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1763: St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Oxford, England
St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Oxford, England
Mystery Worshipper: Sophiology.
The church: St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland, Moscow Patriarchate, Diocese of Sourozh.
The building: The church currently meets in the St Giles Church parish hall, which is available for community functions (and indeed I have attended banquets there in the past). It is a fairly small hall, with a kitchen attached but hidden behind a curtain for the service. Its best feature is probably the lovely mullioned windows all down one side (although unfortunately facing onto a very busy street). For the liturgy, the hall had been transformed very credibly into an Orthodox church. There was a foldable iconostasis across the far end of the hall, icon and candle stands, and icons placed all the way along the mullioned windows. I was impressed at how much it changed the feel of the place.
The church: St Nicholas was founded in 2006 when the first Russian Orthodox church in the city moved from the Patriarchate of Moscow to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. (In other words, due to complicated jurisdictional disputes beyond the scope of this report.) The parish is currently raising money to buy and restore a church in Old Marston, near Oxford, in order to have a permanent home of their own.
The neighbourhood: The parish hall is in the heart of Oxford, surrounded mostly by university buildings, with a sprinkling of shops and restaurants. It's located between Woodstock Road and Banbury Road, the two main streets leading out of Oxford to the north. Every September the area plays host to St Giles Fair, when funhouses and fair rides replace the usual bus traffic.
The cast: The Revd Father Stephen Platt, parish priest.
The date & time: 19 July 2009, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Divine Liturgy.

How full was the building?
About 15 people were present when I arrived. By the gospel reading it was mostly full, although it is a small room.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No.

Was your pew comfortable?
As this was an Orthodox church, pews did not come standard. There were a few stackable chairs placed at the edges of the hall for the elderly and others who were incapable of standing for an hour and a half. I stood just next to an empty chair, so I was able to sit in it during the sermon, when people customarily sit if they can. At that point any chair would have seemed comfortable!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived at 10.50, matins was already in progress, with a single female chanter. Two men conversed quietly in the foyer and a few other people were lining up at the back of the hall to collect candles and to pay for
prosphora (the bread that is given as an offering to be consecrated or to be given out as antidoron at the end of the liturgy). As they arrived, people were going up to venerate the icon in the middle of the hall, and to light candles. The priest was taking confession in a corner by the iconostasis. The usual pleasant sense of quiet activity before an Orthodox liturgy starts.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
They were in Church Slavonic (as was about 70 per cent of the service, as it is on the third Sunday of every month). Beyond that I couldn't tell you.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books were provided to the congregation. It was the liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

What musical instruments were played?
None.

Did anything distract you?
There were quite a few children in the service, which is good to see, but several of them were notably restless. There was a great deal of fidgeting, playing with flowers, reaching for candles, wandering around the room, and the usual childish behavior. No crying, though.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a fairly restrained congregation. Not as many
metanias (lesser prostrations – bending at the waist and touching the floor with the right hand) nor as much circulation to light candles as I have seen in other Russian Orthodox churches. Participation in the chanting was mostly restricted to the creed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
6 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – I thought the sermon was sound but theologically unremarkable. I'm not convinced that physically challenged people would be pleased with the concept of disability as a metaphor for sin.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Based on the passage from Matthew about the healing of the paralytic, Father began with an explanation of why Jesus' claim to be able to forgive sins was considered blasphemous. Christianity, as opposed to Judaism, places more of an emphasis on people being able to forgive one another in God's name: "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Paralysis is a metaphor for the sinful condition; sin, suffering and sickness are all closely linked. Sins can be involuntary as well as voluntary. The Greek word for sin basically means "missing the mark." Sinning is failing to live up to the model set us by Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Hypnotic chanting, incense, candles, and the feeling of being part of an ancient ritual. For me the most moving part of an Orthodox service is the notion that by taking part in the liturgy, we are experiencing heaven on earth, singing praises along with "the cherubim and seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings" (as the liturgy of St John Chrysostom puts it).

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
While the children were just being children, my own uncharitable thoughts were possibly less than heavenly. Having to stand for all that time was also difficult, as I tried to calculate how much I could shift my stance without distracting the people behind me.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I helped myself to a cup of tea (as no one was pouring). For quite a while it seemed as if no one would talk to me at all, even though I was standing in the midst of things, watching other people greet one another. Finally a young couple came over to introduce themselves and we had a very warm conversation. It turned out that we have a great deal in common. (Several of the restless children also turned out to belong to them.)

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As the kitchen is attached to the parish hall, getting to the after-service coffee was very convenient. Coffee already in mugs was laid out next to a big teapot and empty mugs. On a small table in the hall there was juice, two bottles of wine, digestives, bourbon creams and a small plate of cake.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – If I were Russian Orthodox I would want to think seriously about the jurisdictional question before deciding whether to attend this church or the other one in the city. As I'm Greek Orthodox, I would probably choose the other parish (which is combined Russian and Greek as well as being larger). Having said that, I found this church a perfectly welcoming place and would happily worship there.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The remarkable transformation of a parish hall into a sacred place, and the friendliness of the couple who finally spoke to me.
 
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