Cathedral of the Nativity of the Mother of God, Camberwell – Orthodox (Greek)

Please note – this church caters primarily for the Greek diaspora. Unless set on becoming an Orthodox Christian, one may find it difficult (although by no means impossible) to settle in or to understand much of the service without an understanding of the Greek language.

History

The church building was built in 1873. It was originally home to a congregation of the “Catholic Apostolic Church”, (also known as Irvingism, an Anglo-Catholic splinter group founded in the late 19th century) which vacated the building in 1961, it having been bombed during the Second World War in 1941. The Orthodox Church acquired the building in 1963, and it gained the status of a cathedral in 1977.

Appearance

The inside of the church is absolutely full of art. I don’t think any more depictions of saints or Biblical scenes could be fit on the wall if they tried, although there is a bit of room left on the ceiling! The walls are quite literally covered in paintings and frescoes, including depictions of the Ascension, the Transfiguration, the four Evangelists, Daniel in the lion’s den, and even a large mural of the Last Supper clearly inspired by the da Vinci painting.

There are also numerous icons around the church on the walls and pillars, depicting New Testament scenes such as the baptism of Christ and the Annunciation, and saints such as the Prophet Elijah, Saint George, Saint Marina, and of course the Virgin Mary. Even the ceiling was decorated, with a large painting of Christ flanked by angels set above the congregation.

At the back of the church is a large font, and at the front is the sanctuary, with the altar behind an iconostasis as is the norm in Orthodox churches. To the right of the sanctuary is a small side-chapel like area, with its own small iconostasis and a large stand for candles – the walls of this area depict scenes from Holy Week, such as the entrance into Jerusalem and Jesus being taken down from the cross.

Clergy

The service was held by two priests, an older one in green vestments and a younger one in red vestments. Six male chanters dressed in smart suits sung most of the various prayers and psalms, and some other men in suits carried some of the items in the procession with the communion.

Congregation

As I have come to expect in Orthodox churches, the congregation grew considerably as the service progressed. There were only four elderly ladies there when I arrived, but by the end of the service the congregation must have numbered roughly 110. Most of the congregation were Greek, and the majority were female and/or probably above 50 years old.

Service

As with most Sunday morning Orthodox church communion services, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was held when I visited, meaning that the service was very similar in structure to those I attended at Upper Norwood and Battersea. Unsure of when the service started due to the church not having a website, I arrived at 9:50 to find that the service was ongoing, but from the looks of it (only four others in the congregation, and one of the priests not yet in full vestments) had only just started. As with all Orthodox services (I explain this more fully in my review of Sts. Constantine and Helen), nearly all of it consisted of prayers, hymns and psalms being chanted (in Greek) by the priests or chanters.

At 10:00, some bells rung; this usually marks the break between the Matins (morning prayers) and the Divine Liturgy (the communion service proper), but this happened far too early – and they rung again later at a more fitting time – and so I’m not sure what this signified. Ten minutes later, the elder of the priests exited the sanctuary with a Bible, holding it at the front of the church for the congregation to come up and venerate. The congregation at this point in the service was still so small – just under a dozen – that there was room for us to remain standing at the front while the priest processed with the Bible around the church to place it on a stand at the back, after which we went back to our places. Five minutes after that, the same priest processed around the church censing the congregation.

There followed about twenty five minutes of chanting, after which at roughly 10:40 the bells sounded again, louder this time, signalling the start of the communion service. After just over an hour of more chanting and incense, during which there was a Bible reading and a procession with the bread and wine for communion (after which a small prayer was said in English – the only one in the entire service, so far as I could tell), and the Nicene Creed and Lord’s Prayer were said.

At about 12 came a sermon from the younger priest (by this point the congregation had grown to about 80 people), after which there was a collection and some more prayers, during which at least 20 more people joined the congregation, and then communion was served by both of the priests at about 12:15. After communion, prayers for the dead were said, with members of the congregation holding candles in memory of departed friends and relatives. This was followed by a blessing, marking the end of the service at about 12:40.

Afterwards

After the service, as is customary in Orthodox churches, the priests handed out small pieces of bread from a dish at the front of the church, the antidoron – this bread was blessed, and the communion bread was taken from the same loaf, but the antidoron is not considered consecrated communion bread. After receiving antidoron, most of the members of the congregation went into a courtyard of the church, where there were a few small craft stalls, and teas and coffees being served.

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