Sts Constantine and Helen, Upper Norwood – Orthodox (Greek)

Please note – this church caters primarily for the Greek diaspora. Unless set on becoming an Orthodox Christian (in which case there are other Orthodox churches in central London which could be considered more suitable for those with English as a first language), 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 opened in 1878 as a Presbyterian church. At some point over the following century it became an Anglican church known as St. Andrew’s.

The Greek Orthodox community which now uses the church was established in 1967 and initially worshipped in an Anglican church in Croydon before buying the current building in 1976. The official inauguration of the church took place on 18 May 1980.

Appearance

Stepping inside this church, one could almost think they had stepped back in time into a church of medieval Byzantium, were it not for the electric lights. The sheer volume of icons, frescoes, and even a few mosaics is overwhelming. Inside this church, one is surrounded by Christ, Mary, saints and angels – the church on earth worships alongside the church in heaven.

Immediately facing somebody entering the church are three icons – one of Christ, one of the Virgin Mary, and one of Sts Constantine and Helen (the patrons of the church). To the left of these is a tray of sand on top of a cabinet, in which several candles are placed. Beyond these icons and candles is the nave, with the pews separated by an aisle leading down towards the iconostasis.

The iconostasis is a wooden structure between the nave and the sanctuary, inlaid with icons and topped with a cross. In the middle are the “Royal Doors” through which the priest enters and leaves the sanctuary, with curtains drawn across when the service is not ongoing. The sanctuary, glimpsed through the Royal Doors, contains an altar with ornate Bibles and lamps.

Behind the iconostasis, on the wall at the front of the church, is a huge painting of the Virgin Mary, flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel and presenting Christ to the congregation. On either side of this large painting is a mosaic of Christ, one depicting the Harrowing of Hell and the other the Transfiguration. Around the top of the large painting are smaller paintings of various Old Testament patriarchs and prophets.

In front of the Royal Doors hangs a shining gilded cross with a small depiction of the Crucifixion where the four beams meet. In front of this cross hangs a chandelier, and in front of this (now nearer the back of the church) another – these two chandeliers are enormous, inlaid with gold and small icons. Around the walls of the church are paintings of saints and several frescoes, mostly of Biblical scenes such as the Nativity and the Resurrection, but also (at the back of the church) two of church history: the First Council of Nicaea and the discovery of the True Cross by St Helen.

The amount of artwork in this church is far too much for me to have noted it all down, and there are surely several aspects to the appearance of the church that I have missed out.

Clergy

The service was led by a priest in white and gold robes. He must have been taking the place of the church’s regular priest on the date that I visited, as he certainly was not the one shown on the church’s website. The priest was aided by two altar-boys and by an older man in a black cassock who may have been a deacon. There were three chanters, dressed in smart suits, and some men also in suits who spent much of the service performing “maintenance”-style tasks, who I have termed stewards (although I’m unsure if this is their actual title) – see below.

Congregation

The congregation was, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly Greek, with perhaps about 10-15% of other ethnicities. There seemed to be a roughly even balance between men and women, with between half and two-thirds of the congregation elderly. The size of the congregation was at its largest (again, see below) just over 100, although the size and activity of the congregation made it difficult to count.

Service

The service was unlike any other I have reviewed so far. I arrived at the church at 9:45, when the service was scheduled to start according to the church’s website. Expecting a church bustling with anticipation for the start of the service, I was therefore extremely surprised to find the church empty other than two elderly ladies sitting in the pews and some muffled sounds coming from behind the iconostasis. Waiting to see if anything happened, five minutes later the curtain at the Royal Doors was drawn back and the priest begun the service, chanting prayers. The elderly ladies stood up and crossed themselves, and after ten minutes of the priest chanting, three men in suits strode boldly through the main doors and walked up to a lectern-like structure near the front of the church. Reading from a book there, they took up the chanting, with one of the chanters doing most of the work but having breaks courtesy of the other two chanters every once in a while.

It is here that I should explain that Orthodox services – with some infrequent exceptions – do not have congregational hymns like most western church services. The vast majority of an Orthodox service is taken up by the chanting and singing of prayers, short hymns, and psalms, as was the case here. The chanters did most of this, alternating with the priest at times. The chanting was pretty much continuous throughout the service – the only times when there were pauses in the prayers were during the Bible reading and the notices.

Over the following half an hour, more people began to arrive for the service. The initial impression of people arriving after the start of the service may be that it is disrespectful, but this seemed completely normal to everyone there. Upon entering the church, people would venerate the three icons by the doors by kissing them, then take a candle from a counter at the back staffed by the stewards and place it in the tray of candles after lighting it from one already there and saying a prayer. They would then go to the pews, greet a few of the members of the congregation, and either sit or stand. The candles would be left to burn until almost touching the sand, upon which they would be extinguished and removed by one of the stewards.

