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  1248: St Ephraim the Syrian, Cambridge, England

St Ephraim the Syrian, Cambridge, England
Photo: Cambridge2000.com

Mystery Worshipper: Mr Ricarno.
The church: St Ephraim the Syrian, Cambridge, England.
Denomination: Russian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate), Diocese of Sourozh.
The building: The parish has no building of its own, but worships in the chapel of Westcott House, Cambridge. This is a plain, whitewashed, unremarkable Victorian chapel, though an icon of Christ sits behind the altar. It's a blank canvas for the Orthodox parish to decorate with its icons and candles.
The church: The parish seems to be made up of a mixture of native Russian speakers and English-speaking people. Services are primarily in English, with some in Slavonic. The church has close connections with the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, a Cambridge-based Orthodox study-house for ministerial training.
The neighbourhood: Westcott House is an Anglican seminary, which must prove interesting for St Ephraim's! The chapel is situated in Westcott's beautiful front court, which has a peaceful flower garden open to visitors.
The cast: The Rev. Father Raphael Armour, priest; the Rev. Father Alexander Tefft, deacon. Others in clerical garb read prayers, but I didn't catch their names.
The date & time: Saturday, 4 March 2006, 6.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Great Vespers for the commemoration of all departed monastics.

How full was the building?
I'd say it was about half full. Several people who would otherwise be filling pews were singing in the choir.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not especially. As I opened the door, a man was on his way out and nearly bumped into me. He apologised. One of the candle-lighters smiled at me. The deacon was wandering around setting things up, but didn't seem to notice that I'd even entered the church. People looked at me and quickly looked away again. 'Twas quite odd.

Was your pew comfortable?
Comfortable enough, though of course we stood for most of the service, sitting only for the readings and sermon – I was most appreciative of my pew then!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reverential, but there seemed to be a lot going on behind the scenes. I had arrived 20 minutes ahead of time, and they were still setting up the icons and candles. Most of the time it was quite hushed.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Arise. Master, give the blessing."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books were used by the congregation. The liturgy of the Orthodox Church is an interaction between priest, deacon and choir. I noticed halfway through the service that copies of the liturgy were available at the rear of the church, but I didn't go back to pick one up.

What musical instruments were played?
None. The Orthodox believe that we are called to worship God with our whole being, and that the best way of doing that is to worship with nothing but the human voice. Musical instruments are seen as a distraction from this.

Did anything distract you?
The thurible was a special one with bells on the chain. The bells were surprisingly loud, masking anything that was being said as the thurible was swung.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Orthodox worship probably counts as high church, though it's very different from anything I've experienced in Anglican and Catholic churches. What was wonderful about this service was the informal formality of it – if one of the altar party was unsure what he should do next, he simply walked up to the deacon and asked him. At one point a chorister sang a bum note, which threw the rest of the choir off. He simply said "Sorry!" and they carried on.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
4 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – An interesting message, succinctly delivered.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
As human beings, we often get caught up in nostalgia. But the only nostalgia that's appropriate for Christians is a forward-looking nostalgia – looking forward to the kingdom of God. In the hymn "Outside the gates of Paradise" (which had been sung earlier in the service) we hear of man's longing to get back to Paradise. Lent is about us laying aside certain things so that we may look forward to the coming of Christ's kingdom.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Virtually all of it. One particular moment came at the end, when blessed bread, wine and oil were offered to the congregation. As a non-Orthodox, I didn't join the queue to receive these blessings. But after the priest had finished, he asked me directly whether I'd come up. I protested that I wasn't Orthodox. "That doesn't matter. Come!" he replied. And so I received the Sign of the Cross in oil, and a piece of wine-soaked bread. That was a wonderful moment, and really made me feel a part of what was going on.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Two things. First, I was disappointed by the lack of welcome shown to me before the service. Mind you, I don't care for being told how wonderful it is to see me by people who have never seen me before, but neither do I like being treated as a piece of furniture – glanced at by someone who quickly looks away. Second, I was a little surprised that the choir were not more familiar with what they were singing. The basses in particular would often miss their notes. The priest sang along with them, and at one point he cringed when he himself struck a wrong note. I felt really sorry for him at that point.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Father Raphael, a great giant of a man, came up to me directly after the service and asked if we'd met before, and we chatted briefly. After that, I hung around at the back looking lost but no one else spoke to me, not even the deacon. People again looked at me and quickly averted their gaze. I got the feeling that unless I spoke first, nothing would happen. As I had things to be getting on with, I simply left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any. The rest of the blessed bread was being offered around, though, and from my small sampling of it I can say that it was very good indeed.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – As a matter of fact, I think I'll come along regularly to vespers here. The liturgy was wonderful, and I really want to become more familiar with the Orthodox Church. I would probably be made to feel more welcome if I weren't a first-time visitor.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes, particularly the way the priest was so keen to give me a blessing.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I only get to choose one? It'll have to be the anointing and the blessing Father Raphael gave me. That will stay with me for quite some time.
 
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