A Visit to a Greek Orthodox Church

I have just returned from a visit to the local Greek Orthodox Church, a visit that was done as part of one of my university courses.

The first thing that struck me about the worship was that it seemed some-how disconnected from the people. The congregation would arrive, chat to each other, wander out again, and the service seemed to continue at the front, with the 3 men chanting apparently to themselves. Then again, it wasn’t just the people who didn’t seem to mind that they were late, the priest arrived while the chanting was in progress.

It was all in all a very strange experience. Of course, I must say at this point that I don’t speak a word of Greek, well, outside of the greek you pick in up churches. However, simply observing the service, it was possible to pick out a few elements, but they didn’t seem to be connected in anyway. For example, the gospel procession happened about 15 mins before the Gospel itself was read out. The communion prayer was presumably said by the priest, but as it was behind the rood screen it was impossible to say when this happened. At the end of the service, two loaves of bread were blessed, and it was these loaves that were then distrubuted to people. The people formed a line, went forward and kissed the cross, and then eat the bred, it was fairly ordered, then people left the church.

It was an interesting experience, to sit there have everything done behind the rood screen, with the priest appearing every now and again to swing some incense, or to offer some blessings, read the Gospel, swing some more incense, and then deliver a sermon. It must have been rather like the experience pre-reformation in Catholic Churches. A place where the service was almost irrelevant to the people. Though the service itself was rooted in the culture of these people, and Church served as a gathering place for the small greek community, there didn’t seem to be any connection between the people and the divine. There was no silence for prayer, there was no responses from the people (appart from the creed, and the Lord’s Prayer), and there was no hymns for the people to sing, no way for them to interact with the service, they were simply passive observers.

It was a long service, nearly 2 1/2 hours, and people came in almost all through the service. AT the very beginning it was just a handful of old ladies, and my friend and I, then slowly over time, more and more people came. It seemed that the younger you were, the later you came. By about 2 hrs into the service, the little church was fairly full, and the young people were beginning to arrive. This didn’t seem to cause a problem, and no-one seemed to, as they would in an Anglican Church, turn and shush, or tut, or even glare at these late arrivals. They were simply excepted in, and place was made for them to sit, if they asked for it, but most seemed quite content to stand at the back of the Church.

A lot was made of the icons. The Church itself was beautifully painted, with Gold-surround Icons all over the place. Each of these icons was sensed every time incense was brought out, which was about 3 times. The thuruble had bells on the chain, so it made a noise, this was presumably from the days when the rood screen was not open in anyway to tell the people when the incense was being used.

It was a very long service, especially with very few breaks in the pace. The chanting was of a similar tune, with very little to distinguish one piece of chant from another, and with no responses from the congregation, it was very difficult to see when the service had moved from one part to another.

The priest could often be heard saying prayers, thought Cantors seemed oblivious to what he was saying at some points, and would just carry on with their chant, and at others when the priest started to prayer or Chant, they would join him with responses, mostly “Kyrie Eleison”.

At the moment, as you can tell, this is just a jumble of thoughts, the first reactions and feeling to the experience so that they made it down on to some form of medium. There may be more to say, but we shall see.

~Bx