At 10:10, I was treated to a rather unusual sight. One of the stewards, helped by a teenage member of the congregation, entered the church and walked down the main isle laden with lots of large loaves of bread on a tray and in bags, set them down on top of a table at the front, and then went back to their pews as if they hadn’t just moved half a bakery to the iconostasis (this bread did of course have a use – see below).

Twenty minutes after the arrival of the bread, the priest, flanked by the two altar-boys holding candles, left the iconostasis holding a gilded Bible and after processing around the church with it held it at the front while members of the congregation went up to venerate it. After this, it was placed with the three icons near the main entrance for people to venerate as they entered, and the priest and altar-boys went back into the sanctuary. Five minutes later, they were out again, processing again around the church with the priest censing the congregation from a thurible.

Twenty minutes of chanting after this, by which time the congregation had swelled to about 30, the chandeliers increased in brightness, the priest waved incense towards the congregation (although just from within the Royal Doors this time), and the bells in the church’s tower rung (very!) loudly. This signified the start of the Divine Liturgy, the communion service proper – what had just finished was the Orthros or Matins, the morning prayers. Now the worshippers arrived thick and fast, with the congregation doubling to 60 over the next twenty minutes.

At 11:10, the priest took another gilded Bible from the sanctuary, and after another procession with it around the congregation stood in front of the altar and held it up, loudly saying “Sophia!” followed by a phrase in Greek, which I know roughly translates as “Wisdom; stand and attend!” After five minutes came the reading – the priest placed the Bible on a lectern in front of the iconostasis and read from it (in Greek, of course) before taking it back into the sanctuary. Five minutes after that, three of the stewards each took a standard of sorts from the sanctuary and stood with them in front of the Royal Doors. Each standard had a red piece of fabric with a picture on, topped with a golden cross or small circular icon.

At 11:30, the priest left the sanctuary holding two chalices with the bread and wine for communion inside, with a red and gold piece of cloth around his shoulders. This was the start of the most important procession, the Great Entrance. The priest, the two altar-boys (each holding a candle) and the man in the black cassock (swinging incense) joined the three men with the standards (one of Christ, one of Mary, and one of who I think was John the Baptist) and processed around the church, escorting the bread and wine to in front of the Royal Doors. Once they got there, the others went back to their places while the priest went inside the sanctuary, placed the chalices on the altar, and slowly waved the piece of red and gold cloth over the two chalices (I have been told by different sources that this is either to keep flies away from the communion elements or to symbolise the tearing of the Temple veil after the Crucifixion – it may well be both).

For the first time in the service, some prayers were then said in English. “May the Lord God remember you in his kingdom” was followed by several petitions (e.g. “pardon and forgive our sins and offences”, “may we live out the rest of our days in peace and repentance”) with a response in Greek from the chanters. This was followed by the Nicene Creed, said first in Greek by the priest and then in English by one of the altar-boys. There followed some more chanting, after which at about 11:50 came the Lord’s Prayer, again said first in Greek by the priest and then in English by the other altar-boy.

The priest then blessed the congregation, the entirety of which sat down. Throughout the service members of the congregation had been either sitting or standing for various parts of the service – most sat for most of it, some stood for most of it, others seemed to go up and down like a yo-yo, but all had stood for the various processions. With everyone sitting, it seemed that there was somewhat of a break in the service, emphasised by the chanters going a bit more quietly and slowly.

The stewards then passed round collection plates, and the chanting stopped completely as another steward made some announcements in Greek from the front of the church. By this time, the gradual influx of worshippers had increased the congregation to about 100 people, but from this point I do not think anybody else came into the service.

After the announcements had been given (at about 12:00), the chanting started again and the priest came through the Royal Doors with the communion chalice. Inside the chalice were little cubes of the bread soaked in the wine – members of the congregation came up to the front and received communion from a spoon with which the priest scooped out a piece of the communion and placed it into their open mouths. In contrast to other churches where the majority if not all of the congregation will receive communion, only about a third of the congregation went up to receive it – in the Orthodox Church, communion is taken very seriously, with a recent confession and having fasted for the morning being required to take it.

After communion, there was more chanting, during which some members of the congregation lit candles which they held – I learnt that during this part of the service, prayers were being said for the souls of the dead, and those with lit candles were praying for specific departed loved ones. After another ten minutes or so of chanting, the service ended at 12:25. I was told that this was apparently a little earlier than usual, probably due to the priest who was standing in for the church’s usual priest having conducted the service a little quicker.

Afterwards

After the service, most of the congregation went up to the priest, now standing in front of the Royal Doors, and were given a small piece of bread from a metal bowl. This was the antidoron, bread which was from the same loaf as that used for the communion but which had only been blessed, not consecrated as the Body of Christ. Eating this is a means of fellowship for those who did not partake in the communion, and a means of alleviating the hunger of having skipped breakfast for those who had! Some of the congregation then stayed in the church talking to friends and relatives, whereas others left. On the way out of the church, departing worshippers could take large slices of bread from the loaves which had been brought in earlier.

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