Thursday, March 23, 2006
OUR SAN FRANCISCO 2006 TRIP
One of the great blessings of this year's cultural trip (and there were many) was attending worship, and leading it a few times, in churches where we don't normally get to worship. The most different from our normal venue was a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which took place half in English, half in Church Slovanic, and lasted an hour and one half. Did I mention that the Orthodox stand for their whole service? Except when they are prostrating themselves on the ground, that is. Even though I felt like I knew a bit more what heaven would be like --continually praising God in a setting completely not like mundane life -- I certainly was thankful for Thomas Cranmer and his wise "trimming" of the services so that congregations could also participate. For, as beautiful this Orthodox service was in its own way (a certain faculty member might disagree here!), it was anything but participator-friendly. And I don't think they mean for it to be especially participator-friendly. I mentioned its length already. They also spoke remarkably quickly, and had no time factored in for congregational responses. I suppose either of these being changed would lead to a service twice as long (this was vespers, compline and mattins all in one -- eep!). People walked around the back of the... nave?.. during the whole liturgy, offering their own private prayers, a few pausing for a while to hear the service, between where we the congregation sat and the choir area. Then, of course, the entire chancel area was blocked off from congregants, with no altar visible. Aside from the theology of it, I found this set up to be visually disorienting, giving no place for the eye to rest.
I supposed I would get used to it if I had need to, and I still think I have more in common theologically with the East than with Rome. But it would really be a loss to do away wtih congregational participation, and a service in a known language, since in this service at least, they spoke so quickly that even the English I could pick out didn't qualify as a known tongue to me except about two words out of ten.
But the music was amazing. Haunting and eastern, to western ears, but with resolution and some measure of tonic rest at the conclusion of the phrases which (I think) we don't find in other eastern music. The heightened tension, if I can speak as one with little music training, seemed to show how far above us God is, and then the resolution at the end said, "You can still come near." I'd like to hear that again.
And of course, never forget the hats of the Orthodox bishops, which only sort of conceal the long ponytails that go with their long beards. We met a very gracious bishop from the Orthodox Church of America, the Bishop of Berkeley, Bishop Benjamin, who showed us around Holy Trinity Cathedral for as long as he could until he had to leave to do a funeral. We appreciated it very much.