What to Expect
You think you might want to visit us but you're not sure what to expect.
Maybe you haven't been to church for a long time, or you might never have been at all. Or perhaps you go to church already but you've heard about those exotic Orthodox practices and you don't want to get it "wrong". Well, you've come to the right place.
You don't have to take in all of this in one go. It's just a little bit of information that you might find helpful before you come along.
Crossing the threshold
The first thing to remember is that you enter from the back of church, so you won't come through the door to find everyone staring at you. Feeling better? Good.
When you take those first steps through the door, you'll see a table with all of the things you'll need: service booklets & sheets, and sometimes candles. Please take one of each. There will also be some spare headscarves for those who haven't brought their own, (there's more on this below).
You'll also see a bowl of holy water. It's customary to bless yourself with the holy water, (that is, dip your fingers in the water and make the sign of the Cross on yourself) when you enter and leave the church.
What do I do next?
Well, before we do anything else, we greet the icons (holy images) of the Saviour and the Mother of God at the front of the church with a bow and a kiss (on the hands or feet; not on the face, and never with lipstick), as well as any other saints whose icons are dotted around the church and to whom we might have a special devotion. We refer to this as venerating the icons. The saints are our sister and brother Christians who are in heaven praying for us, and we are uniting ourselves to them in our worship of God. In this way, we greet our church family before we worship together. If it's all new to you and you'd prefer just to observe, that's ok.
You can read more about icons here.
Once we've greeted the Lord and the saints, we may greet one another. Ideally, we like to keep an atmosphere of prayerful stillness before our services but if people are milling about and you meet them, it's right that you should greet each other. We do this by kissing each other three times on the cheek - left, then right, then left again. It can all seem a bit like secret-handshake stuff at first but this is in honour of our faith in the Holy Trinity, which binds us together. Once you've been a few times you'll soon pick it up, and others will help you.
We take our places - women sit on the north (left) side while men sit on the south (right) side. Then, we wait prayerfully for the service to start.
So what's with the headscarves?
The Orthodox custom is for men to remove their head coverings in church, while women get to wear a prayer covering for services. Women from different cultures do different things: some wear hats, others might like a simple bandana or a lacy mantilla, while others have prayer shawls or headscarves. There is great variety, and it is all welcomed. Please do what feels right for you. Some women even prefer not to wear a head covering. If you would like to but you don't have anything suitable, please don't worry - we have a few spare headscarves for you to choose from.
In our modern times, some people might think of head coverings for women as a sign of oppression, but we only need look at women from traditional Orthodox countries putting on their scarves with great devotion as they go into church to see that this actually comes from a genuine piety that has survived fashion trends and changing social attitudes over the centuries. As one Orthodox Christian woman once wrote:
I cover my head in church because St Paul seemed to think that the angels would prefer that I do. I don't know why angels care, but I'm willing to take his word for it. It seems a very small thing to do for them. And if it turns out they don't care after all, it has done me no harm.
Who wears short shorts?
We don’t really have a strict dress code. As a minimum, if we can, we should try to make sure that our clothes are clean, but we must remember that God welcomes us as we are and nobody will be turned away.
However, if you're unsure of what to wear, it's worth bearing in mind that modesty and decency are always reliable guides - so maybe anything too short, strappy, or skin-tight might not be appropriate . As a rule of thumb, if you think you'll feel embarrassed when making bows and prostrations, it might be time for a wardrobe rethink.
The people on the bus stand up, sit down.
In the Orthodox tradition, we stand for most of the service. Although we sometimes sit for the psalms and other readings from Scripture (apart from the Gospel), we stand for just about everything else. The service booklet will tell you when to sit, or stand, or make a prostration. So don't worry.
Standing is the normal posture we adopt in the presence of God. Culturally, standing is a mark of respect when we greet an honoured guest or when an important dignitary enters the room. How much more should we show this honour when we come before our Creator in worship?
However, worshipping God is not meant to be a test of physical endurance. If you need to take a seat for a little while, nobody will mind or probably even notice. Long-term standing gets easier with practice, and you'll soon learn the value of comfortable shoes.
Thank you for the music
We sing just about everything.
Prayers, hymns, psalms, readings - nearly everything is chanted. This is universal in traditional Christian worship going back almost to the very beginning, so much so that we take it for granted and often forget how unexpected this can be to people used to other customs.
We don't have a choir, so the congregation does the singing. We provide the music to help you, and if you don't read music or don't sing very well, don't worry - you'll soon get the hang of it and God will hear the prayer.
Money - it was going to come up eventually
At St Melangell's, we rely on God’s grace for our existence, including our financial needs. We don't take a collection during the service and you aren't obliged to give anything.
However, we have running costs and donations are welcomed. If you would like to give something, you can do this discreetly using the money box on the welcome table as you enter or leave.
We hope this helps a little bit but if you have any questions before you visit, please feel free to get in touch.