Tuesday, June 24, 2008

2008 Orthodox Conference, Erie, Pennsylvania, Part 1

I spent the better part of last week at the 2008 Orthodox Conference in Erie, Pennsylvania. Because of my secular job, I was unfortunately unable to catch the first day and a half of the conference, and as a result I missed some really good lectures... though they were recorded, and I hope to at least be able to hear them when that is made available.

I have driven through Erie before... once during a blizzard, but had not had the chance to see the parish there before, though I have wanted to for some time. Not long after I came into the Orthodox Church, I was given a copy of the first edition of the Old Rite Prayer Book published by that parish, and so have developed an interest in the Old Rite... though outside of books, I had never seen a proper Old Rite service.

(You can read more about the parish, and its history, by clicking here)

Erie is not a big city. When I flew into the Erie airport, there was no trouble finding the right baggage claim carousel... there was only one. On the wall of baggage claim was the skyline of the city, and off to the right, very prominently was the Church of the Nativity... one of the most beautiful Churches I have seen in the United States. Aside from the services, most conference activities, as well as the lodging, were at Mercyhurst College. After checking in, I went straight to the Church, because I had just gotten in in time for Wednesday evening Vespers. The Iconography in the Church is of the finest quality, but is inscribed almost completely in English.

The Church of the Nativity, Erie PA

The services there are normally done almost completely in English. This may seem a bit ironic, given that the Old Believers separated from the rest of the Russian Church because they refused to accept changes to the translations of the services, as well as changes in some of the rubrics. However, this parish, which began as a Bezpopovtsy (Priestless) Old Believer community came to a realization that their community would eventually die, if they did not introduce English, because subsequent generations had an increasingly hard time with the Slavonic, and their work on translating the services actually led them to reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and their community becoming a Priested Old Rite community. In fact, this conference was held in Erie to mark the 25th anniversary of their reconciliation with ROCOR.

The singing is done in Znamenny chant, which sounds very much like Byzantine Chant because that is where it has its roots. It is the oldest form of Russian chant. They have two choirs -- a women's choir on the left, and a male choir on the right. I was told that this was not always the case, but that the singing used to be done by the men only -- however, during World War II, when most of the men were away, the women had to do the singing, and then after the war, the women didn't want to stop... and apparently the men either didn't try to make them stop, or were unsuccessful if they did. The singing is exceptionally well done, and the acoustics in the Church combined with the quality of the singing made for a very powerful experience.

A visitor is also struck by the fact that the women (including young girls) in the parish are consistently attired in head-scarfs (most often, white), long sleeve shirts or sweaters, and long dresses. As for the men, those who are not clergy (in major or minor orders), were wearing a traditional Russian Kosovorotka, and a belt.

As I said, I had never seen the Old Rite in actual practice, and was struck by the way the people were censed. When the deacon would cense them, they would face the deacon with both arms raised in an orans, and then would bow towards the deacon, and then turn, and make the sign of the Cross towards the altar. The scriptural basis for this practice is "Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141:2, in the KJV). This was particularly striking when the choir was censed. I was generally standing behind the male choir, and so could not see their faces when they were censed, but when the women's choir was sensed I could... and it is something you would have to see. They would be standing in a semi-circle around the music stand singing, all nearly uniformly attired, and then as a group, they would all turn at the same time to face the deacon with their hands raised, then do the bows as I described, all the while never missing a beat with what they were singing... despite the fact that they all had their eyes off the music book while doing so. You can see a picture of the women's choir, by clicking here.

It was worth going to the conference, just for the services.

To be continued.