Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Greek Orthodox Church of St John The Theologian on Mare Street, 30.01.10


Now attending my sixth Sunday service my arrogance has grown from embarrassed and adherent agnostic to a more confident church connoisseur (not that I have found any faith to show for it). Before this Sunday the routine rituals had lost a mystique and I had come to expect that every service contain an opening hymn, the morning greeting, absolution, followed by a few readings from the congregation, another hymn, the sermon, more specific prayers from the congregation with regard to topical news, some practical announcements on church activities for the week, then a quick recital of the Lord’s prayer followed by the sharing of the peace, preceded by another hymn for the collection plate to be passed, leading into the communion or an alternative blessing, ending with a quick post communion prayer and a final hymn which would play out the service. Obviously no church service I have attended has strictly followed the ritual pattern I have outlined but all aspects I have listed have been present within the small number of churches I have visited. Such experience has lead me to be complacent in my observations and therefore this week I sought after a more obscure service and found it in the form of The Greek Orthodox Church of St John The Theologian on Mare Street.

Besides the desire to test ones knowledge and tolerance by attending a three hour church service in a foreign language my other motivation was to get peek inside the late 1800 building all kitted out with Greek ceremonial trimmings. The church was originally Roman Catholic but given to the Greek Orthodox Church in 1966, you can tell the church is not Greek in its conception due to the architectural lack of  Basilica features like a dome or pillars (not that these features are not present in the Catholic church in other areas of the world). The interior had clearly segregated spaces to separate any visiting agnostics in the large mural covered nave from the resident deities who frequented the sanctuary with its hidden thrones, altars and icons. Separating the nave from the sanctuary was the iconostasis, a large screen covered with detailed pictures of religious icons with three mini doors. One door to the left and one door to the right remained closed guarded by depictions of the angels Michael and Gabriel. The central door is traditionally known as the Beautiful Gate and remained open providing a tantalizing view into the sanctuary, this peep hole created a sense of spiritual aspiration and exclusivity within the smallest of spaces.

The most overridingly visual aspect inside the church was the wall to wall gallery of golden portraits of a seemingly endless selection of saints. From the back of the nave where I was sitting I could see 58 different portraits, however as I moved around the church I realized it was impossible to stand in one area of the building and see all the divine on display. Searching for meaning and interest in a three hour service my eyes frequently looked to the open pale angelic eyes of the saints that surrounded me. Not finding spiritual comfort my imagination used the portraits as a platform for my own religious fantasy, creating fake backstories to their canonizations. Despite these daydreams my most vivid image from the service was the huge portion of elderly but sturdy Greek women who circled the church interior to kiss their own personal selection of saints. Their childlike kisses were so innocent and sincere that I could imagine the same women performed the timeless ritual on Pop album covers of 60s heart throbs. Despite the sweet kisses of old ladies being lodged in my mind it was hard to separate the seamless sets of rituals that made up the service due to the style in which the service was conducted.

 Last week I commended the choir of St Michaels and commented how the congregation would be happy for the choir to sing the entire service, with regards to St John the entire service was sung/chanted but not from a choir. The only exception to singing was the homily (Greek for sermon) which was still spoken in Greek and easily the longest 10 minutes of my life.  Instead of a choir the Greek chanters were a small selection of men, including the forgetful granddad like personality of Father Sotiris. The two main chanters were men dressed in black cassocks who impressively lead a dialogue of chanting throughout the entire service, judging by their dress my research told me they were cantors. The cantors were accompanied by a younger priest who provided a harmony for what I presume were important parts of prayer. Occasionally two men smartly dressed in suits did a few guest spots, providing the cantors with well-earned breaks. The chanting was predictably very Middle Eastern and beautifully foreign in comparison to the past services. Despite the high immigrant population of the congregations of east London the majority of foreign aspects within the service have felt indebted to Britain’s colonial legacy however The Greek Orthodox Church is an exception. The great schism that separated the Eastern Church from Western Church in 1065 means the Greek Church in England is a rare breed in that it is a religious organization separate from Britain’s colonial past. The combination of differences in language, culture and chanting mixed up the entire routine of rituals I had come to expect. The entire service felt like a continual ritual of the repetition of ritualistic acts, like the chanting itself it was simplistic but confusing.

