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Posts Tagged 'oxford baby oxford'

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Oxford, UK: or, how to remodel an existing church building

As I announced back in May, I got to spend the second week of August in Oxford, England for the 2011 Oxford Patristics Conference. It was a fantastic experience, and it will get its own blog post soon (I should be able to return to more regular postings now that Flesh of My Flesh is back from her year abroad). Something I’d like to bring to the attention of both of my devoted readers now, however, is the amazing work St. Nicholas Orthodox Church did on renovating an existing church building. We attended Vespers there the night before we flew back to the States and got to see it all with our own eyes. Let me tell you, this really should be, I think, the model for what to do when you’ve got an existing church building that you have to figure out how to retrofit. (I hasten to add that I do not mean to say that there aren’t good examples of this here in the States; St. Raphael of Brooklyn Orthodox Church in Iowa City comes to mind, and actually the two situations parallel each other to some degree, both in terms of circumstances, outcome, and ongoing efforts, so my present discussion of St. Nicholas is not meant by any means to suggest that it represents something that nobody in the States has done.)

You can read the story about St. Nicholas Church for yourself, how they acquired the building and everything they’ve had to do to it, right here. I can’t really add to any of that, except that from what Fr. Stephen Platt told me, there is a garage next door that used to be the church hall back in the building’s Anglican mission days; he hopes that once the renovation work on the temple is paid off, they can buy the garage and turn it back into the church’s hall.

My own observations are that the community has done a marvelous job of entering into this project with faith, and by doing so they acquired a building that was within short walking distance of many of the colleges — and it’s a lovely walk, too, on a footpath that takes you through a field and over water and so on — and is right smack dab in the middle of a residential area where there are people rather than being in the middle of nowhere. It’s a church that can actually be a visible witness to its neighborhood, and uniquely so, since the neighborhood has seen everything the parish has had to do to reclaim the building from being something of a severely under-utilized eyesore.

I will also note that they’ve made it a point to first and foremost treat the building as a place of worship, and they have prioritized their efforts accordingly. I am familiar with phased church building projects where the approach is, “Well, people come to church for services, but they stay for everything else a church does, so best to build something that one can get by in for worship and that maximizes the ability to do all of the ancillary things. Then you’ll grow faster and can build the temple down the road.” I humbly submit that this approach doesn’t really work, at least not from what I’ve seen. The Church is first and foremost a worshipping body, not a coffee-drinking body, and when you put what is supposed to be our first priority in second place so that the men’s group has somewhere to meet, I think people sense that. Worse, from what I’ve seen, the ways you have to rethink your liturgical practice in a setting you’ve built only for the bare minimum of accommodation have a nasty tendency to become permanent. This means that if the day ever comes where you get to build the permanent temple, you’re already wondering, “Well, why do we need [X component of ecclesiastical architecture] anyway, when it adds another $250k to the price and we’ve learned how to get along just fine without it in our existing space?” By contrast, St. Nicholas has prioritized the liturgical function of the building over secondary activities, and it shows with the care they’ve put into their furnishings. They’ve clearly been able to do a lot with what resources they have, and they’ve also shown a lot of forethought in leaving the walls white so that they can be frescoed later.

You can see all of my pictures of the church here. One more thing — as you can see from the PayPal button at the bottom of their page, they are still fundraising to pay off the five-year loan that allowed them to finance the building purchase in the first place. Whatever they can’t pay off in that timeframe (that is, by November 2013) will probably be converted to a standard bank loan, but obviously it’s a burden that it would be better to not have to carry for such a community, particularly if they hope to buy the hall in the future. I encourage anybody who is able to contribute something to this ongoing effort.

While the existence of two (well, three) Orthodox parishes in Oxford may have come out of difficulty (and I won’t elaborate; you can find the story elsewhere if you like, and I myself am not certain I understand everything), God seems to have turned it around for good. May it continue to be so!

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My first grown-up conference

This last fall, my PhD advisor’s PhD advisor paid a visit to the IU campus and met with some of us. After chatting with me a bit, he said, “You should think about going to the Oxford Patristics Conference next summer.” Oh, I said, I don’t know that I would have anything worth presenting. “Go just to go,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to meet people and hear what other people are doing.”

When I next met with my advisor, I told him the suggestion I had been given. “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” he said. “Let’s plan on you doing that.” So, I sort of tentatively planned to go, along with a list of other things that would be really cool to do over the summer.

In January, I met a Fordham doctoral student in theology at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Champaign, Illinois. (Long story.) We chatted a bit, and the Oxford Patristics Conference came up. “Yeah,” she said, “I’ll probably go, but there’s no way I’ll make the first deadline, and if you don’t make that batch, there’s almost no point in submitting anything.” I nodded in agreement, saying that I was being encouraged to go, but that I certainly didn’t have anything that was going to be ready by 31 January, and really, I probably wasn’t going to have anything appropriate this year anyway.

