Mystery Worshipper: Ian Climacus
Church: St Peter & St Paul
Location: Greenfield Park, Sydney, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 February 2006, 6:00pm
The congregation of St Peter and St Paul worship at St Hurmizd's Cathedral. The cathedral was consecrated in December 1990 by His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos Patriarch. It is a large and ornate cathedral, with patterned stained glass, huge chandeliers, and a top-to-bottom curtain between the altar and the nave. The choir sings from a gallery at the back. A statue of St Hurmizd carrying a cross is to the right of the carpark area.
What is known today as the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, or in India as the Chaldean Syrian Church, is believed to have been founded by the apostle Thomas in AD 33 at Babylon. Its history is complex but well documented for those seeking to know more. Worldwide, the Church is organized into three archdioceses, consisting of several dioceses and congregations. St Peter and St Paul is not merely an English-speaking subset of the Cathedral congregation, but a separate parish, hence the different name. They are in the process of building a church and school a few suburbs away. Formed only one year ago, it is a wonderful sign of the dedication of all those involved and God's blessings that they are at the stage they are now, in such a short time. Assyrian and English religious radio programmes are broadcast on local radio and a discussion forum has recently been set up on the diocese's website.
Greenfield Park is a suburb of Fairfield, one of the most multicultural suburbs of Sydney. Asians, Europeans (West and East) and Middle Eastern people, along with Anglos, make up the population. A great place to live.
The Rev. Genard Lazar, three unnamed deacons, and three others (one dressed as a deacon, two without the sash) who read and censed the congregation.
What was the name of the service?Holy Qurbana
How full was the building?
About 40 people were present at the beginning of the service. By communion time there were at least 150, plus the 20 choir members. The cathedral can hold about 1,000.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A handshake and a very friendly "Hello and welcome" as I entered.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable – wooden, but padded. However, we stood for extended periods (I'm Orthodox so I'm used to it!).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent within the church. People were praying or sitting quietly. Outside, people greeted one another and kissed the cross placed on a stand before they entered.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The priest chanted, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." as the curtains opened.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
An English mass booklet and a custom booklet for the service containing the three readings, an evening prayer for Lent, Father Genard's thoughts on fasting, and a listing of the ministries sponsored by the church.
What musical instruments were played?
I can't be sure, as the choir was elevated behind me and hidden from view. But I would guess electric piano (in piano and organ mode) and violin. The choir sang most ably, and the chanting of the clergy was exquisite.
Did anything distract you?
There were giant chandeliers suspended from the ceiling; I hoped they were securely fastened. There was also what decorators term a "water feature" to my immediate left; I found out what this was later. Most of the women wore simple veils with patterns, but a woman in front of me had donned a Lourdes veil, complete with Virgin Mary in the sky. My gaze kept coming back to it. Very nice, though.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Liturgical perfection – would that every church were like this! The service flowed naturally and beautifully, without any sense of it being pretentious or aiming to be exceedingly liturgically correct. Chanted responses were the norm, with certain responses being said.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – You'd be hard pressed to find a better sermon as we approached Lent. Father Genard spoke well and from the heart. He weaved humour and personal stories seamlessly into his talk. I would've guessed 15 minutes had I not timed it. It flew by.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon emphasized fasting and resisting temptation as Lent approaches. As recorded in the Gospel (Matthew 3:16 4:11), Jesus was tempted and overcame. Father Genard mentioned one of his favourite verses, Hebrews 4:14: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin." He used this to indicate that Jesus can readily identify with us in our temptations, as he went through them also. He also referred to the epistle (Ephesians 4:17 5:4) and the Old Testament readings (Isaiah 58:1-12) to indicate that fasting pleases the Lord.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Which part wasn't? The entire service was heavenly. This parish has only been going for a year and it ran perfectly. Add to this the beautiful and ancient liturgy and hymns of the Church of the East – wondrous! But two parts stand out in particular. First, the passing of peace. It was passed from the clergy to the people by the deacon, who placed his hands within those of a congregation member, who then passed it on to those in the front row, who continued to pass it back until it reached the back of the church. There was only a slight hiccough on my part (see below). Another heavenly part was having the thurifer cense all of the church, with people reaching out to touch the thurible as it passed them.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing at all, except for a slight error from me during the peace. I received it and went to pass it on to the person behind me, but I opened my hands rather than keeping them clasped. I apologised, feeling rather poorly, but received a friendly "It's all right! Don't worry!" and the peace continued – hopefully not invalidated by the awkward visitor!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Father Genard invited all into the hall for an informal programme to celebrate the one-year anniversary; the official programme will be held later when the bishop can attend. As I was in the process of moving house, I had to rush off. Several people gave me nods and smiles as they went off to the hall for the programme and food. On the way out I asked one of the ushers about the "water feature" – it turns out it is their receptacle for holy water. Far more ornate than the small bowls found in other places!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I weren't happily Orthodox and if I still lived in the area, I could not think of anywhere else I'd rather worship and be part of a Christian community.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Most definitely. It was also a blessing to see how far a parish can come in a year's time with dedicated people and God's blessing. I adore my parish, but after five years we are nowhere near where our Assyrian brothers and sisters are.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Lourdes veil.