Mystery Worshipper: Back-to-Front
Church: St Peter & St Paul & All Saints
Location: Oldham, Greater Manchester, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 September 2010, 11:15am
The building is an attractive red brick affair with highlights in stone. The interior is beautiful, with low clear glass windows in the nave, allowing for plenty of natural light, and stained glass for the east window. This was formerly an Anglican church, and the building still bears a number of marks of its Anglican past. Among them are the organ, the ceiling painted with Victorian depictions of angels and other symbols, and a large wrought-iron corona suspended above the holy table. However, it has been well adapted to its current use with the addition of iconographic depictions of angels on the east wall and the installation of a traditional iconostasis. This is of the wooden frame variety with icons set into it, thus allowing worshippers to see the action in the altar.
This parish seems very culturally Ukrainian. For instance, while a number of Ukrainian Catholic churches have foregone use of their traditional liturgical language of Church Slavonic, some have incorporated the local language to a greater or lesser degree. At SS Peter and Paul, the service was entirely in Ukrainian.
Oldham is a large town in northwest England, population 103,000, around seven miles from Manchester. The area rose to prominence in the 19th century as a centre for the textile industry. This declined in the latter part of the 20th century. The area now known as Greater Manchester has been a place of settlement for Ukrainian families since at least the late 19th century, although today many of the second and third generations have moved elsewhere and do not necessarily retain ties with the churches. In more recent years, Oldham has become home to many Asian people who have also brought elements of their culture with them. The residential area immediately surrounding the church is inhabited primarily by Muslims of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, with a mosque and a number of shops and eateries specialising in Asian supplies and cuisine. Memories of the local inter-racial riots of 2001 remain clear in the minds of Oldham's residents and most people make a concerted effort to be tolerant and affirming of the various cultures that now peacefully co-exist.
The celebrant and preacher was the Very Revd Father Bohdan Lysykanych, former Apostolic Administrator to the Ukrainian Catholic Exarchate in Great Britain prior to the appointment of its new bishop administrator last year.
What was the name of the service?The Divine Liturgy
How full was the building?
There were between 40 and 45 people present in a building that could have comfortably seated about 250. However, most people sat together near the front. (Your Mystery Worshipper sat discreetly or perhaps obviously near the back.)
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, and to be honest, that's the way I quite like it. I suppose I'm the sort of person who likes to be reasonably comfortable in my surroundings before interacting with people. If I'm in an unfamiliar church, conversation with a stranger, being handed books, and given directions of what to do and where to go are all things I can happily do without. After the service, I will feel more at home and more amenable to conversation.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. I have no complaints. There was ample leg room and no uncomfortable bits in an awkward place in my back as one sometimes finds. My surprise came more from the fact that there were any pews there at all. I imagine they were inherited from the Anglican community. It must be said that they are really quite attractive pews – dark wood with rather smart carving in places. More on this later.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential. There were a few muted conversations here and there but for the most part unnoticeable.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Exclaimed in Ukrainian: "Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were a few booklets available in the pews containing the text of the liturgy but nobody seemed to be using them. The divine liturgy is generally unchanging and is easily followed without the need for books.
What musical instruments were played?
None. This is a Slav-Byzantine Rite church, which is one of the inheritors of the school of thought which says that musical instruments were used in Old Testament worship to supplement human singing because the light of Christ had not yet dawned on the world, but now that human beings may live in the light of Christ, the human voice in its purity is the only instrument fitting for the worship of God.
Did anything distract you?
