I had the great pleasure on Saturday of taking part in the Consecration of the new church of St Nicholas in Oxford. It was a splendid and joyous occasion. I had never been to a consecration of a church before although, having the interests that I have, I had explored the service in the Trebnik. It was wonderful. I had arrived, hoping to simply blend into the congregation but I was recognised by the servers and fetched. I had been instructed to take vestments with me "just in case" but had left them packed in my bag which I had deposited in the cloakroom. So out they came and I bumbled my way through it but it was a joy to be able to take part. I was pleased to be included and touched by the special effort that our brothers and sisters in Sourozh always make to make those of us from the Church Abroad feel welcome.
It was also the first time that Archbishop Elisey had consecrated a church. He has become so much a part of the fabric of the vibrant Orthodox life here in the UK that it is easy to forget that it is only quite recently that he was consecrated and sent to a struggling diocese, which was recovering from recent difficulties. It is amazing what he has achieved so far and this consecration will hopefully be the first of many which will give some sense of hope, permanence, and stability to the Orthodox churches in Great Britain and Ireland which are under his care.
After the Reception and Vesting of the archbishop, he and the four assisting priests were clothed with full-length gremials and linen sleeves to protect their vestments from damage during the consecration. Then it all began with some prayers and the assembly of the Holy Table, which until then had been nothing more than four wooden columns with an elevated chest in the middle. The table was sprinkled with holy water and the cavities in the columns were filled with a mixture of wax, crushed incense, and other substances, which had been kept molten by heat until that point and was allowed to harden in the crevices. The mensa of the Table was then put in place and the process of the wax mixture repeated, with the excess being scraped away with knives. Then the mensa was secured in place with four dowels, which were hammered in with specially-selected stones. During this time, the choir sang psalms 144 and 22.
The Holy Table was anointed with rose water and wine, which was poured onto it rather copiously in the form of a Cross by Vladyka Elisey, before the priests wiped off the excess mixture and rubbed the residue into the grain of the wood with special cloths. Then the Holy Table was anointed with the Holy Chrism, as the choir sang:
Behold now, what is so good or so joyous as for brethren to dwell together in unity? It is like the oil of myrrh upon the head, which runneth down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, which runneth down to the fringe of his raiment. It is like the dew of Aermon, which cometh down upon the mountains of Sion. For there the Lord commanded the blessing, life for evermore.I must admit that what was going through my mind was just how similar this was to the traditional Maundy Thursday ceremonies in the west, where the altar is similarly washed with water and wine and treated with great reverence, as Christ Himself, and that is what I then saw on Saturday, for as the Holy Table was vested with its paraments and the various appurtenances, the choir sang this psalm:- Psalm 132 The Psalter According to the Seventy
The Lord is King, He is clothed with majesty; the Lord is clothed with strength and He hath girt Himself. For He established the world which shall not be shaken. Thy throne is prepared of old; Thou art from everlasting. The rivers have lifted up, O Lord, the rivers have lifted up their voices. The rivers will lift up their waves, at the voices of many waters. Wonderful are the surgings of the sea, wonderful on high is the Lord. Thy testimonies are made very sure. Holiness becometh thy house, O Lord, unto length of days.- Psalm 92 The Psalter According to the Seventy
Then it was time for the placement of the relics. Unfortunately, I do not have a photograph of the Holy Table prior to its assembly, otherwise I would have been able to show the small chest that sits elevated in the centre of it, beneath the mensa. This is not shown among the photographs on the parish website but perhaps this will be depicted among those which will, no doubt, soon appear on the Sourozh diocesan website. However, the relics were carried out of the church in procession, where prayers were offered before they were set on a table just outside the closed doors of the church. Those wonderful verses from psalm 24, which seem to get an airing at various services to do with doors, and at one time featured at the Great Entrance, were sung in dialogue between the bishop and choir:
Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.Then, after further prayers, the relics were carried in procession back into the church and placed in their dedicated reliquary within the Holy Table. I think that usually, there would be a procession around the church but this would not have been practical here due to space constraints.
Who is this King of Glory?
The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war. Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.
Who is this King of Glory?
The Lord of hosts, He is the King of Glory.
After the consecration, the archbishop and assisting priests removed their gremials and sleeves and the Third Hour was read, while Father Stephen performed the proskomede. Then the Divine Liturgy began. It was a tight squeeze. There were 28 concelebrating priests, 3 concelebrating deacons, and a number of subdeacons and servers but we managed. I am afraid that, having been instructed in the ways of the Church Abroad, I did cause some inadvertent disruption, being unaccustomed as I am to the post-revolutionary liturgical customs of the Moscow Patriarchate. The differences are only minor but they are enough to trip up the unsuspecting. Also, while I know the hierarchical Liturgy in my head, I have only ever served as subdeacon a handful of times, so I am still learning, slowly. Still, they were incredibly understanding.
A number of presentations were then made to the parish, including a relic of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, which had been sent by Archbishop Kyrill with Hieromonk Irinei, who had travelled from America for the occasion. Some of you may be more familiar with him in his previous incarnation as Deacon Matthew Steenberg, formerly of the Oxford parish, who has since transferred to the Church Abroad and been ordained priest in Vladyka Kyrill's diocese. It was a delight to meet him and some other people, and to get to know a little better some of the servers whom I had only ever previously met very briefly. I was also pleased to see a friend with whom I had lost touch for about three years and who suddenly appeared next to me before I was called upon to serve. It seems that I now have enough connections in oxford to make occasional weekend visits a good idea so poor St Nicholas' parish may have me inflicted upon them from time to time.
A wonderfully relaxed and convivial reception then followed in the scout hall a little further along the road. I shan't post directly any photographs of that as they all seem to show me filling my plate with food while everybody else was talking with each other and being sociable. In my defence, I had travelled to Oxford that morning, having risen at 3.30 and left home at 4.20 to catch the 5.11 train, and by 1 p.m. was incredibly hungry. However, for those who wish to see the full set so far, they may be viewed here.
I can't want until the next consecration, which should be the Church of St Aidan and St Chad in Nottingham on a date yet to be determined.