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764: Resurrection of Christ, Balmoral, Auckland, New Zealand
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Resurrection of Christ, Balmoral, Auckland, New Zealand
Mystery Worshipper: The Men in All-Black.
The church: Resurrection of Christ, Balmoral, Auckland, New Zealand.
Denomination: Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.
The building: Probably a converted bungalow, built circa 1930 in wood, with a mushroom-shaped onion dome fitted on top as an afterthought. Inside the church is one room divided into a sanctuary and a nave by a carved wooden screen decorated with icons. This wooden screen has three doors. On the morning of the service the walls were richly decorated with icons, flowers and leaves.
The church: Clearly a congregation point for Russian expats in New Zealand as almost everyone spoke Russian. The congregation was a mix of various ages but all seemed to be Russian or Slavic. In accordance with a notice outside the church, women covered their heads with headscarfs (although some tried a lot harder than others); men stood on the right-hand side of the church, women on the left.
The neighbourhood: This is a rather nondescript neighbourhood of central Auckland: 1930s buildings made of wood (much like the church), with peeling white paint. Graffiti is a problem locally, but the church itself is happily unaffected.
The cast: There was no service sheet, so the names of the priests are unknown.
What was the name of the service?
Orthodox Liturgy.

How full was the building?
Standing room only inside. More people were standing outside. There were two chairs in the church, presumably for the very elderly to sit upon if need be. None of the elderly seemed to need them, however, so they were used as a place to put handbags.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Interaction was limited to, "Is this the entrance to the church?" and "Three dollars please," from the lady who sold us some candles to put next to an icon.

Was your pew comfortable?
There were no pews. Even the floor looked comfortable after standing for two and a half hours – I'm an Anglican used to comfortable kneelers

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We were among the first to arrive and the church room was decorated with privet, jasmine, chrysanthemums, lavender and ferns, all giving off the most glorious fresh smell like a crisp Spring morning in a forest. If people spoke, they did so in (Russian) whispers. People continued to trickle in over the next 20 minutes and eventually the church was packed out.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The service commenced with the squeaky mechanical raising of a small lamp towards the east end of the church. The first words were something in Russian or Old Church Slavonic.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
On Mrs All-Black's side of the church, some were using Russian service books. On Mr All-Black's side, no one had any book or service sheet except another obvious outsider who spent a large part of the service reading a pamphlet (also in Russian) which contained a picture of someone who looked and dressed like one of the Romanovs of tragic reputation.

What musical instruments were played?
None. There was a mixed choir (in the men's half of the church), but no instruments. Half the service was said by the priests (one of whom had an excellent singing voice) and the other half was sung by the choir.

Did anything distract you?
In the ladies' enclosure there were some children snuffing out and removing the candles. In the gentlemen's section – nothing really – except for one icon of a presumably Russian patriarch making the OK sign with his right hand. It occurred to Mr All-Black that by having congregations stand the Orthodox Church must save a lot of money on building expense. Clearly the savings get spent on icons. Also, at various points in the service, the three doors in the wooden screen would open and priests or servers would emerge, rather like a production of "The Mousetrap".

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Well, it was Russian. Apart from that, it was quite informal, although very structured. People were coming in and going out of the church quite frequently. It was also colourful – one worshipped using more than just voices. The icons, flowers and incense contributed to a very heady atmosphere. It was also quite flexible – one could be quite private, but others were going out front and lighting candles throughout the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
Well, as the sermon was in Russian, we couldn't really judge. The sermon was delivered quite formally, not in the chatty manner more normal for Kiwi churches.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Er... pass.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Entering the church and seeing it decorated with the candles and icons, and smelling the plants which had been entwined with the windows and strewn across the floor. And the candles. And the icons. Wow!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Some churches may have baptism as a condition for membership, but we're sure Russian Orthodoxy uses "trial by standing" instead. After two and a half hours we'd got quite tired. At that point the kneeling began... no cushions for the hard case Russian Orthodox, although one elderly gent in front of me had trouble standing up after the third 10-minute kneeling session. The service ended when the same lamp mentioned earlier was mechanically and squeakily lowered to its pre-service position.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
An elderly lady gave us each a toffee as we stood with the others outside the church, but didn't introduce herself. Other people were milling around chatting to each other, but no one introduced themselves either.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee, but a fine after-service toffee.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – There was a sense of community here and I'm sure the people are very nice. However, it is clearly an expats' church, and in order to belong to its community and contribute to it one would need to speak Russian.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Even though we couldn't receive communion or understand any words of the service or sermon apart from "Amen", "Alleluia", "Russia", and "Ummmmm" (when the priest seemed to get lost in the liturgy) this service through its heavy use of visual imagery and smell enabled one to worship God in other ways. There was a sense of the importance of the occasion.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The smell of freshly cut herbs as we entered the church.
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