Posts Tagged ‘ Orthodox ’

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.