A few things, actually. The fact that I do not understand Ukrainian meant that the sermon gave my eyes and my mind ample opportunity to wander. I noticed the beauty of the pews and thought how much freer the movement of the liturgy would be if they were not there. Then I thought how the church could lay aside any financial concerns it may have if it were to sell them and the organ (which is unused). However, what I then noticed during this time was that the decor of the church, which was certainly not what I would usually associate with Slav-Byzantine worship or spirituality, was also not in keeping with the "Lancashire low" tradition of the previous Anglican occupants. The building is adorned with statues of the Mother of God and St Joseph, rosary beads and very large stations of the cross, none of which would have been countenanced by the previous occupants of the building. So where did they come from? It was then that it dawned on me that I was experiencing first-hand the Latinisation of Ukrainian Catholicism of which I had only ever previously read. This was further highlighted when the priest blessed with his hand and the people crossed themselves, and at the "Svjat, Svjat, Svjat" (the sanctus) when the congregation fell to its knees for the consecration in Roman Catholic style. I have had it drilled into me that kneeling for prayer on Sundays is something that is just not done, in honour of the Resurrection, yet it seemed so natural to these faithful people as it has simply been their custom for as long as they can remember.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It had the usual relaxed formality of any other divine liturgy to which I have been. Things were done with ceremony and dignity but it seemed natural and "lived in", not done with forced military precision as though the participants had learnt it from an instruction manual and were afraid of setting a foot wrong. The few variable portions were chanted beautifully by the choir and a cantor, and most of the congregation joined in the singing of the rest of the service in two-three part harmony. I tried to lend my voice where I could.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
As the sermon was in Ukrainian, which is a language that I do not have, I was not able to understand the content. However, the congregation appeared attentive and engaged.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There were a few things, actually. Firstly, it was good to see the reverence and devotion that was clearly in evidence. I had an immense feeling of satisfaction at hearing almost the entire congregation singing in harmony and filling the building with its praises. There was no sense of "choir-only" here. I was also pleased to see that, despite the Latinisations in evidence in the decor of the building and the piety of the people, the priest himself served his parts faithfully to the rite. However, most heavenly of all was the fact that I was able to slip into a church anonymously, without fuss being made over me, without any responsibility, and without an expectation that I would have to share all about myself. The "hands-off" approach is perhaps not the best for visitors who need to feel actively welcomed or for a church that hopes to welcome people and to grow, but for me it was just what I needed and I was grateful for it.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, there were some things that would have quite ruffled my feathers were I to witness them in an Orthodox church. But I suppose, as with anything that upsets us in our own traditions, we tend to mind less when we see them elsewhere. For example, several of the litanies were either abbreviated or omitted entirely. But strangest of all, there was no incense. I had never before witnessed this at the liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Even the simplest liturgy, with nobody present but one priest and a cantor, usually has incense. I wonder why this was different.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Very little. A short, extra-liturgical hymn was sung after the dismissal. Within two minutes of it having ended, almost the entire congregation had left the church. A few people from the choir were tidying music away at the front, so I stood near them and looked at some of the decor of the building, but there was no interaction. I left after a few minutes, to find a few people outside putting jackets on and getting into cars. One gentleman shook my hand and started a brief and polite exchange, but he had to leave as he was the driver for a group who had travelled together.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There seemed to be no obvious time of fellowship after the liturgy. As an Orthodox Christian with an Anglican background accustomed to the Slavic custom of a full meal after a Sunday service, or at least conversation over drinks and biscuits, I thought this seemed unusual.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – My faith and spirituality are now so firmly grounded in the Slav-Byzantine Rite that a Ukrainian Catholic church would be the natural place for me to make my home. I know the liturgy inside out and am somewhat familiar with Slavonic, so the service being in Ukrainian poses no difficulty for me. However, this particular community has a shared history together, and I got the feeling that on Sunday mornings it would be difficult for a newcomer, especially one who is not Ukrainian or in some way of Slavic descent, to find a way into that. As I mentioned, on the occasion I visited, I needed to be afforded my space and privacy, but if I were trying to join the parish I would be grateful for a little more of an effort at welcoming me than was extended by either the laity or the priest.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The beautiful and satisfying iconostasis. So often one finds either extreme of a solid iconostasis where nothing in the altar is visible, or one which is of barely any substance and from which the doors and veil are absent. It is entirely refreshing to find one that gets the right balance.