Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity – Visited on 7/24/11

This week we have a special report: a recounting of my experience at a service of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in Charleston, South Carolina, home of my alma mater the College of Charleston.

The Church of the Holy Trinity is a one of a kind structure, particularly in low-country South Carolina.  Like buildings throughout South Carolina it is primarily built of red brick, but its similarities with other Charleston institutions end there.  The church’s dome dominates the eye, a vast upturned bowl of verdigrised copper, bracketed to the approaching worshipper’s eye by bell towers with matching copper caps.

The church’s grounds are extensive.  To one hand it hosts the Charleston Hellenic Center, a sort of community building for the area’s Greek-American population.  To the other lie the lawns and spreading trees of the church’s modest park, which boasts an exquisite work of art: a pane of sculpted glass, lit from beneath and enfolded in stone and brickwork, depicting the Virgin Mary holding her child, Jesus.  At night the work shines with a luminous blue-green glow quite unlike anything else in the city.

Inside, the Church of the Holy Trinity is itself a work of art.  Gilt paintings in the classical Orthodox style adorn every wall, some of them built into shrines to which the parishioners give moments of reverence.  In the early morning the sanctuary is cool and dim, lit only by sunlight slanting in through the church’s many stained glass windows and flickering candle light.  Each window is itself a remarkable work of art depicting angels and Orthodox saints in exacting detail.

The roof of the sanctuary is the church’s vast dome, and the beautiful murals worked into that arching ceiling capture the eye of any visitor.  At the center of the ceiling is the face of Jesus, framed by a golden disk and surrounded at the cusp of the dome by the painted images of angels bearing censers, torches and golden implements of worship.  Below the dome are the painted cameos of saints and images from the Orthodox Church’s history, all wrought in the classical Orthodox style.

The service itself would be only faintly familiar to those raised in Christianity’s Protestant traditions.  Every aspect of worship is circumscribed by ritual and tradition, many of which are over a millennium and a half old.  Beginning as early as 8:45 and continuing unflinchingly till noon or later, the priest, his acolytes and the church’s altar boys sanctify the worship space with censers, chants and ritual circumnavigations of the sanctuary bearing their rods, staves and mirrors.

The priest stands apart from the congregation in the marble-floored space before the exquisitely carved curtain walls of the church’s central altar, robed in white and gold, often bearing a smoking silver censer and accompanied by the acolytes in stark black and the altar boys in gold.  It seems the priest’s every turn of phrase is accompanied by the voices of the choir, a small body of three or four who are nonetheless exquisitely trained—and necessarily so, for they must sing for over two hours to complete their duties for the service.

The vast majority of the service I witnessed went according to a centuries-old pattern of prayer, song and ritual gesture that the priest assured me afterwards was little changed since the conquest of Constantinople, still the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church, by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II in 1453.  A brief period is given over to the priest’s personal remarks to the congregation, commenting on the scripture read out towards the beginning of the service by an acolyte, but otherwise the service is a trilingual hybrid of Greek, Latin and English performed according to strict and time-honored tradition.

As the usual priest was on vacation on the weekend of my visit, the service I observed was presided over by Father Regis Alexoudis of Wilmington, NC, who accepted my request for an interview after morning’s worship finished.  I asked him a few questions over strong, black coffee in the Hellenic Center, brewed by the parishioners themselves.

My first question, as a relative stranger to the Greek Orthodox tradition, regarded the American Greek Orthodox Church’s relationship with the tradition ecclesiarchal seats in Europe and the Middle East.  Fr. Regis informed me that though American churches have a certain amount of leeway they are officially missionary posts of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.  America’s Greek Orthodox priests, though far removed from their church’s traditional lands, remain part of a hierarchy that culminates in the Patriarch of Constantinople, a position that is at least 1,600 years old.

On the Greek Orthodox Church’s relationship with other religious groups in America, Fr. Regis would say that his denomination recognized other Trinitarian Christian groups—that is, other groups who follow the doctrine that the Son (Jesus), the Father and the Holy Ghost form the holy trinity, the three coexistent aspects of their deity.  According to Fr. Regis, it is the Greek Orthodox Church’s ruling that the Mormon faith is a cult, not another Christian denomination.

