St Gregorios, Brockley – Oriental (Indian)

History

The parish currently worshipping at St Gregorios Church was founded in 1974, established by a community which had roots in groups of Indian Christians brought together by priests and bishops of the Indian/Malankara church visiting Britain in the 1930s.

In 1978, the community began to hold services in an Anglican church in central London, and bought St Gregorios Church in 2005. The building was originally a church hall for the nearby Anglican church of St. Peter, and “St. Peter’s Hall” is still visible on the window above the main door.

Appearance

The outside of the church is not particularly striking, but then again, it was originally simply a church hall. The inside, though, certainly looks the part. Walking into the church, the first thing I saw was a large brass cross in the middle of the aisle between the chairs, which had candle wicks burning from what reminded me of tiers on a wedding cake, bowls of oil around the cross which got larger the closer to the floor they were.

Facing each other on opposite walls at the back of the church are two realistically painted icons, one of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus, and another of whom I presume is the eponymous St. Gregorios (1848 – 1902). These have candles and incense sticks placed in front of them. An archway near one of these icons leads to a small dimly lit side-chapel with icons of the Virgin Mary.

At the front of the church is the sanctuary, which had a red curtain drawn across it when I entered. This is flanked by copies of the two icons at the back of the church, as well as by some floral displays. A small stone font and an electric keyboard are also at the front of the church.

For much of the service, the curtain in front of the sanctuary was drawn to reveal a spectacular three-tiered altar, draped in red and gold cloth, with crosses on each level flanked by twelve candles and with the Rublev icon of the Trinity placed in the middle. Above the altar is a stained glass window showing St. Thomas the Apostle encountering the risen Christ, with angels on either side of them.

Clergy

The service was led by a priest who for much of the service wore rich red and gold vestments, although before the start of the Qurbana (see below) he was wearing far simpler black vestments. He was helped by ten younger men in white vestments, who were altar servers, deacons, and/or chanters. An elderly bearded man in black was also up in the sanctuary but did not seem to play much of a part in the service; I think he was a visiting priest.

Congregation

The congregation was huge. It was too large to count, but there were certainly more than 120 people there, maybe up to twenty or so more. Unsurprisingly, the congregation was Indian in terms of ethnicity; indeed, I was the only non-Indian there! There was a roughly even divide between males and females,  who, just like in the Coptic church I visited last month, were segregated by the central aisle. There was also a wide range of age groups.

Service

There were two main parts to the service: the morning prayers, and then the main communion service (the Qurbana). The morning prayers started at 9:00, and were sung in Malayalam, an Indian language. The prayers were divided into verses, alternating between the chanters and the male members of the congregation singing one verse and the female members of the congregation chanting the next. I was able to follow these prayers due to service books situated in the back of each chair, but there was no translation, only a transliteration into the Latin alphabet. Nevertheless, despite not being able to understand this first part of the service, I was at least able to just about follow it, although twice I lost my place in the prayer book and was kindly shown where we were by a member of the congregation.

After the morning prayers came the communion service. This was in English and found in another service book, with a large part following the same pattern of prayers and hymns alternating between being sung by the men and women. According to the service book, they were using the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (the standard liturgy of the Orthodox Church) but it bore only a vague resemblance to it, and most sources I have found say that the Indian Oriental churches use a modified version of another liturgy, that of St. James, so I am unsure precisely what was being used here.

The Qurbana began with the curtain over the sanctuary being drawn back, and a very loud bell at the back of the church being rung several times. I was seated quite close to the back, and I found this bell so loud that after a few peals I actually had to cover my ears. The Qurbana service consisted primarily of the prayers and hymns sung by the congregation, with use of incense and hand-held bells by the altar servers. Some of the hymns were accompanied by synth sounds from the electronic keyboard. Bible readings were Genesis 42:6-16 (Joseph meeting his brothers as governor in Egypt), 1 Kings 3:5-14 (Solomon being granted wisdom), and passages from Matthew 16 and 1 Corinthians 3. Twice before communion, members of the congregation queued up to go up to the priest and receive a blessing. Communion itself was given by a spoon from a chalice, as in Orthodox churches, and as at the Coptic church I visited the men went up to receive first and were followed by the women.

The Qurbana lasted just over two hours, and was followed by the sermon. This wasn’t very long, and was on the subject of being thankful for God’s blessings. After this came some announcements, mostly concerning the harvest festival being held after the service, as well as an “introduce the newcomers” section during which myself and several others had to stand up and briefly greet the huge congregation – not one to enjoy being the centre of attention, I found this rather intimidating.

After more notices and announcements, the service finished at 12:30, having lasted two and a half hours in total.

Afterwards

After the service, a few members of the congregation sang a song to music being played over a sound system, during which the congregation – again segregated by gender, but this time females first – approached the front to receive a blessing from the priest. The church’s annual harvest festival was being held in a hall adjacent to the main building, and most of the congregation left via a side door to go to this, where traditional Indian cuisine was on sale.

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