St Peter and St Paul, Clapham – Orthodox (Russian)

History

The parish was founded in January 2003, and worships inside an Anglican church which was built in 1877.

Appearance

I will not go into detail on the inside of the church building, as such a description will more properly belong to the review of the Anglican church itself once I visit one of their services there. Simply put, the inside of the building follows a standard layout for an Anglican church.

I arrived a several minutes before the Orthodox service started, and so was able to see a “transformation” of sorts as things were set up – icons of biblical scenes from the New Testament were taken out and put on the windowsills along the walls, and a large figure of the crucifixion was placed at the front of the church, in the sanctuary. With no iconostasis, two large icons – one of Christ and one of the Virgin Mary – were brought out and put on either side of the entrance to the sanctuary. Some of the pews were then moved so as to make room for a stand for books from which the choir could sing from.

Clergy

A priest and a deacon conducted the service, both dressed in red and gold vestments. The priest had a white cassock on underneath, and a high-backed phelonion (chasuble). There was also a choir of several people, who sung most of the prayers.

Congregation

Unlike the other three Orthodox churches that I have so far visited (in Upper Norwood, Battersea, and Camberwell), there was no steady swell of people from a small group to near a hundred with somebody coming through the door every few minutes as I had seen elsewhere. Instead, the service started with about thirty people, and the congregation had reached roughly seventy by about an hour into the service, (including the choir), a number which stayed constant from there onwards.

Also unlike the other Orthodox churches I have visited, the congregation was not overly “ethnic” – there were certainly a lot of ethnic minorities, with many nationalities listed on the parish’s website, but it was not mostly Russian as the Greek churches I have visited were mostly Greek. Furthermore, the male/female and young/elderly proportion was much more balanced than in the other Orthodox churches, which had mostly female and elderly congregations.

Service

As with nearly all Sunday morning Orthodox church communion services, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was held when I visited. This meant that the service had the same structure as the other Orthodox services I have visited, but there were two main differences. First, the tunes to which the prayers were sung were different, Russian rather than Greek (I also noticed that the icons were in a slightly different style, but other than such superficial differences there are – despite a common misconception – no real differences between the different “flavours” of Orthodox Christianity).

The second was that the service was nearly all in English! A few of the prayers were in Greek or Church Slavonic (a liturgical language used in Slavic Orthodox churches such as the Russian and Bulgarian), but only as many as were in English in the mostly Greek services at the other Orthodox churches I had visited. 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, psalms and short hymns being chanted and sung by the priests, deacon or choir, and so it made a huge difference to be able to understand what was being prayed and chanted and not just to make educated guesses based on prior research (which the average visitor may not have) as to what was going on.

The service started at 11:30. One male member of the choir (who I at first thought was a lone chanter until the people standing around him later joined in) started singing and chanting prayers, but unfortunately he had no microphone and I did not find that he projected his voice very well, making it difficult to hear what he was saying. While these initial prayers were being sung, members of the congregation went about the church lighting candles at the front and venerating icons, until after about ten minutes the rest of the choir joined in, and the priest begun to chant some of the prayers as well.

The readings were 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and Luke 15:11-32. The sermon took place straight after the gospel reading, the parable of the Prodigal Son, and was on said parable. Communion began at about 13:30 with people lining up to go forward and receive it, with the last person taking communion about 15 minutes later. As in the other Orthodox churches I had visited, after receiving communion they would also be given a piece of blessed but non-consecrated bread taken from the loaf from which the communion bread had been cut (antidoron), but what differed was that here they were also afterwards given a cup of watered down non-consecrated wine, which is the custom in the Russian tradition – this serves the practical purpose of ensuring that none of the consecrated communion elements (which are believed to be the Body and Blood of Christ) remain in the mouth.

After communion was served, there were more prayers, then announcements, after which the service finished.

The service lasted approximately two hours and twenty minutes.

I must conclude by stating that this church – despite not even having its own building – is almost certainly the best in south London for a non-Greek interested in Orthodoxy to attend, although without the wonderful decoration of an Orthodox church building it admittedly does not really have the same atmosphere as the other three I have reviewed. There are other Orthodox churches in London, but due to the geographical limitations of my reviews, I must limit myself to the four which I have already visited.

Afterwards

At the end of the service, members of the congregation went up to the priest at the front to kiss his blessing cross and receive left-over pieces of antidoron. There was a parish sale being held in an adjoining hall after the service, with lunches for sale and stalls with icons, books, cakes, and various items of bric-a-brac.

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