Finally, like the other clergymen interviewed so far here at Churchspotting, I asked Fr. Regis’s opinion on Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment.  Like other religious leaders interviewed so far he voiced his belief that government should operate according to Christian principles without specifically advocating any particular branch of worship, though I imagine his definition of those principles would differ from that held by Rev. Baynard of Clover Evangelical.

Of all the worship services I have observed so far on behalf of Churchspotting, this was easily the most aesthetically spectacular.  I encourage any readers travelling through the Charleston area to take the time to visit the Church of the Holy Trinity, at the corner of Coming and Race St.  The entire church is a work of art, and one you should not miss.

Clover Evangelical Presbyterian Church – Visited on 7/17/2011

Yet another warm, muggy, overcast morning.  The clouds laid spread from horizon to horizon as a tattered, grey-white bed sheet throughout the weekend of the 17th.  Beneath such dull skies the whitewashed wooden siding of Clover Evangelical gains a matte dullness, but its windows remain as bright and welcoming as ever.  Those windows, which from a distance appear to be the stained glass of other churches in the area, are in fact wooden boards painted in a bright, eye-catching likeness of the traditional glass.

Where the Clover ARP covered last week was a centennial institution, Clover Evangelical has only just celebrated its twentieth anniversary at its current location.  The church is a single story longhouse of wood sidings and brick foundation, with a small steeple rising above the entrance crowned with a white wooden cross.  Along its left wall is a tiny tended garden, with benches and brick paving set before a free-standing wooden cross, behind which looms a carven likeness of the Ten Commandments set into a red brick frame.

Inside one finds sturdy wooden pews beneath the fluorescent lights and drop-ceilings of an office building or public school, with a stage to the rear from which the pastor preaches and the congregation’s youth choir sings.  A thin wall divides the longhouse behind that stage, veiling a meeting room prepared for community meals and gatherings.  Despite their modest funds the church staff has clearly gone to great pains to prepare its sound system.  A modern stereo apparatus lurks in the back left corner, behind the several pews, while microphones for the choir bristle behind the pastor’s lectern.

Clover Evangelical is, according to its own pastor Rev. Chuck Maynard, very much a blue collar affair.  In his own words, Rev. Maynard preaches to exactly one doctor and no lawyers.  It is a small, informal gathering, reputed by its own members to average at twenty members, where thirty adults at a single worship service is a full house.

They arrive in sandals and t-shirts, tucked in collared shirts among the elder men, dresses for the elder women, each attired as though for a day of work or school.  There is an informality, a closeness to the service—there is a sense of family and community in the longhouse, where everyone knows everyone and has done for years hence.  That day only a combined thirteen adults and teenagers were in attendance, with others unable to visit due to injury or illness.

Music dominates the first half of the Clover Evangelical experience by music.  The congregation sings hymns alongside contemporary studio reproductions played through the sound system while an overhead projector displays the lyrics upon the far wall, a kind of sacred karaoke.  The machine’s music enfolds and largely overpowers the voices of the small congregation, most of whom seem too shy to sing out.

A sermon from the presiding reverend fills the second have of the worship service; that morning  Rev. Maynard, a self-described veteran of two years in the Vietnam War,  began with a reading from the Book of Isaiah and criticism of the American legal system, which is “flat screwed up” in his words.  The reverend’s condemnation extended to the American government, of which he remarked “How many of us expect a politician to tell us the truth?”

The pastor emphasized the role of the family in the church, its importance in reinforcing its own teachings and preventing its members from straying from their oaths and covenants in the faith.  In that vein Rev. Maynard held nothing back when he condemned homosexuality, saying “It is an abomination to God and it is not okay.”  He bitterly criticized 129 Presbyterian pastors, whom he said recently signed a document affirming their decision to accept homosexuality in their churches.  Of them he said, “They are not pastors, they are not Christians, and they are going to Hell.”

On the role of Christianity in government and the power of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, Rev. Maynard said he believed that the clause exists only to prevent the establishment of a national church of the United States, such as the country’s founding fathers saw and experienced in other contemporary nations.  He rejected what he called a “separation of God and government,” and would prefer that the US government operated on a strict constitutional basis.

