Greek Orthodoxy is a branch of Christianity, not widely known about in Britain. However, there are a large number of Greek Orthodox churches, serving a sizable Greek community. By the end of each service, the church is usually full; and at major holidays, like Easter and Christmas, Greek churches are positively heaving with people. This may be because, in Greece and Cyprus, ninety eight percent of the native population are Greek Orthodox, and church attendance is an accepted part of daily life. When Greeks come to live in Britain, church attendance is not only a link to the Greek community but also a link to their homeland.
The Greek Orthodox service, known as the divine liturgy or doxology, is very different from most English worship. For a start, it is conducted almost entirely in Greek, often ancient Greek at that. A few important passages such as The Creed and The Lords Prayer, are repeated in English; and the liturgy is printed in a book with English on one page, and Greek on the opposite page. As a non Greek speaker, it is possible to follow what is going on, but any serious convert to the faith, would do well to take Greek language evening classes for a few years. It would certainly improve acceptance into the church community.
The Greek Orthodox service lasts considerably longer than its English counterpart, taking on average, two and a half hours. It starts at 9.45am and finishes at about 12.15pm, but may continue longer if there are memorials or it is a special service. People tend to come in at any point during the service, and this seems to be the norm. Children often run about as they please, though some attempt is made to keep them a bit quiet, especially at more important parts of the service. The Priest does not mind this as he says, “It is better that the children are happy to be in church and not nervous about it. Then it will be a place they are joyful to come to as adults.” The children certainly do seem happy to be there.
Walking into a Greek Orthodox church, one is at first struck by all the icons and other religious artwork. These are painted to a uniform Byzantine style, usually by Priests and monks who travel to do the work. The icons represent the life of Christ and scenes from the Bible as well as representations of the Saints. Candles are lit, both for the departed and for current needs of the living. As people enter the church they genuflect, and then do so again in front of each of the Icons, finishing by kissing the Icon. Greek Orthodox cross themselves right to left, and holding three fingers pinched together to represent the Trinity. The Altar is situated behind the Iconostasis, a huge wooden wall, carved and decorated with Icons, often imported from Cyprus or Greece. Only men are allowed behind the iconostasis, where the Priest performs his holy duties with the assistance of the Deacon, who is a ley helper. Just outside the iconostasis, in front of the pews for the congregation, are situated the Chanters. This is between three and six men and women, who sing the responses to the Priest, and chant prayers. The congregation, generally do not sing at all, and are represented by the Chanters. In the liturgy there are passages marked ‘People’ and one may sing those responses if they wish. Generally it is left to the chanters though. The congregation say the Lords Prayer together.
The Priest comes out of the iconostasis to perform functions that integrate with the flock, such
as bringing the gold Bible out for the congregation to kiss, censing the people, reading the gospel, preaching the sermon, carrying the communion chalice to each part of the church, giving communion and the gift of bread. When the Priest comes out, the congregation stand. As the Priest walks to each part of the church the congregation turn to follow him, and cross themselves as he passes. They also bow their heads and cross themselves when censed. Even communion itself is different, the bread, Commandaria wine and hot water being mixed together in the communion chalice and served with a spoon. Only baptised Greek Orthodox, that have properly fasted, (Orthodox fasting is an article in its own right, as it is very complicated and dependent on the time of year as well as days of the week,) and been blessed, may partake of Holy Communion.
After communion, services are performed for the departed, usually annually, but more frequently when passing is recent. Special bread, wine, oil, and a dish made of wheat, pomegranate, almonds, raisins, and sesame seeds called ‘kollyva’ are used to commemorate the dead. Kollyva is given in bags with bread to the congregation after the service. When the Priest closes the service, he hands out a chunk of bread to all present, as a gift from the church. It is customary to kiss his hand when accepting the bread. The collection is taken just before communion, much the same way as in English churches, a basket is passed around, and one puts in what they can.
During Holy week at Easter there is a total of twelve different services in one week. The book of special service is the size of a Bible, but with less content. At other times Basil water may be given to the flock to cure what ails them, and Bay is sometimes given out in sprigs. At certain times of the year, the entire church goes outside and parades through the streets as part of the celebrations. After the service, there is Cypriot tea, which is flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, and is most delicious, along with home-made Greek cakes, pastries and breads.
Sadly, some churches in Britain, for example The Holy Trinity church in Brighton, have been the subject of ethnic hatred. In 2010 a firebomb attack, causing half a million pounds worth of damage has caused the church to need complete rebuilding, for which fund raising continues. It is very sad that people should resort to such acts of hatred, from perhaps a lack of understanding. The Greek Orthodox church, although very ritualistic, does provide a very real sense of peace, and communion with God.
May J. Panayi has been writing since 1967, when she had her first poem called ‘In a Rage’ published in the local Gazette newspaper. That was the point at which she decided she wanted to write, and has been scribbling in one form or another ever since. She’s had poetry, short stories, articles and fillers, published in a variety of magazines, two book anthology collections, fanzines and websites.
You can discover more about May on the Mom’s Favorite Reads website here: https://moms-favorite-reads.com/moms-authors/may-j-panayi
Read our February issue here free