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934: The Annunciation to the Mother of God, Utrecht, Netherlands
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The Annunciation to the Mother of God, Utrecht, Netherlands
Mystery Worshipper: Eirene.
The church: The Annunciation to the Mother of God, Utrecht, Netherlands.
Denomination: Greek Orthodox.
The building: An unobtrusive1920s town house, only recognisable as a church from the outside by the copper plate (in Greek and mediocre Dutch) next to the front door. This building used to be a sports hall before it became a church. Inside, the interior has been completely stripped and done up as a proper Greek church. Splendid murals in neo-Byzantine style, painted in 1997, depict most (but not all, for lack of space) of the 12 great feasts of the church. Above the altar there's an older mural, painted on cloth and pasted on the wall, of God the Father (usually unheard of in Orthodox iconography) hovering toward the congregation flanked by angels. This caused my daughter to exclaim, "He's flying! That's silly!"
The church: Many of the parishioners were women in their 50s and 60s, the right age to be wives or widows of the first group of Greek migrant workers in the Netherlands, but all ages were represented from newly baptised babies to octogenarians. Apart from the handful of guests from parishes whose priests were on summer holiday, every single person in the congregation was Greek by birth or marriage. Completely different from my very mixed home parish.
The neighbourhood: The church is on a street that's recently become fashionable again with students and other people of a slightly alternative lifestyle. It has several curio shops (some even open on a Sunday), small stylish restaurants, and lots of cats sitting on window-sills wanting to be petted. It's technically in the town centre, but very quiet and out of the way of the main shopping precinct.
The cast: Father Grigorios, a choir of three men, an elderly lay reader in grey suit and tie, who also carried the censer at processions, and an altar boy aged about nine wearing a red sticharion (alb) that showed at least four inches of jeans and a pair of sports shoes. Someone told me that short is the Greek fashion, although you'd never guess it by looking at the boy's sleeves.
What was the name of the service?
Matins and holy liturgy. There was also a short commemoration service for someone's deceased relative before the final blessing.

How full was the building?
Empty, except for the priest, the choir, two 30-ish women, and us at the beginning of matins; completely full during the liturgy. The church can seat about 60 and comfortably hold about 100. Every seat was taken, and there were a few dozen people standing at the back. The families with children mostly arrived either just before or during the first 10 minutes of the liturgy.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were a few minutes late, because the first train doesn't go any earlier, but some of the elderly women who came in after us nodded and smiled.

Was your pew comfortable?
Wide but shallow, too hard, too straight, with a ridge on the front of the seat that started to hurt after only a few psalms. Standing was much more comfortable physically, but I felt awkward standing when most people were sitting, and it was also uncomfortable to have a fixed place instead of sharing a large expanse with the whole community. If we'd thought of it, or if we'd been really late, we could have stood at the back instead of sitting in the pews.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet. Even though the service had already started, people were trickling in all the time and greeted each other silently.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
We were too late to catch it, but it must have been, "Blessed is our God, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages," in Greek.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The congregation used no books whatsoever. The choir had a lectern full of service books, which I couldn't get a peek at after the service because they took them away when they left the choir area. The priest, apart from his own service books, had two different Gospel books, one with pretty medallions that he read from during matins and put on the lectern at the back of the church for people to venerate, and one in a silver cover that he read from during the liturgy.

What musical instruments were played?
Male voices only. I've noticed that every Greek church I've been to has one adequate singer, one excellent singer, and one no-good singer, and this one was no exception. The adequate singer (a pleasant but rather nasal tenor) and the excellent singer (a strong baritone who appeared to sing effortlessly but with conviction) took part in matins. At the beginning of the liturgy, the excellent singer beckoned for a third man to join the choir. He turned out to be a bass who couldn't sing in tune, producing an irregular burr that grated and distracted from the otherwise heavenly singing.

Did anything distract you?
During matins, two women and a man set out a little table at the front of the church and spent a lot of time putting exactly the right cloth on it, placing a framed photograph, fussing with the flowers and candles and food, and then coming back and doing it all over again. I assumed (correctly as it turned out) that this was for the commemoration service. Also, a little girl across the aisle waved her coat about, and when her grandmother took it away she waved her pacifier (which she was much too old for). When the grandmother took the pacifier away as well, she resorted to wailing and thrashing about and had to be taken away bodily. We later saw her being plied with sweets.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A mixture of matter-of-factness and high devotion. People were very attentive and clearly comfortable. There was a growing sense of holiness and community all through the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I understood only about half of the words of the sermon. It was in Greek and Father Grigorios spoke very fast, but I picked up well on his body language, tone of voice and facial expression.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father preached on the Gospel of the day, which was the parable of the rich young man. We might of course attain the kingdom of heaven by being radical and joining a monastery, but that's not right for everyone. The church has other ways by which one can attain the kingdom of heaven, such as the sacraments.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The growing sense of holiness during the service, helped by the right amount of smells and bells and the splendid murals.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The bass who couldn't sing in tune. As a connoisseur of basses, I realise that there's often nothing to be done about it, but why invite him to sing if he can't?

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We didn't get the chance to look lost, because we were spotted by acquaintances who had also come to this church by chance. As we were talking to them, people from the congregation didn't seem to find it necessary to talk to us. I'd have liked to, but it looked like a community where everybody knows each other and I didn't want to barge in on any conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No after-service coffee, but we got great handfuls of bread from the priest and honeyed grains in foil cups from the commemoration people. There's simply nowhere in the building to have after-service refreshments; all the available space is taken up by the church proper, with a little annexe for the office and WC. A lot of people stood around and talked outside after the service.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I could get used to the Greek, but the parish gave every indication of being a very closely-knit ethnic community that I'd always remain a guest in. Also, I'd hate not to be able to be in the choir. If I lived in Utrecht I'd probably go to Amersfoort, 12 minutes away by train, where there is a Dutch-speaking parish in the same diocese.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The illusion of being in Greece – so much so, that being addressed in Dutch by a stranger at the end of the service gave me a bit of culture shock.
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