|556: St Edward the Martyr, Brookwood, Woking, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Chapelhead.
The church: St Edward the Martyr, Brookwood, Woking, UK.
Denomination: Orthodox (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia).
The building: Externally, the lower part of this single-storey building is brick, with half-timbering above, and a small spire. Internally the walls are bare brick in the lower section. The wood panelling of the upper part of the walls is almost entirely hidden by 200 or more icons, many with votive lights hanging in front of them. The screen separating the nave from the altar (the iconostasis) is also brick and has iron gateways set into it, the central one being backed by a curtain. The sky can be seen through small gaps in the roof tiling. The floor is wooden and is covered with a strongly-patterned, red carpet at the eastern end of the building. There are two shallow transepts, the southern one acting as the choir area and the northern holding the chest containing the relics of Edward the Martyr. A single pew runs around the wall, the body of the nave being empty except for a stand (the analogion) with another icon and a table supporting a samovar-like holy water container.
The church: Unusually, a monastic community living in the larger of the two buildings on the site (which were formerly mortuary chapels) runs this Orthodox parish. The site was acquired by the Orthodox Church to house the relics of Edward the Martyr, King of England 975-979, which were presented to the Church in 1984. Since its formation in 1982 a community of five members has grown here under the supervision of Archimandrite Fr. Alexis.
The neighbourhood: The church is in the middle of Brookwood cemetery, which, at 450 acres, is the largest in Britain and possibly the largest in Western Europe. Established by the Victorians, some parts of it are still in use while others are overgrown. There are sections for different communities and faiths as well as many individual graves, family plots and mausoleums. The area immediately around the church is well-tended with fine, mature trees and neat lawns.
The cast: Although no names were given, I presume that the priest, deacon and sub-deacon roles were taken by the Very Rev. Father Archimandrite Alexis, Rev. Father Peter Baulk and Rev. Father Hierodeacon Sabbas. The other two members of the community formed the choir.
What was the name of the service?
Vespers with Lesser Blessing of Waters, Mid-Pentecost.
How full was the building?
For the first half of the service there were just the five monks and myself. This was a little daunting but hardly surprising for a mid-week service which wasn't a major festival. After about three-quarters of an hour we were joined by a woman who, on entering, went straight over to join the choir. About another 15 minutes later a man came in and joined me in the congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I was looking around the outside of the church one of the monks invited me to look inside. After I had gone in another of them welcomed me, told me a little about the church and the services, and invited me to stay for vespers. They were very friendly and chatty.
Was your pew comfortable?
Difficult to say as, this being an Orthodox service, I wasn't sitting long enough to find out.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The community were busy lighting candles and checking the details of the service with each other. The priest, deacon and sub-deacon went into the sanctuary, robed and the curtain was pulled back. Their entry was low-key compared with, for example, an Anglican procession.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I didn't quite catch the first words (which might not have been part of the service), but they were immediately followed by "Christ is risen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The congregations had none. We were not required to say the words of the service. Our role was to listen and pay attention.
What musical instruments were played?
None, the chanting was unaccompanied.
Did anything distract you?
Perhaps because of the novelty (to me) of the service I found surprisingly little distraction in the hour and a half. Even the icons, which I had expected to draw my attention, were easily put out of mind as I followed the service. This was just as well, as it need all my concentration to make out the words.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The spoken parts of the service and the prayers were read at speed, and the latter were repeated at least twice. The Byzantine chanting was in part specific to mid-Pentecost. There were four or five bible readings, each following the call "Let us attend," and it seemed permissible to sit for all but the gospel. There was much processing in and out of the altar area and seemingly constant bowing and crossing of oneself. The building and everyone in it got both censed and sprinkled with the blessed water. Occasionally I would catch a familiar piece of liturgy, such as "Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace," or "Open our lips and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise." The speed of the spoken parts meant that I needed to concentrate to make out the words, and any attempt to think about what had been said would lead to me missing the next sentence.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Unsurprisingly, the long, repeated prayers were largely on behalf of the Orthodox Church; the Patriarch; the Archbishop; the clergy; the diaconate and the faithful, although they did include the Queen. However, at the end of one section, prayers were offered for "All those who hate us, and those who love us", and I was touched to think that I had been included in there somewhere.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The thought of the gulf that lies between my own church and the Orthodox Church, knowing that nearly a thousand years of separation almost since the death of Edward the Martyr have divided us.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Immediately after the service the monk I had been talking to beforehand asked if I would like a cup of coffee.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't believe after-service coffee was planned, but I was invited back to the monastery by one of the community. I opted for tea (with biscuits), which we had sitting in the little library discussing childhood visits to Corfe Castle (where Edward the Martyr was murdered), the history of the church and the plight of Christians in the holy land. A most friendly welcome for this unexpected visitor to the community.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 This is so far removed from my own practice and background that the question is almost irrelevant. But if I did want to find an Orthodox church, I would be very happy to join this small band of monks and the parishioners who worship with them. They were a most welcoming and friendly group.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Even though I am not Orthodox it was good to be reminded of the ancient heritage of the church.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The outwardly ordinary, inwardly extraordinary building in the heart of a vast cemetery.