Mystery Worshipper: Back-to-Front
Church: The Intercession of the Holy Virgin
Location: Manchester, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 August 2006, 10:00am
This is a new building, completed in 2004 after the previous building had aged to the point of being condemned. It is a two-storey building, topped with an onion dome and traditional Russian cross, and with a mosaic icon of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God over the large south door. Inside, the worship space is much larger than one might expect looking at the building from the outside. The walls are painted white and are covered with icons, many of which were salvaged from the old church, as was the rather lovely iconostasis. On the upper floor can be found a kitchen and dining hall, along with various parish rooms.
The parish was formed in the 1950s by Russians who had fled the motherland during World War II. Their make-up is still predominantly Russian, although there are people of other backgrounds as well. They were originally under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. However, when in 1993 ROCA found itself unable to send them a priest, they petitioned Metropolitan Anthony, the ruling archbishop of the diocese of Sourozh of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in the British Isles. The Metropolitan sent them his suffragan bishop, Archbishop Anatoly of Kerch, with whose pastoral care the church has been blessed ever since. (Ironically, though, the divine liturgy is still celebrated only every few weeks.) The parish seems to be a thriving and close-knit community, with people travelling in from both near and far. The word Pokrov refers to the Feast of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, celebrated on 1 October according to the old Julian calendar.
Manchester is a large city in northwest England. In June 1996 an IRA bomb blast caused much damage to the city centre, which has since undergone extensive redevelopment and modernisation. The 47-storey Beetham Tower, completed in 2006, is the tallest residential building in the United Kingdom. The church is set in the middle of a multicultural residential area which has a large Muslim and Sikh population.
The celebrant and preacher was the Most Rev. Archbishop Anatoly of Kerch.
What was the name of the service?Divine Liturgy
How full was the building?
The building seemed comfortably filled. I wasn't able to count the exact number but I estimate that there were about 60 to 70 people. The church certainly didn't feel empty, while at the same time there was enough room for movement.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, thankfully. There is little that is more unsettling and disruptive of an attitude of prayer, in my opinion, than being accosted by smiling "greeters" who insist on handing out books and making conversation. This is a time of preparation for worship, not for social interaction. I arrived about 20 minutes early and slipped in quietly and unnoticed, to find everything I needed placed in an obvious spot. This was the ideal welcome for me.
Was your pew comfortable?
Well, if you're referring to the chair that I sat on for 15 minutes during the sermon at the very end of the liturgy, then yes, it was comfortable enough. However, sitting doesn't really feature in Orthodox worship and so I was on my feet for the most part, as was everybody else. Unlike my home parish, which has a carpeted floor, this church has a wooden floor, which made unshod standing (as is my custom) a little painful after a while, and so the movement at communion provided some very welcome relief.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I was very pleased to find that a baptism was going on when I arrived. It was a quiet affair with mostly the family, and so I kept a respectful distance and joined in the responses as I was able. The Hours began not long after this, during which the archbishop heard confessions. As this went on for a while, the choir sang some portions of the liturgy to cover the confessions, and then the liturgy began. The whole atmosphere was intensely reverent.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, Amen" in Church Slavonic.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. People seemed to know the liturgy off by heart. The congregational parts are fairly simple anyway, consisting chiefly of responses to the litanies: Gospodi pomilui (Lord, have mercy) and Tebe Gospodi (to Thee, O Lord).
What musical instruments were played?
None. The Slavic tradition takes quite literally St John Chrysostom's distaste for musical instruments other than the human voice in Christian worship. Instead, the rather good parish choir led the music of the liturgy very competently, with some glorious harmonies as is to be expected of Russian church music.
Did anything distract you?
It was rather unsettling to see people approaching for confession bearing lists of their sins on sheets of A5 paper! I had never before seen this, and in fact had been taught that listing one's sins was unhealthily legalistic. In my personal preparations, I make jottings, which I then throw away before going to church. I don't decry the piety of the people at this warm parish, but it did make me feel rather inadequate, and so I was rather nervous when I approached the archbishop. However, my uneasiness soon melted away in light of his warm response. Also, something that brought a smile to my face was an incident at the litany of the catechumens, where, for some reason, the choir didn't sing their Gospodi pomilui at the right time. The archbishop emerged from behind the iconostasis and said something to them rather sternly in Russian, whereupon they started singing post-haste!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy? HA! No. This was dignified worship in a relaxed formal style. It was in the classical layered pattern, with a number of things being done and chanted by different people at the same time, all coming together into one corporate act of worship to God. The liturgy was chanted throughout in Church Slavonic, although an English translation of the Gospel was read after the liturgical proclamation.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The sermon lasted for approximately 15 minutes. I must confess that I didn't time it exactly as my attention wandered during most of it.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
I cannot rate him fairly. My attention wandering was not in any way a reflection on the archbishop's preaching style, but rather was due to the fact that the sermon was delivered entirely in Russian, which, sadly, I do not understand. He held a cross in his hand for the entire duration of the sermon, which I think may be peculiar to the ceremonial of bishops, as I have never seen a priest do this.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I wish I could tell you, but alas I cannot.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music, for certain. More than this, though, was the warm reception that I received. The Patriarchate of Moscow and the Russian Church Abroad (of which I am a member) have had a very difficult history between them. I wasn't sure what the situation would be with regard to my receiving communion, especially since this parish has moved from one jurisdiction to the other. And so I explained my dilemma to the archbishop, saying that I didn't want to cause any offence due to the situation between our two churches. He very quickly corrected my wording, saying that he sees us very much as one church, and insisted that at communion I was to come forward and receive. This was so very heartwarming in light of what is happening on the world scene.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I can honestly say that I can't think of anything. Apart from the unsettling feeling I had at confession, which quickly subsided, and my dilemma regarding communion, which the archbishop graciously dispelled, the whole thing was truly a heavenly experience.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance of that. I had already been in touch with one of the parishioners to ask about service times and parish custom, and so he kept an eye out for me and ushered me upstairs to where the food was waiting.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I got to talking to some of the parishioners over a delightful spread, which was delicious. I'm always amazed by the ability of some Orthodox people to come up with recipes for delicious foods that satisfy the fasting tradition, and this was during the two-week fast leading up to the Dormition on the 15th of August (28th August in the Gregorian calendar).
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I am already settled in a lovely parish and it would take a lot to make me leave. Also, while I have no difficulty following the liturgy in Slavonic, I would have a problem with the sermon being entirely in Russian, and also with the fact that the liturgy is not celebrated every week. These are, however, purely subjective reasons. On its own merits, the parish seem truly wonderful. I shall certainly be visiting again – if, of course, they'll have me.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The warm and insistent welcome to the Sacrament by His Eminence Archbishop Anatoly.