Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, Oxford, England

Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius, Oxford, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius
Location: Oxford, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 23 January 2010, 10:30am

The building

The Fellowship worships at the Annunciation/Holy Trinity Church, Canterbury Road. This is a round, low-rise brick structure, purpose-built in the early 1970s in the garden of St Gregory House, One Canterbury Road. The inside is adorned with a magnificent, modern chandelier, and the walls are lined with icons of the saints.

The church

The Fellowship maintains branches throughout the world. The reader is respectfully referred to their website for a detailed description of their history, programs, grants, awards and other activities, far too numerous to describe here.

The neighborhood

Annunciation/Holy Trinity Church is located in an academic suburb of a university town with a centuries-old tradition of internationalism.

The cast

Thousands upon thousands, if you include the saints depicted in the icons round the inside walls of the church and the invisible escort of the angelic hosts. But physically present were His Excellency the Most Revd Kallistos, Metropolitan of Diokleia; and the Revd Father Stephen Platt, general secretary of the Fellowship. They were assisted by one robed acolyte and one cassocked cantor.

What was the name of the service?

The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom – Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

How full was the building?

With about 30 of the gathered faithful present, the building was full enough for a newcomer/Mystery Worshipper not to feel exposed and uncomfortable, but not so many that there wasn't room for the "home team" (the Orthodox regulars) to come and go, prostrate themselves, or whatever.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not as I arrived. But at coffee hour – see below!

Was your pew comfortable?

No pews. There were some benches along the side of the walls and several chairs on the left-hand side of the church – a concession to the infirmities of old age and a throwback to the time when women would sit on the left side and men would stand on the right. (I didn't notice any segregation today, however.) Most people stood throughout, except during the sermon. It occurred to me that a lot of the bowing and crossing oneself that marks Orthodox worship practices might have arisen not so much from piety as from the need to keep the blood circulation going!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I stepped inside the church to discover that worship was already in progress – a reminder that worship takes place unceasingly in the courts of heaven. The gentle murmur of prayers, the dancing light of dozens of candles, a thurible-wielding cleric circling round censing anyone and anything within range – this was pre-worship that made it very easy to attain "the spirit of recollection, leading to inner stillness" of which my confirmation-class teacher spoke so many years ago.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

I don't know, because I don't know when the service actually began! Was it when the first audible prayer, an elaborate and beautiful invocation of the Holy Spirit, was intoned from within the sanctuary? Or perhaps it was when the opening words of the divine liturgy itself were sung: "Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages." Or was it when the congregation snapped visibly to attention (we were already on our feet) at the deacon's exhortation: "Wisdom! Let us stand aright."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None – although we were, later on, each issued with a bit of paper (which made the Anglicans feel at home) with an extra prayer inserted into the liturgy for this occasion.

What musical instruments were played?

No instruments except the human voice, the little bells hung from the chains of the thurible, and more little bells (in the shape of pomegranates) sewn onto the hem of the Metropolitan's outer robe. As all the movements of the altar party were slow and deliberate, this made for a fascinating rhythmic counterpoint to the chanting.

Did anything distract you?

There was plenty to distract once the action hotted up – which it did, after about an hour. I mean, could you keep a straight face if you caught a glimpse of the Metropolitan's pastoral staff, which looked more like a small ice axe than something you'd use to catch a wandering sheep. Quite good, I would imagine, for braining a particularly exasperating member of the flock. On the other hand, once you were into the flow of meditative worship, nothing short of a small atom bomb was going to disrupt the focus of your attention.

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

Byzantine. A long and elaborate ritual performed at about the rate of the human heartbeat at rest. Music in Greek Orthodox style (as opposed to Slavonic). Congregational role minimal, in the sense that really there was nothing to say but the odd "Amen."

Exactly how long was the sermon?

19 minutes.

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

8 – A learned, but also amusing, exposition of motifs from the Bible texts. The theological discourse was preceded by practical instructions, including welcoming non-Orthodox to take the antidoron (blessed but unconsecrated bread) after the service.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Prayer. Specifically, inner prayer or, as the Westerners might call it, contemplative prayer. Prayer is not the same as asking for things. It is standing before God. It animates our outward actions: working for a better world, alleviating distress such as that caused by the recent earthquake in Haiti, etc.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The trisagion hymn: the cantor singing, and congregation praying, "Holy God; holy and strong; holy immortal one, have mercy upon us" echoed immediately by those within the sanctuary. Total mindshift time!

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

Kneeling on the bare wooden floor while reciting the Week of Unity prayer. Serious culture-shock time: they really mean for us to do this without kneelers? Then you look up and see on the wall an icon of St Seraphim of Sarov, kneeling on his rock for 100 days and nights, and realise that five minutes dedicated to seriously praying for unity among God's people is not too much to ask.

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

Nothing. Perhaps they thought I was lost in prayer. But then came coffee hour, and oh, did things change!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

All of a sudden, parishioners who'd been worshipping in perfect stillness were transformed into chatty, warmly welcoming hosts. There was some very good coffee (in mugs) and platefuls of home-made cake and a special treat – kolyva – a sort of liturgical cereal of boiled wheat, sugar, fruit and nuts, in memory of the recently departed mother and father of one of the parishioners, who had also baked the bread used in the liturgy. Kolyva may be a calorie disaster area, but it makes our naming of the deceased "in the year's mind" seem very feeble in comparison.

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

8 – This couldn't happen, though, in the sense that you wouldn't get this kind of experience more than once a year. Going to the Orthodox parish week by week would mean a considerable cultural adjustment to a different language and different community traditions.

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

Oh yes!

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

Orthodox and non-Orthodox kneeling together, our heads in clouds of incense.

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