the pulpit and replaced it with musical instruments; the pastor took little or no part other than to give some notices and speak once in prayer; the service was led by one or two young musicians, and consisted of 30-40 minutes of repetitious singing of brief choruses, followed by me, speaking about God's work among Albanians (presumably in lieu of a usual sermon). No reading from scripture at all
. There was no period of communal speaking in tongues which I have experienced occasionally in Pentecostal services. Very unlike our service yesterday evening, at my usual Baptist, of four good, full-of-thought-and-truth hymns, prayer, scripture reading, and 30 minutes of pastor explaining and applying in a stirring manner the teaching on the Last Judgement in last section of the Book of Malachi.
Yesterday morning, as our church had an event I was unable to attend without leaving part-way through, I took the opportunity to drive over to Handbridge for Hours (10.30) and Divine Liturgy (11.00). My three main impressions were:
- the friendliness and welcome of the people, including the priest
- the fact that almost everything was intoned rather than sung or spoken in a normal voice
- the impression that we were all watching something which other people were doing.
Let me say more...
I couldn't make out the purpose of Hours. It consisted of the priest's wife intoning from a book, whilst a small number of people (4 or 5?) sat on the wall-bench and listened. The priest was behind the iconostasis. It wasn't plain to me, as an outsider, what was supposed to be happening.
The Liturgy consisted of 3, later augmented to 4, people standing by a desk intoning all kinds of prayers and readings; various processions round the church; the priest and another man dressed in colourful robes. Now understand me: none of what I say is critical. I realised that all this was symbolic, and that the regular worshippers (who now numbered about 24 including little children and the singing group) knew what it all meant, but I didn't. Especially, at one point two golden discs on poles were carried around the church; they looked a little like the Macedonian sun. But I had no idea what it meant. Had I not been a member of this forum, I would not have realised that there is meaningful symbolism in it all, and would have been completely bewildered - but you have all kindly explained some of this to me, so I knew the lack lay in me, not elsewhere.
I couldn't work out why the priest sometimes took his hat off, and sometimes wore it - for example. Lots of little things.
Nor could I work out why everything, even the reading of scripture, was intoned, rather than read in a normal voice. A reading about one of the saints being commemorated that day was read by the priest's wife, again in an intoning voice, but she stood towards the front facing the iconostasis, so she had her back to us and it was hard to hear all she was telling us.
I liked the incense - dare I say? - and I have read that you use it because you see it in scripture. No problem there. But why the little bells on the censor? They would seem jocular to a real first-time visitor who did not know there must be symbolism in them.
But, as I say, my main impression was that we were an audience watching other people doing something symbolic and colourful, namely the 3 or 4 in the intoning group, the priest, and the others in the processions round the church. There was no audience participation at all, except for making the sign of the Cross, except when the Lord's Prayer was said (which I joined in) and the Nicene Creed (which I do not know off by heart: I could have mumbled at the place where the word 'eis' is translated
). The Creed was said in three languages serially, English first, presumably because the others who said it were foreign. I think one might've been Greek, but I don't think it was Demotic.
There was no sermon, but a short homily was handed out on paper, on the reading from the epistles set for the day; and a slightly bigger news-sheet, which contained a longer homily on the Last Things, which to my surprise might almost have been 'lifted' from a Brethren publication: even a nod in the direction of chiliasm.
Some of the service was in Greek, and the sheet which contained the homily on Timothy contained parts of the service. Again, the Greek was not Demotic, but I do not know enough to know whether it was in the Katharevousa or in NT or even Classical Greek.
The effect of the almost uninterrupted intoning for over an hour, the incense, the colour, wrought a kind of lulling effect, and I felt that something had in fact 'gone in'. Strangely, perhaps, just as much as at the Pentecostal 2 or 3 weeks earlier - where, be it said, I was also well impressed with the friendliness and welcome of the people.
I left at the point where the priest emerged from the iconostasis and said something like, "Let us go forth into the world in peace," and led us in "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God..." They had a memorial service for a recently died priest immediately after, and at that point he began (now in a normal voice) to speak of that priest. I hope that was the right moment to slip out; that the Liturgy had reached its conclusion (ca 1 hour 20 minutes) and that I didn't in fact miss the sermon. I had warned them beforehand that I would quietly slip out at that point.
The priest very apologetically explained that they couldn't give me communion, though of course I already knew that, and not to cross my legs if I sat at all because Greek people might take it offensively as a sign of the Cross. (I don't anyway, as I'm told it encourages blood clots.) I liked the way the little children - who were old enough to walk - were invited to take communion. It seemed to make them members of the community more than is the case at our churches, though I fully understand why we don't, for theological reasons. I had been invited to join them all in a parish lunch after the services, but couldn't because my wife expected me home and we had a guest plus my daughter and grandson coming.
When I got home, our Hindu dinner guest overheard my wife asking how I got on, and me describing the service. He said that my reaction as a visitor to Orthodoxy is probably the same as anyone's would be to any church, if he had never been before - which I thought was an interesting comment. I coupled it in my mind with the comment of a 'lovely brother' I stayed with recently when speaking in the New Forest - a life-time teetotaler who said one reason he never goes into a pub is that he would not know how to behave in one. These comments made me want to ensure that I make any visitors at ease and able to understand what is happening when they visit any church where I am leading a service.
Would I go again? Probably yes, again when something hinders attendance where I am in membership, or perhaps when they have a special event, such as perhaps at Christmas time, if we have nothing. I have asked to be on the church's newsletter e-mail list for such information.
I am shortly off to South Wales again (Baptist and Presbyterian this time!) and shall not be posting here for several days.