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||1077: Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Which part of the service was like being in
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
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
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
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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