|865: Holy Trinity Orthodox, Belfast, Northern Ireland|
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Mystery Worshipper: Sister Act.
The church: Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Russian Orthodox.
The building: The building is a modern red-brick terrace of shops, and the door of the church is between a monumental sculptor and a pub. The church is actually the whole upstairs rooms of the building. Inside, it has been divided into four rooms: a robing room, an inner sanctum, the largest room where the service took place, and a room with a table, fridge and washing-up facilities. The rooms were painted in pale blue, with many icons on the walls, and places for people to set lighted candles.
The church: This is a very small community, with about 30-35 people in total. The priest and his wife are Canadian and have been here about five years. Some members are Irish, as well as Russians, Greeks, Romanians and Bulgarians, and even occasionally Indian Orthodox from the Church of North India in Kerala.
The neighbourhood: The church is on a busy road junction about a mile from the city centre, in the inner city area of East Belfast, which has experienced a recent upsurge of loyalist violence. Most people I have spoken to were not aware of its existence.
The cast: Father Geoffrey Ready, Presbytera Jolan, Brigid (a cantor) and Nikos, another cantor who sang the Byzantine chants.
What was the name of the service?
Feast of Pentecost: The Hours and Divine Liturgy.
How full was the building?
There were about a dozen members present and about 10 visitors, but as it was a small room rather than a larger church building, it was a comfortable number for its size.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We had been invited to a service after Father Geoffrey had been the speaker at an interdenominational service in West Belfast. We arrived as others were going in. As they had been expecting us, they welcomed us warmly and we were given copies of the liturgy.
Was your pew comfortable?
The Orthodox service takes place standing, but there were some chairs around the edge of the room and we were told we could sit down if we wished. I did at one point, but felt out of place because no one else did, except for Father Geoffrey's wife, who was expecting twins!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We wandered around the two open rooms and looked at the many icons on the walls. Although we were told the service would start at 10am, the priest started to chant at about 9.55, so there was really very little chat beforehand. Everything immediately hushed completely, and the priest's words and the cantor's chant rattled off at a fairly fast rate, overlapping one another as they chanted their parts.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Through the prayers of our Holy Father, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Copies of The Third and Sixth Hours and Typika, and The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. We were also handed copies, when they were being used near the end of the service, of Veni Sancto Spiritu (in Latin and English) and the hymn, "Be Thou my vision".
What musical instruments were played?
None, save the human voice.
Did anything distract you?
Near the beginning of the service, I was asked to stand nearer the back of the room, as the priest was taking confession. However, nothing could be heard as both priest and cantor were chanting away continuously, and the priest laid a layer of his vestment across the head of each person as they were offering their confession. This was all so strange to me I found it somewhat distracting. Also slightly distracting was the toddler son of the priest, who gave his mother a busy time as he hurtled around in the fashion of two year olds and threw the odd tantrum. But strangely in such a formal setting, nobody seemed to mind, and everyone took their part in keeping an eye on him.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The singing was mostly similar to Gregorian chant, very different to either modern Protestant or Catholic worship, though at the end they sang, "Be Thou my vision", and during the service there was a hymn in Irish which the Catholics present seemed to know. The Catholics were probably more comfortable with the liturgy than those of us who were Presbyterian. However, we were able to join in with the words of the hymn, and I was able to pick up some of the chants as we went along. There was no choir, but the congregation sang the choir parts which were marked. Some people crossed themselves at intervals, and the lowest point of the cross was at floor level – much more energetic than the way British Catholics do it!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 Father Geoffrey spoke in measured tones, moving backward and forward all the time, which was maybe a good idea as there was so much standing still – not good for those with varicose veins! He also fingered his cross continuously, looking down at it lovingly as he spoke. He was clearly equally well versed in both Old and New Testaments, and his presentation was exceptionally clear.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
So overawed and confused was I by the unfamiliar liturgy, and being unable to take notes as I was standing, I found it hard to rebuild the thread in my mind, but it was about the significance of the word "Pentecost", meaning "50 days". This Jewish festival occurred around the spring harvest. He went into the feasts of the Old Testament and their continuity into the new. He also spoke of the story of the tower of Babel and its relevance to Pentecost.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing of the cherubic hymn (at the time of the great entrance, when the bread and wine are brought to the altar) which was sooo beautiful! It is Syro-Byzantine, tone 1. The whole sung chant was amazing, including a number of special antiphons because it was the feast of Pentecost. Such a "wow!" factor. Normally they just sing the beatitudes when the priest makes the entrance with the Gospels.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I suppose only the ordeal of having to stand for the whole two hours of the service!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were known to be visitors by all the members, but I hung around and asked if there was a toilet, and was given a choice of two.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was tea, coffee or apple juice, and I had apple juice as it was a hot day. Apparently they often sit for about an hour chatting after the service, probably exhasted after standing for so long!
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 Coming from a Brethren background, now Presbyterian, it would be a very big leap, and it would take me a long time to become familiar with the service, so not very likely. However, it would still be worth an occasional visit.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely! It was truly awesome!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The cherubic hymn during the great entrance, and Father Geoffrey's resplendent green and gold regalia.