St Mary the Virgin, Waverley, New South Wales, Australia

St Mary the Virgin, Waverley, New South Wales, Australia


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Mystery Worshipper: Ian Climacus
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Waverley, New South Wales, Australia
Date of visit: Saturday, 7 July 2007, 9:30am

The building

A large stone building from the 1860s, sitting atop a hill in Waverley, one of Sydney's eastern suburbs. The building has been repaired, refurbished and expanded numerous times over the years, as described on their website. Inside, the church is richly decorated. The altar originally graced St Andrews Cathedral in Sydney, but was removed when the Cathedral opted instead for a portable communion table. Behind the altar are panels depicting the Ten Commandments and the Apostles Creed.

The church

The clergy who conducted this service are connected in one way or another with St Petroc's Monastery in Tasmania, which was originally Anglo-Catholic but which in 1995 voted to embrace Orthodoxy. In 1997, the monastery was received into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, under the omophorion (spiritual and ecclesiastical authority) of Archbishop Hilarion of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand. The monastery was granted permission to use a modified form of the Book of Common Prayer with the explicit intent of attracting people of Anglo-Celtic ancestry to Orthodoxy. They produced their own prayer book, known as the Saint Colman Prayer Book, based on the Sarum rite. In terms of Western Rite presence in Australia, I believe – and this experience did nothing to challenge this – that it is still very much a minority presence, and confined primarily to ex-Anglicans.

The neighborhood

Waverley is a mostly residential suburb not far from one of Sydney's most famous beaches, Bondi Beach. It is also close to Centennial Park, a large parkland area where one can walk, run, cycle and horse-ride. Waverley is also noted for the highly picturesque location of its cemetery, situated along the coastline cliffs.

The cast

Mass was celebrated in the presence of His Grace, Archbishop Hilarion of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand. The Revd Fr Michael, superior of Saint Petroc Monastery, was the celebrant, assisted by the Revd Fr Barry Jefferies, from Saint Stephen Monastery Mission, Launceston, Tasmania, and the Revd Deacon John Whiteside from Good Shepherd Australian Orthodox Mission, Melbourne. An acolyte or deacon (I am not as sure of Western liturgical dress as I am with the Eastern) was also present, as was a Russian deacon – the Archbishop's deacon I presume.

What was the name of the service?

Matins and the English Rite Mass. The service was a special commemoration of the 1907 decision of the Holy Synod of Russia, at the request of Bishop Tikhon (later St Tikhon, Patriarch and Confessor of Moscow and Enlightener of North America), to permit the Book of Common Prayer to be adapted for use by the Orthodox faithful. (There is, however, some question as to whether Bishop Tikhon did any such thing!)

How full was the building?

Exceptionally empty, especially given I had expected a reasonable number on this centenary celebration. There were only 11 people plus two cantors present for matins, which number increased to 13 by the time mass started. I recognised several of the congregation from previous visits to St Mary's – no doubt coming along, as I did, to see what the Western Rite was all about.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A cheery "hello" and "welcome" as the booklet and leaflet were handed to me.

Was your pew comfortable?

A reasonable pew, not uncomfortable. The kneelers were also reasonably comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People were sitting quietly in the pews or having quiet talks at the back.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The antiphon "Behold a great priest who in his days pleased God..." introduced the reception of the archbishop as clergy processed to the altar. Matins opened with "O Lord, open thou our lips."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A booklet containing the text and rubrics for the services of matins and the English Rite mass. A special booklet for the liturgical reception of the archbishop, with information on the history and current presence of Western Rite Orthodoxy at the back.

What musical instruments were played?

Voice only. I did hope for an organ (St Mary's has a majestic one), but perhaps Western Rite, like Eastern Rite, Orthodoxy does not generally allow for such things.

Did anything distract you?

His Grace and the Russian deacon were in Eastern clericals; the other clergy in Western clericals. And, embarrassingly, there was quite an attractive chap taking photos. My eyes kept coming back to him.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Upper-lip English is my best guess. I believe Fr Michael may come from England, as there was a pronounced English accent to his chanting. The style of the service was definitely Anglican, with Orthodox touches. A makeshift iconostasis had been set up. Incense was used as per the Western rite, and people stood, sat and kneeled at various points during the service as in an Anglican church. No filioque in the creed, of course. Communion was closed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – His Grace is a great speaker. I have heard him at previous ROCOR events and today was no exception.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He spoke on the feast of the day, the Nativity of St John the Forerunner, covering the life and example of St John.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Hearing and praying a number of beautiful prayers which were new to me. Also hearing the Western version of "Let all mortal flesh keep silence" – no descant unfortunately, but, despite my love for Eastern Rite, the Western version of this hymn moves me like no other.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Though the sun was out, it was very, very cold in the church. I wish I had brought a jacket in with me. And despite it being a beautiful service, there was also something about it that to me, at least, screamed, "Converts! Attend!" as though Orthodox ex-pats were longing for an Anglican experience.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I had not realised both matins and mass were to be celebrated, so, as I was almost running late for a lunch meeting with a friend down the road at Bondi, I had to dash off.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I was not around to find out. I did receive the antidoron – blessed, but non-eucharistic and non-consecrated, leavened bread distributed to all at the end of a liturgy – before leaving, however.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

2 – This was not a regular parish service, and thus I cannot truly judge. Community is very important to me. I am an Eastern Rite man pretty much through-and-through; finding it and praying it is a great blessing for me. So, as attractive as Western services can be, my home will always be Eastern Rite anyway. I must add that if the purpose of the Western Rite is to attract the disaffected to Orthodoxy, I'm not sure a church filled with the disaffected is such a good thing.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, but I also felt rather sad that, at least in this instance, the impression it left in me was a call for disaffected Anglicans. In multi-cultural Australia, a harking back to Ye Old Englande is not going to make much progress.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Sadly, the lack of people at this centenary celebration.

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