Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Consecration of Greek Orthodox Church, NW London

The Consecration of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Panteleimon and St. Paraskevi in NW London, England, took place on the 3rd and the 4th of November 2012. Countless Christians, officials and friends came to witness this unique event. This celebration was advertised in many local newspapers, the internet, the radio. However the biggest and unexpected advertisement was given through an article in The Times, Saturday 3 November 2012, p. 108-109. The text that follows is a copy of the article with various changes and additions here and there.

The community in NW London has just built a sparkling new basilica, which is the first Greek Orthodox church in London to be built in the traditional Byzantine style for 134 years. It was blessed and opened by Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain - a symbol of faith and loyalty of the large Greek speaking community in Harrow and NW London and a sign that Orthodoxy is flourishing in Britain far from its traditional roots.

The last Greek Orthodox church erected in London was the Moscow Road cathedral of Saint Sophia in Bayswater, built in 1877. Manchester already had a church, followed soon by one in Liverpool (1867) and Cardiff (1906). These are cities where Greek and Cypriot sailors settled as cotton and industrial goods were exported from Victorian mills and factories to the Mediterranean and beyond. A century later a new wave of Greek speaking immigrants arrived, many of them fleeing turbulence and partition in their native Cyprus but  they were determined to preserve their faith, their language and their culture in their new home.

Greeks in NW London founded the community of St. Panteleimon in 1975, celebrating services in various churches, including Anglican and Methodist buildings. In 1994 they bought a run-down Anglican hall - the Holy Spirit Mission Church, in Harrow - and services began - ecclesiastical Greek chanting interspersing with Byzantine prayers and hymns and occasional snatches of English. Father Anastasios Salapatas arrived from his parish in Cardiff, where he served after coming to London from Greece for post-graduate theological studies in 1993.

The community now numbering around 10.000 thrived. Richer Greeks from mainland Greece and from the island of Cyprus moved there from the inner city, and soon the old Anglican building could no longer accommodate the 300 or more who regularly attended Sunday services. They resolved to built from scratch a church that looked and felt like home.

No expense was spared. The floors are marble, the icons were painted in Greece, the elaborate iconostasis and decorated pews are intricately carved from amber - coloured oak. The church cost £5 million, a large sum even for a thriving congregation. Some of the money came from the sale of local properties bought earlier as investments, some from a few rich benefactors but most was raised by the practice, increasingly popular with fundraisers, of individuals buying a named brick for £1.000. Hundreds of names now adorn the church's back façade.

Once planning permission was obtained, and local interest in this distinctive addition to the suburban landscape was assured, construction went ahead apace. In 18 months it was finished, the domes, arches and pillars giving it immediately a sense of historical continuity with ecclesiastical buildings throughout the Orthodox heartlands. The church opened its doors for worship in April last year. Dignitaries from neighbouring Churches, representatives from the Bishop of London's office and other denominations were all  invited to attend the celebrations.

An increasing number of Romanians are now regularly attending services. Romania has its own autocephalous Orthodox Church, but, in the absence of one nearby, immigrants working in Britain are happy to follow services in Greek.

"I don't speak Romanian, but I now use a few words and phrases during services", Fr. Anastasios said. Romanians also hold their own baptisms, weddings and funerals in the building. and sometimes - with the permission of the Greek ecclesiastical authorities - they bring over their own priests to officiate.

The church is very much the centre of Greek culture and intellectual life as well as the spiritual centre. Behind the building the Hellenic College, a big and airy educational centre and community building, was constructed in 2006, where classes are held in the evenings and the weekends in Greek language, culture and music. Father Anastasios is the principal, and the school offers regular lessons in modern Greek from nursery level to A level. In 1994 a playgroup was founded, later advanced to nursery school, and the centre acts very much as a community centre for the Greek diaspora.

Although a number of churches such as the Church of England have seen a sharp dro in the numbers attending services on Sunday, Orthodoxy in Britain has suffered no such decline. Indeed, both the Russian and the Greek churches are attracting ever larger congregations. Partly this is because of the numbers moving to Britain: it is estimated that there are around 200.000 Russians now living in London, as well as large numbers of Orthodox from Cyprus and the Balkans. Partly, also it is because of inter-marriage, with many converting to the faith of their spouses. And partly it is because the exotic rites and rituals and the certainties of Orthodoxy seem to hold a special attraction for a growing number of Britons who are wearied by the bickering and disillusion in many mainstream churches.

For the Greek church, this new interest in distant lands is an irony. For the Church has all but disappeared in its former heartland of Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. This is why the Archbishop of Great Britain also holds a title of Thyateira, an ancient see that no longer exists. Other churches in the West are also headed by archbishops retaining the ancient names of places that are now entirely Muslim.

The Archbishop and three Bishops, together with priests from Britain and Greece, used words and rituals that connect the people of Harrow directly with ancient tradition and distant lands that have been  loyal to the orthodox Church for almost two millennia. It is also important to state that during the consecration celebrations, a relic of St. Paraskevi was at the new Byzantine church, brought by a monk from the monastery of Petraki, Athens. 

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