Sveta Nedelya, Sofia

Sveta Nedelya, Sofia, Bulgaria


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Sveta Nedelya
Location: Sofia, Bulgaria
Date of visit: Saturday, 6 May 2017, 12:00am

The building

There has probably been a church here since the 10th century. The current building was consecrated in 1933. Its immediate predecessor, dating from the mid 19th century, has a rather spectacular story attached to it. On 16 April 1925, during the funeral of General Konstantin Georgiev, who had been killed by the communists two days prior, the church was attacked and blown up by agents of the Bulgarian communist party who had gotten into the service via forged invitations. One hundred fifty people died, including numerous military and political leaders. However, the intended target was not there when the bomb went off: Tsar Boris III had been late for the service. To this day, residents of Sofia joke that this shows that the Tsar (the son of an Austrian-born Tsar and an Italian princess) had finally become a real Bulgarian, as no true Bulgarian would ever show up for church on time.

The church

Sveta Nedelya translates differently depending on who is doing the translating. Bulgarians may tell you that it was named in honor of St Nedelya, a Nicomenian virgin known to the Greeks as St Kyriaki, who was martyred during the reign of the emperor Diocletian. But since Kyriaki is Greek for Sunday, they may also tell you that the name translates as Church of Holy Sunday or Church of the Lord's Day. A 16th century German traveler noted that it was also called the Lord's Church or the Church of Jesus Christ. This is officially one of the two co-cathedrals of the Sofia Eparchy, but in practice it is lorded over by the newer and much larger Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky.

The neighborhood

Sveta Nedelya is situated on a square that divides two sections of central Sofia. On one side, there are many government buildings, museums, and five-star hotels. On other side, past the Palace of Justice, is Vitosha Boulevard, an ultra-trendy pedestrianised street lined with international chain shops and independent cafes. Only a few Romani beggars and the ever-present stray dogs hint that this is the capital of the poorest country in the European Union.

The cast

The service was led by a priest, assisted by a deacon. If I understood the sign outside (which is dubious, as it was written in Bulgarian only), the priest in charge this week was Archpriest Nikolay Tsurev. Whether this means that he was the officiant at this particular service, I do not now.

What was the name of the service?

All-Night Vigil.

How full was the building?

At the beginning of the service (as opposed to when I arrived, for which see below), there were 15 in a space that could have easily held ten times that many. By the end, there were about 40.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Unsurprisingly, no.

Was your pew comfortable?

You're very funny. To clarify, I am an able-bodied man in the prime of life. I would certainly have been glowered at had I attempted to sit in one of the chairs reserved for women of a certain age and particularly decrepit men.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Well, when I arrived a quarter of an hour before the service, there were a few people in the back venerating icons and lighting candles. Also, in the middle of the church, a priest in red vestments, assisted by a deacon in white and a server (or perhaps reader or subdeacon) in purple, was leading a man in a dark blue suit and a woman in white, both of whom were wearing golden crowns, in a liturgical dance around a table. They were followed by a man in light blue and a woman in pink, who carried between them a set of candles tied with a white silk ribbon. An invisible choir was chanting. Yes, there was a wedding before the service I was attending. This ended approximately three minutes before the vigil was supposed to start. So the intervening period of time was spent in a flurry of activity: two men moved the furniture that had been used for the wedding, whilst the bride and groom exited to the sounds of a Balkan folk band, which soon merged with the sound of church bells. The priest took this short interval as an opportunity to hear confessions. As you may have gathered, a lot was going on.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The first liturgical action was done in silence (well, more accurately to the accompaniment of bells and the distant sound of the wedding band), with the priest censing everything in sight, accompanied by the deacon carrying an enormous candle. I won't pretend that I understood enough of the priest's first words to report them accurately, but from my research I gather that they probably translated to "Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A woman near me had a book from which she was following the service, but she had clearly brought her own and was unique in this.

What musical instruments were played?

None, other than bells.

Did anything distract you?

Everything distracted me. This was strange to me from a cultural, linguistic, and liturgical usage. In general, I had only the vaguest idea of what was going on.

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

I have attended Orthodox services before, but none as fulsomely celebrated as this. I reflected that this was probably due less to differences in "churchmanship" (a dubious concept in the East) than to Bulgaria being an overwhelmingly Orthodox country. This allowed for multiple clergy, a large choir, and the use of a church built for Byzantine liturgies, rather than one borrowed from Anglicans or Roman Catholics.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was none.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The chance to escape from an overly-intellectual experience of religion, and to embrace worship entirely in the body and through the senses of sight (the glorious frescos), sound (the choir's wonderful chanting), smell (incense), movement (hundreds of signs of the cross), and touch (we all lined up to kiss icons and the gospel book).

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

Despite what I said above, I probably would have preferred to understand at least some of the words being spoken or sung – other than "Amen" and "Alleluia," that is. Also, I've decided that I quite like being able to sit down in church.

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

The same thing that happened when I hung around before the service looking lost, and when I hung around during the service looking lost, i.e. nothing at all.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The more I travel in central and eastern Europe, the more I have come to regard this question as representing a peculiarly Anglophone obsession. I didn't expect any coffee here, and indeed there was none.

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

2 – I fear that for me, at any rate, attending here as my regular church would be the equivalent of what Archbishop Rowan Williams once described as worshiping in ethnic and ecclesiastical fancy dress. (Note that this is a statement about myself, not a judgement on anyone who has converted to Orthodoxy.)

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


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

Probably gate-crashing the wedding.

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