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The first thing that would strike anyone coming to an Orthodox service for the first time (especially if it is a Slav service - the Greeks are showing signs of weakening) is that most of the people present are standing. There are chairs but they are for older people, young children or people with handicaps - or, perhaps as a manifestation of Alekseiev's pole of mercy, visitors who don't have the habit of standing. The people also don't look as if they are enjoying themselves in any obvious manner. They are not smiling or laughing. The services are longer than is usual in the West. The liturgy (which includes communion. It is the equivalent of the Western 'mass') takes about one and a half hours. In Greek churches it is often preceded by an hour long Matins service. In Slav churches it would usually be preceded by a 'vigil service' - Vespers, Matins and Prime - the night before. This would last about two and a half hours. As well as standing (often quite still, especially if they happen to be Serbs) people will light candles and venerate icons - painted panels or, especially among the Greeks, wall paintings. There are no statues.

There are also no musical instruments. If it is a Slav church there will usually be a choir singing in a four part harmony in a style that, though it has a decidedly 'Slav' character, is not too far removed from Western habits. In the eighteenth century, Russian Church music (and the style of icon painting (7)) became very European or 'Italianate'. The present singing style - and icon painting style - is a result of a Slav/'Byzantine' revival in the nineteenth century but by that time the Western tonic sol-fa was well established in the Slav mind. The 'Old Believers' (who resisted certain innovations introduced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) have maintained a more 'exotic' style of singing.

(7)   There are some who insist that this should be 'icon writing'. I am not of their number. 

As have the Greeks. The Greek style is 'monodic' - a single melodic line whether sung by a solo 'psaltis' or by a group, accompanied where possible by a 'drone' - a series of sustained bass notes which vary slightly following shifts in the usually highly decorated sung melody. When done expertly (I acted as psaltis for some time in a small Greek-style parish in Wales but I couldn't do this) the melody will use 'quarter tones' or other tones that aren't in the tonic sol-fa. The Greek church was of course long subject to the Ottoman Empire and there is some discussion as to whether or not the more 'exotic' characteristics of the singing style are a product of Eastern Islamic influence (there is also a question of Greek influence on the Islamic styles). Anyone who has heard the pre-tonic sol-fa style of singing still practised by Presbyterians in the Hebrides will probably feel, though, that this particular East/West distinction is a little contrived.

The whole service is sung or chanted, mostly by the choir but also by the deacon and priest.

Apart from the absence of chairs and organ and the presence of icons and/or wall paintings, the most obvious visual feature distinguishing an Orthodox church is the 'iconostasis'. This is a painted screen at the east of the church, separating the sanctuary where the bread and wine are prepared for communion from the main body of the church. The screen has three doors, one on either side and a pair of 'Royal Doors' in the centre, opening on to the altar. The Royal Doors are flanked by icons of Christ to the right and of the Virgin and Child to the left (there is a tradition, not often observed these days, that men stand on the right where there will be icons of male saints, and women stand on the left, with icons of female saints).

If the church has a deacon then the priest will spend most of his time in the sanctuary and the faithful will see little of him. The deacon's role has been likened to that of an angel, flitting from Heaven (the sanctuary) to earth (where the faithful are gathered) and back again. If there is no deacon his role is taken by the priest.

All the services conform to a definite, unalterable pattern. There is a script and it is followed. It varies from day to day depending on the Saints or events that are being honoured but there is no room for individual improvisation except to some limited extent in the choice of melodies. Anyone living in an Orthodox country will probably think Orthodoxy is fairly monolithic but anyone encountering it in the West will be aware of a variety of Orthodox jurisdictions (Serb, Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Georgian) and even of different theological, or politico-theological tendencies (I joined Orthodoxy through the emigré based Russian Church Outside Russia at a time when it was out of communion with the Moscow Patriarchate) but they all, with only minor variations, follow the same order of service. Apart from the styles of singing one would have difficulty telling them apart, even when there are theological differences (usually on issues that to Western eyes would seem to be very unimportant). (8)

(8)   Unfortunately, after the First World War, the Patriarch of Constantinople, partly with a view to ingratiating himself with the British at a time when there seemed to be some prospect of a Greek takeover of the city, introduced the 'new calendar' - essentially the Gregorian calendar with minor variations enabling him to call it the 'Reformed Julian calendar'. Since the Slav churches in general remained faithful to the Julian calendar this means Slavs and Greeks celebrate many of the great Christian festivals on different days - they join up again for the Easter cycle. The change in calendar provoked a damaging division within the Greek church itself so there are several 'Old Calendarist' connections, notably the attractively named 'Holy Synod in Resistance'.

The texts used in the Slav churches are the original Greek texts translated into 'Old Slavonic' - a language which, I am told, stands in much the same relation to modern Russian as Middle English to modern English. The difference is greater than the difference between Elizabethan English and modern English. Like Latin in the West, Old Slavonic serves as a unifying factor among the different Slav peoples. Most of the texts are now available in English translation and many parishes in the west now habitually use the language of the country in which they find themselves either exclusively or in combination with the traditional Greek or Slavonic.