We frequently get would-be visitors asking what they need to do when visiting Shrewsbury Orthodox Church. The answer is: just be here. That’s the most important thing. Come along to any of our services (“liturgy,” as it is called in the Orthodox church), and be part of a 2000-year-old Christian tradition of worship.
Worship is one of those things like beauty or love — it’s hard to describe, but wonderful to experience.
The usual pattern for a Sunday morning (but check the calendar on the website for details of each date) is Divine Liturgy that starts at about 10:30, and finishes some time between midday and 12:30. It is usually preceded by Matins (morning prayer) from 09:30.
If you’re visiting, 10:30 is a good time to arrive. Push on the door and let yourself in – the service will already be underway, and people arrive when they are ready.
One of the first things you’ll notice is that there aren’t many chairs in an Orthodox church. Most of the worshippers will stand for the whole service. Standing gives it a feel of something in which you are taking part. At an event where everyone is seated, it can feel like being a spectator who is part of an audience. Standing is more active, and people move around a bit as things happen in the main part of the church, which can help you feel like you’re a participant.
Not everyone is able to stand for that long. There are chairs and benches at the sides, and you are welcome to use these if you want. You are welcome to sit or to stand, but do try standing for at least part of the service if you can.
At some points during the service the priests and their assistants will come out from behind the the iconostasis (the panels at the front, either side of the archway) and walk around in the church, carrying the Gospel and the Holy Gifts for the Eucharist. Any time the priests are in the main part of the church with the congregation, just about everyone who is able to do so will stand, and as a visitor you may like to do so as well.
You’ll see some people joining in with some things during the service. Being an Orthodox church, some people will cross themselves (make the sign of the cross), light candles, and move around a bit, and some people won’t. Do what you find most helpful to being part of a worshipping community, which for you may mean just staying where you are and enjoying the sights and sounds and smells of it all.
There is a lot of singing in the service, most of which is in English and some of which will be in Greek, Romanian or Slavonic. Some people join in if they know the words (there’s no handing out of song books), and many enjoy listening without feeling the need to join in with the singing.
There’s no particular dress code. Wearing comfortable shoes is a good idea if you’re going to be standing for a while.
In any Orthodox church, you’ll see lots of icons. Like any icon, they represent a much bigger truth that is important to us.
As we stand in front of the icon of Jesus, the Christos, we are reminded of his life, teachings, death and resurrection, with the power to transform our world and ourselves. Every Orthodox service is a celebration of the resurrection.
The icon of Mary, Jesus’ mother (the Theotokos – the God-bearer), reminds us of her submission to the will of God, and her song, “Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”
Everywhere in the church on what seems like just about every available bit of space, there are icons of saints ancient and modern. The saints are an inspiration to us and a reminder of lives given in service to God. In the Orthodox Church we truly believe in the communion of saints, joining the Church Militant (Christians on Earth today) and the Church Triumphant (those who have gone ahead of us to claim their reward). The icons remind us of this glorious truth.
Each of the icons has an associated inspirational story of the life of a saint, all of which are well worth finding out more about.
During the liturgy there will be baskets passed around into which members of the community can place their gifts to support the work of the church. In this electronic age, much of our giving is done in digital ways too. Giving is important to the life and work of the church community.
As a visitor, let the baskets pass you by without being under any obligation to put anything in them.
Receiving Communion is the high point of the Divine Liturgy, where Orthodox believers receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Only baptized Christians confirmed in the Orthodox Faith, who have suitably prepared themselves, may receive Communion. It is reserved for those who unite themselves with the Orthodox Church.
At the end of the liturgy, the priest will hold a basket of blessed bread – the antidoron – for distribution to all present. Visitors and regulars are all encouraged to receive the antidoron, as an expression of Christian fellowship and love. It serves a practical purpose too — observant Orthodox Christians will have fasted since the previous evening, so will be grateful for the bread.
If you’d like to slip into the back of an Orthodox Church service, say your prayers, or just see what is going on, and slip out again later on, that’s fine and you are very welcome to do so. If you’d like to visit in the company of someone who is familiar with Orthodoxy, just let us know ahead of time and we’ll fix you up with an Orthodox friend to greet you when you arrive and be available to answer any questions you may have during or after the service.
It all seems like a lot of details, but it is just that – details. The main thing is to be here, to experience the transcendent beauty of Christian worship in an Orthodox church.
The Orthodox Divine Liturgy is a framework, through which and within which, in the company of many worshipping Christians, you can meet with God in a special way. Whatever background you are from, come expecting to meet with God, and be open to the work of the Holy Spirit within the worshipping community.