To recall the service from start to finish I can only think in a chanted inventory of minor details which no doubt would culminate into the ritual equivalents of sharing the peace or Holy Communion

Attendance low, programs given, money paid, candles lit, kissing of saints, young priest blesses congregation, blesses the front, blesses the back,  blesses to the left, blesses to the right, Father is seen in sanctuary, incense is burned, shook to the front, shook to the back, shook to the left, burned to the right, everyone stands, everyone crosses themselves, everyone sits, Father appears to dress in the sanctuary, young priest accompanies chanting, everyone stands, everyone crosses themselves, everyone sits, father displays himself from sanctuary, he makes offering from sanctuary, he burns incense from sanctuary, he leaves the sanctuary, everyone stands, everyone crosses themselves, everyone sits, one cantor solos while other rests, other cantor solos and the other rests, Holy book held by father, held to the front, held to the back, held to the left held to the right, everyone crosses themselves, incense burns, shook to the front, shook to back, shook to the left, shook to right  everyone crosses themselves, book is carried to the end of church, everyone crosses, and back to altar, everyone crosses themselves, attendance grows, programs given, more money paid, candles replaced, more kisses for saints, everyone crosses themselves, Father welcomes offering to Saint John, food is presented, food is taken, food is blessed, everyone stands, everyone crosses themselves, everyone sits, all four chant together, priest solo chant, father solo chant, cantor solo cant, second cantor solo chant, all four chant together, new holy book is held by father, held to the front, held to the back, held to the  left, held to the right, everyone crosses themselves, incense burns, shook to the front, shook to the back, shook to the left, shook to the right everyone crosses themselves, book is carried the end of the church, everyone crosses, and back to altar, everyone crosses themselves, more cantors contribute, everyone stands, everyone crosses themselves, everyone sits, men come forward with placards and flags,  men are blessed, placards are blessed, flags are blessed, everyone stands, everyone crosses themselves, everyone sits.
Chanting stops, sermon starts, longest 10 minutes in living memory, long for chanting to begin again and then it does and then I long for it to end.
Everyone stands, everyone crosses themselves and everyone sits and on and on its goes.

Hopefully the above passage highlights how amazingly repetitive yet unexplainable a Greek service is to a non-Greek and non-believer. More importantly I have spared the reader various other food blessings, more kissing of saints and the inclusion of a ceremony that looks like Holy Communion but only for a select few guests. To be honest what the hell did I expect, this was always going to be tough. After the sermon I had to rush to work but later in the week I did start to make some research to help form some answers to the ritual I had witnessed.

Calling the St John Theologian Church I did get some useful rehearsed information on the building’s history but the language barrier proved to be too troublesome to gather information on the church service. The conversation had a few long anxious (I don’t understand what you are saying but I will not admit it) pauses that may have been solved if I had met someone in person. Sadly the service was a pure ritual and I did not find the opportunity over the three hours to have a natter with an old Greek lady (despite there being loads). My unanswered questions lead me to the ever unreliable but always obtainable Wikipedia as my detective source. My three key questions are

Question 1: How many Holy Books Do the Greeks Need?

Turns out the Bible is not enough, the Greeks have a few spin off books which are also holy. They are theGreek Septuagin (one of the oldest of the old testaments), the Deueterocanocal books (ten books which protestanst don’t recognize as part of the old testament) ,the Typicon (book on liturgy on Eastern Orthodox service). Despite listing the books I still do not have a clue which was applicable to the church service.

Question 2:  Who was the food for?

Greeks love a feast. So it might have just been a weekly offering to St John but the nearest important date in the Greek religious calendar was 2nd February with the presentation of Jesus at the temple. Oddly I did not see enough pictures of Jesus in the church to draw this conclusion; I guess I was too distracted by the saints.

Question 3: What were the placards and flags for?

Still don’t have clue. Need to work on my Greek.

The Greek service taught me the importance of ritual, by not meeting my expectations of a ritualistic church service. I could not take comfort in the recognizing the religious trends and techniques but instead became lost in my own imagination. Perhaps the exotic chanting lead my imagination into more magnificent mysteries but ironically my research does support my ignorance. The orthodox theology believes in the mystic union of man and God, the orthodox claim that God is all powerful but he prefers to use material objects in rituals to help man get closer to him. How this process works the Greeks claim is a “Mystery,” and cannot be defined in human terms. The faith in “Mystery” through ritual is a too spiritual a notion for my church cynicism but it does seem to answer my own problem with understanding the importance of religious ritual. Without belief I may be able to expertly identify church customs (not that I can) but I will never be able to recognize God himself.


Any week now I will have my own picutres

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