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  1077: Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints, Kensington, London

Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints, Kensington, London

Mystery Worshipper: Tsar Gazer.
The church: Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints, Ennismore Gardens, Kensington, London.
Denomination: Russian Orthodox
The building: A beauty. Not architecturally (think old Victorian Anglican church, which is exactly what the building is), but in terms of liturgical and spiritual sensibilities. Think of that dimly-lit, slightly gloomy yet welcoming air that your favourite great- aunt's sitting room used to have, then imagine your great-aunt over in a corner, wearing carpet slippers and a headscarf while lighting candles over her favourite icon. It's homely and astonishingly otherworldly all at once, because there are icons everywhere – in silver frames on the wall, on pillars, on standalone desks – and yet they are not there just to be beautiful, nor does it feel cluttered. It feels familiar and comforting and as if you could quickly identify your own favourite corner to go and commune with God, Mary or your favourite saint.
The church community: It's all very... Russian! (and/or Ukrainian). Which visually means lots of headscarves (for the women, of all ages); lots of leather jackets, stockiness and general Slavic appearance (for the men), and only two black people as far as I could see in the whole church. You were as or more likely to be spoken to in Russian than in English. At that level it definitely felt "foreign" – in the positive sense that you were observing a diaspora community at prayer, rather than in any unfriendly sense.
The neighbourhood: Well, there are the neighbours. This is embassy land, and on the corner just by the church is the People's Bureau of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Mmm. Bet they pop round regularly for a cup of sugar.
The cast: There was pretty much a cast of thousands, and the one I tried to speak to afterwards turned out only to speak Russian and Church Slavonic, so I was left none the wiser. The board outside says there is an "Archpriest", so I was looking out for someone who looked like he might have a sharp tongue on him. But they all looked very nice. And holy. And bearded. (Except the altar boys, one of whom was yawning so widely I thought he was in danger of slipping into a coma on the altar.)

What was the name of the service?
Palm Sunday liturgy: the entry of the Lord into Jerusalem.

How full was the building?
Well, it depends when you measure it. During the three and a half hours I was there (yes, really) it went from about a third full to pretty packed. And people kind of circulate. At any given moment there are a few people outside in the street gasping for air, doing business with other stocky, leather-jacketed men, arguing laconically with the traffic warden about quadruple-parked BMWs... And even inside people are milling about visiting their favourite saints, lighting candles, sitting down, standing up again, doing laps, etc. Towards the end, when the palms got given out, there was a definite surge towards the front and I started to fear a bit of stage-diving was about to take place, but the rest of the time the motion was distinctly Brownian and random and made an accurate head count difficult. Now I understand why primary school teachers used to scream at you to stand still so they could count you properly.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Well, as soon as I came in, I found myself at the end of a queue, so (being English and all) I decided to join it despite not being at all sure what it was for. I began to perceive dimly through the gloom that people were handing over money in return for candles or bits of paper. I fancied a candle myself, as being a Catholic I can always find a use for candles, whereas I didn't have a clue what the pieces of paper were for. Eventually, a lady came up behind me and asked me something in Russian. Taking a guess on "Is this the queue for the candles?" I took a 50/50 chance and nodded while mumbling "Da" or thereabouts. She joined the queue and seemed quite pleased with the outcome, so I suppose the encounter was a success. Not sure it counts as a welcome, though – unless she was really saying, "Do you come here often?"; in which case my mumbling plus handling the candles like a pro probably convinced her I didn't require any more assistance.

Was your pew comfortable?
Oh, very funny... what pew? I got there at 9.45am and left well after 1 (though admittedly that includes time for much-needed recuperation in the form of tea and cakes in the church hall).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Funnily enough, it was both quiet and reverential, and full of people chatting, milling about, etc. The thing is that everyone is purposeful about what they are doing and why they are there, so although they are absent-mindedly greeting each other and wandering over to another little group, they are lighting candles on the way or visiting their favourite icons... so it feels like the worship has already started, as indeed it has.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Um, a bit tricky this, as the beginning of the liturgy goes on behind closed doors (literally), some of it before the great unwashed even arrive. The first bit everyone gets to hear is actually part two, the liturgy of catechumens, which begins: "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and for ever and unto the ages of ages". You just know you are in for something spectacular after that (even if it is announced in Slavonic and sounds something like "Blagoslaven tsarsva otsa y cinya", etc, etc.).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Ha ha. There was me with a huge and very obtrusive crib sheet (a copy of the liturgy in Russian and English provided by a mole), sticking out like the proverbial as everyone else was just improvising and going with the flow. Either you know your stuff or you don't, and anyway, joining in is distinctly optional, because the choir provides the sung responses.

What musical instruments were played?
Not a one. And I can't tell you how restful it was. The Russian Orthodox believe the human voice is the most apt way to praise God. More power to their collective elbow. I thanked God often and profusely for the completely tabmourine-free zone that is this church.