Clover Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church – Visited on 7/10/2011

A warm, muggy, overcast morning.  The Clover ARP is a slender creature of red brick, its black iron fences enclosing a modest wood and plastic playground for the congregation’s children, its spires soaring above the low two-story buildings of downtown Clover, its doors spread open beneath the shade of spreading trees.

Inside, one enters a sanctum suffused by the golden-mellow glow of morning sunlight streaming in through stained glass.  The walls are smoothed by slick white plaster, its ceiling’s curves picked out by great, time-stained beams of centennial wood that hint at the church’s lengthy history.

This was an irregular service for the Clover ARP: its pastor and much of its congregation were away at an annual church camping trip, leaving the sanctum half-full, its pews wide and naked.  Without its regular staff to prime the church’s organ and audio devices, the service’s several hymns proceeded in mumbled, half-heard quiet.

So many absences lent the proceedings in the Clover ARP this morning a tired, slightly mournful air.  Much of the church’s resources are dedicated towards its youngest members: testified by the aforementioned playground, as well a whole complex of rooms behind the sanctuary designated as Sunday schools and day cares.  An entire alternative service is normally held simultaneously with the main worship on Sundays specifically for the children, but with so many absent such activities were cancelled.  Young couples and their children make up a considerable proportion of the Clover ARP’s membership, and without them its services have only a scattering of elderly couples and childless adults to crouch sparsely on its benches.

In lieu of the usual pastor, this morning’s sermon was led by Mark Witte, a seminary graduate currently living in Columbia, South Carolina.  He is a strikingly tall man, lank and lean, well educated but still young and fresh from his own instruction.

The morning’s sermon was his own creation, built on a reading from Ephesians 5:15-20. He enjoined the congregation to act as exemplars of their religion, likening their status as role models to how his own great stature as a child made him the object of his teachers’ and guardians’ reproach when he and his childhood friends made mischief.  He taught that the congregants must adopt this role quickly, for each moment spent at the business of the world was one not spent in the service of their faith and god.

Mr. Witte took the time to sit a brief interview with me after the service.  He and his young family are bound for Tampico, Mexico in the near future, where he will teach at a seminary school for the American ARP’s Mexican sister-church.  On the interface of Church and State, he held that the American constitution’s enumerated inalienable rights are, though influenced by Christianity, derived from rights permitted to all people, regardless of their particular creed.  The freedoms granted by “our unity in Christ,” mentioned repeatedly during the morning’s sermon, were by contrast the sole province of the faithful, and refer more to the next life rather than matters temporal.

Further, he explained that the Establishment Clause from the First Amendment of the US Constitution provides freedom of religion, not freedom from religion; specifically, that there should be no coercion towards any one faith, but that the machinery of the state should be operated in accordance with, to use his term, “Judeo-Christian principles.”  Those who push to divide Church and State completely, he said, are in effect promoting their own religion: they are “angry against god,” and so promote their own beliefs against the Church out of that anger.

On his spiritual peers in Mexico, the representatives of the Catholic Church, whom he must certainly encounter during his time in that country, he would say only that many in Mexico have not truly heard the Good News.  There was a difference, he said, between those who attend worship services because they are “cultural Christians,” and those who go to worship the living god in their hearts.  Many in Mexico, he said, were cultural rather than spiritual Christians, whose practices he was set to rectify.

Mr. Witte remarked that the true issue in Mexico was corruption, specifically the worship of money over concern for spiritual and moral matters.  On the wealth and income inequalities within the United States, he said that “to those whom much is given, much is expected,” and remained confident that those who misuse the great wealth God has given them will receive their due justice one day.

Inaugural

This marks the first post composed for Churchspotting, a weekly foray into the religious communities of York County and beyond. I am your host and author, Edmund Grain, and if you’re reading this you are probably among the very first people to visit this blog.  As such I’d like to thank you for your inquisitiveness in finding this place, and for your patronage.

Each week, barring acts of nature and the exigencies of fate, there will be more at this site for you to read.  If you like what you’ve seen today, the facilities for subscribing to Churchspotting or (if you are so inclined) donating to my operation are to your right.

Once again, thank you.  And now, without further ado, the first stop on what promises to be a long journey through the religious communities of York County: the Clover Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church.