Ship of Fools
  Bulletin Boards
  Mystery Worshipper
  Caption Competition
  Gadgets for God
  The Fruitcake Zone
  Signs & Blunders
  Born Twice
  About Ship of Fools
  Support us!
  Contact us!
27: Cathedral of the Assyrian Church of the East, Trichor, India
Other reports | Comment on this report
Church of the East
Mystery Worshipper: Nick O'Demus.
The church: Cathedral of the Assyrian Church of the East, Trichor, South India.
Denomination: The Assyrian Church of the East is a 'Nestorian' Church, which split with the Orthodox Church in AD431.
The building: Built in 1814, the church has an oriental look. The interior is quite plain, with no icons or images (the Church believes that images break the second commandment), but with a host of globe lamps and a great chandlier hanging from the ceiling. At the back is a high gallery, and at the side a grotesque pulpit, some 25ft in height and elaborately carved in dark teak, issuing from the sharp-toothed mouth of an Assyrian lion at floor level. Beyond a floor-to-ceiling curtain at the front is the 'chancel' area – a barrel vault, the ceiling painted with sky and clouds.
The neighbourhood: Trichor is a large town in Kerala State, India. A well-founded legend says that St Thomas brought the gospel here in AD52, and a number of ancient churches in South India claim this as their origin. The church stands in a compound which includes the present Archbishop's palace and the tomb of the last Archbishop (Mar Abimelek Timotheus), who is still revered as a man of prayer. His tomb is practically a pilgrimage centre, visited by large numbers of people.
The cast: Father Raphael, assisted by a deacon.
What was the name of the service?
Holy Qurbana, 7.00am ('Qurbana' is the name for Holy Communion). The local people come to this service before starting their day's work. The liturgy we used, the Liturgy of the Holy Apostles, dates from before AD431, which makes this the oldest Christian liturgy in use in the world today.

How full was the building?
Not very. There were 25 of us, the men standing on the left, the women on the right, with more men than women. On Sundays, some 200 people attend, and then it's standing room only.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No welcome. An old woman sitting near the centre of the church looked agitated when I sat down, for reasons that I discovered a few minutes later.

Was your pew comfortable?
There were no pews. You slipped off your shoes at the door and entered barefoot. Most people then collected a rattan mat from a pile at the back of the church and sat crosslegged waiting for the service to begin. We stood on our mats for most of the hour and a quarter service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were still arriving, pulling up their mats and sitting in silence. Maybe they were expectant, I'm not sure; it's difficult to read moods in a foreign culture.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The big sanctuary curtain was pulled back, and then the opening words of the Liturgy were sung three times by the priest: 'Glory to God in the highest'. This was followed immediately by the Lord's Prayer, sung by everyone. The service was in the local language, malayalam, not one of the languages I took successfully to GCSE stage.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Several worshippers were singing from prayer books, but they looked like their own copies. Most people knew this intricate service very well and did not need a book.

What musical instruments were played?
Just the human voice. There was lots of congregational participation – and the singing was strange, as it was very discordant. I couldn't decide whether this was just an Eastern singing style, or a congregation of tone-deaf worshippers.

Did anything distract you?
When I arrived, there were only a few women sitting on their mats on the right-hand side of the church. I pulled up my mat quite near them. Then the men started to arrive. Only when we were about 10 minutes into the service did it dawn on me that it was men on the left, women on the right, and I was in the wrong place. The dread of every stranger in a church service: to be wrong-footed.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was led from the front, although the congregation knew the Liturgy inside out, sang the responses with conviction and at one point seemed to initiate a section of the singing without a prompt from the priest. I lost count of the number of times when the men (and one woman) slipped through the side doors for a moment to hawk and spit on the ground outside.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon. But I was struck by the way the Gospels were handled during the reading. The book was contained in three layers of silk – green, red and saffron coloured, and each layer was carefully peeled back, corner by corner, until the book was ready to be opened. I've never seen such loving reverence for any book.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Sharing the peace. A man from the congregation went up to the foot of the steps leading to the sanctuary and received the peace from the deacon by placing his hands in the deacon's hands. He then returned to the rest of us and the blessing of peace was passed on in the same way. The whole idea of 'sharing the peace' orginated in India, and it was a moving experience to receive and give the peace in this way.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Watching everyone else move forward to the sanctuary steps to receive the bread from the priest and wine from the deacon, while I stayed where I was. I later discovered that I would have been welcome at the table. The Archbishop told me over breakfast (I was staying with him): 'It's not good to turn people away from communion' – a refreshing contrast to the protectionist approach of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Sad to say, no one approached the Englishman Who Stood in the Women's Section. Maybe they were a bit shocked to see an out-of-season tourist in their midst.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Breakfast with the Archbishop included weak black tea and a dish made from rice and coconut, steamed inside a fat bamboo pole. Sounds exotic, but it was actually a bit tasteless.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7, but only if I was able to learn malayalam.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, absolutely. This ancient and genuinely Indian expression of Christian faith made me feel part of the great communion of saints, past, present and worldwide.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
There was a whirring fan on the left side of the sanctuary, and when the priest came to cense the altar, it blew the smoke across in a streaming hurricane of incense. It amused me, but also seemed like one more symbol in a service rich in meanings.

The Mystery Worshipper is sponsored by, the internet service provider from Christian Aid. By offering email services, special offers with companies such as and, surefish raises more than £300,000 a year for Christian Aid's work around the world.

Click here to find out how to become a Mystery Worshipper. And click here if you would like to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Top | Other Reports | Become a Mystery Worshipper!

© Ship of Fools 1998
Surefish logo