Did anything distract you?
The fact that I was dying for a pee. The blood sugar dip at about 1 hour 40 minutes in (turned out to be only half-way through, I'm really glad I didn't know that). The fact that everyone crosses themselves – and, if they are really devout, bobs down to touch the ground in between – at will. This is pretty much after every doxology, of which there are lots, plus any other time you feel like it. There is no waiting for anyone else to take the lead. If you are feeling particularly confident and mischievous, you can start a kind of Mexican wave by boldly crossing yourself a few times then watching to see if any suggestible folk near you follow suit. They quite often do – a Russian Orthodox friend tells me this is tantamount to a national sport. Finally there is the dreadful fact that the Russian Orthodox cross themselves the wrong way round – that is, right before left shoulder. Not only did this cause me a serious health and safety hazard (see below), I also have it on the reliable authority of every nun I met before my 10th birthday that doing this makes the baby Jesus cry. So, yes, it was definitely a distraction.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Bloody brilliant liturgical fascism: bells, incense, icons, screen doors that keep the hoi-polloi tantalisingly at bay from the holy of holies and yet strangely don't make you feel cut off from the mystery, so much as drawn towards it. The icons, all around the church as well as spectacular ones on the doors, serve as they are meant to as "windows on heaven". The only hiccup for me was at communion time when the doors are closed and curtains drawn and the clergy are taking communion: it was the only point at which it felt like we were being excluded and cut off from something, and it made me uncomfortable. The overall impression, however, is that God's in his heaven, is numinous and ineffable; and Jesus definitely doesn't want you for a sunbeam. Now that's what I call good news.

Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints, Kensington, London

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Well, the English one was 7 minutes and the subsequent one (in Russian, I presume) was 11.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Mmm. It may be a style thing, but I didn't get much from the English sermon, which was by a fairly elderly priest. But at least it was about the Gospel of the day and relevant liturgical season – which sermons so often, and so infuriatingly, aren't. I can't tell you much about sermon 2, except that it was by a different priest and sounded much more Russian. He was younger and seemed to be slightly more engaging in his manner and tone, though it was obviously hard for me to tell. I think the point may be that this doesn't need to be the centre or the lynchpin of the worship in the way it is in many low churches. Everything else that you see, hear and sing shouts of God. Even the acclamation which precedes the Gospel makes it clear: "Wisdom – let us attend..." The rest is just commentary; you will be spoken to by God if by anyone at all.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The priest made the point that the Gospel contained two apparently disparate incidents – the anointing of Christ's feet by Mary Magdalene and the entry into Jerusalem – and suggested that what linked them was the call to look beyond the obvious to see a hidden level of meaning. Jesus rebukes Judas for not being able to see beyond the superficial gesture (the "wasted" ointment), and the crowds, or at least the Zealots, would surely have been surprised and even slightly dismayed that Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem in such an unkingly manner. So we have to look for true meaning beyond the superficial to the spiritual, in life as in the Easter season as in the Gospels. Actually I think my summary of this improves on his version. It's definitely more succinct.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Almost all of it.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was a point at which, concentration lapsing momentarily at about 1 hour 40 minutes in, I got the "crossing yourself the wrong way round" thing wrong at the exact same moment that I went for a premature bit of bowing. Since I was still trying to balance my service crib sheet and two (fortunately unlit) candles, all I managed to achieve was to poke myself in the eye with the wicks. I emitted a smothered yelp and the man next to me casually retired to get a few feet further away from the madwoman. To add insult to narrowly-avoided injury, when the collection came round, my huge manila envelope containing the Mystery Worshipper calling card could not have been more blindingly obvious as it went sailing into the basket. I thought it would be better camouflaged, as in Catholic parishes quite a few people give to the collection via envelopes to qualify for Gift Aid. Well, not here they don't. I reckon I was probably outed on the spot, especially as the church has their previous Mystery Worshipper report on their own website, which proves they are up to speed and were probably expecting some pale excuse for a would-be Central European to turn up. I was definitely It.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
Umm, again I can't answer for all linguistic persuasions, but "our sovereign lady Elizabeth" popped up at one stage which I actually found surprising – coming as I do from a resolutely non-national, and non-nationalistic, church. But then I recalled that Orthodox history has given them a residual fondness for all things aristocratic, royal and, dare one say it, imperial. Also, a lot of the prayers take the form of litanies. They are integral and fixed parts of the service (this particular one dating back to John Chrysostom), so you don't get a huge amount of contemporary referencing for your money. But there again, when you consider the ongoing icon-gazing, candle-lighting and so on that was being carried out by priests and laity alike before, during and after the service, there was in fact a pretty heavy-duty amount of praying being done, just not all of it public or vocalised.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
This doesn't really work here as people are milling about all the time. However, I did have a genuine enquiry as a result of which I got into a very good and completely sincere conversation with someone, and was then introduced to others. I don't really want to say more about it here to underline the fact that it was spontaneous, genuine and was really important.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Amazing variety and quality of Russian and Ukrainian speciality foods: the after-service gathering functions as a kind of low-cost canteen, serving full-on tea and hot food for those who need it. There was also a pre-Easter bazaar going on, which meant amazing painted eggs, and so on.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I am seriously considering it, which is mostly why I went. I think liturgically we would get on like a house on fire. But politically/socially I'm not as sure. Also, there's a lot of Pantocrator and not too much carpenter. For me, this church brings out Christ's divine nature more strongly than his human nature.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, but only of a certain persuasion.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The numinosity. And the great hats.
 
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