This semester, I took a Religious Studies seminar on early Christian mysticism — a lot of pagan neo-Platonic stuff, ironically, enough, but also Origen, Evagrius Pontus, Augustine, and (Ps.-)Dionysius. Plus, I was going to have to write a review of von Balthasar’s book on Maximus the Confessor. I realized that it was about as close to a course on patristics as I was going to get to take during my time here, and so I asked the professor, “Hey, do you think it would be worth my time to submit an abstract for the paper I’m writing for your class to Oxford?” “Oh, yes, definitely,” he said.

Well, okay, then. I thought of a topic, and I started researching it. In the meantime, I found out that some of the other cool things I thought I might do over the summer weren’t going to work out. On 25 March, I submitted an abstract for a “short communication” titled “Let us put away all earthly care: Mysticism and the Cherubikon of the Byzantine Rite in Late Antiquity”. I Tweeted, “RichardRBarrett just submitted an abstract. Yay.” This prompted Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick to ask me on Facebook, “Could you get any more vague?” Not willing to be outdone on the snark, I then Tweeted, “RichardRBarrett just did something that involved doing some things with other things. (Let me know if that’s sufficient, Fr. Andrew.)”

Anyway.

I turned the final paper in for the class this last Tuesday, got a very positive assessment of it back this morning, and I was inspired to drop the conference folks a line to see just what form our notification would take — we were supposed to hear by 15 May, but did we need to be checking the website, would we get an e-mail, or…?

We received over 675 abstracts, the organizer said, so what’s your reference number?

I told her. Five minutes later, I got an answer back: Yes, you were accepted.

So, there it is. I’ve presented at six graduate student conferences over the last five years, but this is my first big-boy pants conference, and it’s in my favorite place in the universe.

If I may — I’m getting a good chunk of support for this trip from a couple of sources, but it’s not quite the same thing as being a professor with a research account. If either of my regular readers have ever thought about clicking on that link up there that says “Tip Jar” and then thought, oh, well, he probably doesn’t need it, please let me assure you that this is an occasion where it would be most appreciated.

All this, and Thor rocked. It was a good day. Now I’ve got about 65 final exams on ancient Greek history to grade.

Notes on Arab Orthodoxy on The Antioch Centre

Samn! provides an interesting piece on The Antioch Centre, the project of an Oxford-based monk to catalog the manuscripts of the Patriarchate of Antioch. I found this part particularly interesting:

Another important aspect of his work is uncovering more information about how long the Syriac language remained in use Orthodox Christians in Syria and Lebanon– in some regions, the lectionary readings were only translated from Syriac into Arabic in the 17th century! Orthodox Antioch’s Syriac heritage has long been sadly neglected, but this is now starting to change…

So if the lectionary was in Syriac, what liturgy were they using? Archdale King’s The Rites of Eastern Christendom seems to indicate that the Divine Liturgy of St. James has always been the normative Syriac rite — so was the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom a later development for Syriac speakers in Syria and Lebanon?

Funny but true story — somebody at All Saints suggested to me that it might be nice to include a round of “Lord, have mercy” in Aramaic. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but the suggestion was made in a very public forum by somebody who made it clear they didn’t want to be ignored. Syriac being a dialect of Aramaic, I figured, I dutifully added the Syriac translation (“Marya rahem”) to our list. Because there are already five different languages represented (English, Arabic, Greek, Romanian, and Slavonic), it was rare we would ever get to it, but I could go back to the person who suggested it and say, “Look, I heard your request and responded to it.”

Then I found out that in an actual Syriac language liturgy, for the petition responses they just say “Kyrie eleison” (and there’s a good chunk of their liturgy which is in borrowed Greek). As it works out, it looks like the same thing happens in Coptic too. The Syriac rendering was quietly removed from use at All Saints.

Draw your own conclusions about the pitfalls represented here.

(Thanks to Lucas Christensen for bringing this to my attention!)

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part VI

oxford-ticket-2Back to happier things.

My initial thought had been that we could go to Hagia Sophia Cathedral in London for Liturgy on Sunday; I had only been able to quickly walk through there back in ’07, and thought it would be awesome to actually go for a service and perhaps see the folks I had met who attended there.

Turned out that the Sunday we were going to be in England was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, however, and given the role of that day in preparing for Great Lent, it seemed preferable to attend a service in English. The Cathedral does a Divine Liturgy in English on the first and third Saturdays of the month; otherwise, they do everything in Greek. (“We’re the patriarchal cathedral for the Greeks in London,” the choir director there told me when I met him. “Our services are in Greek or else.”) Alas, we were there for the second Saturday.

Plus, as Dr. Lingas had told us on Friday, it was a Sunday for Byzantine chant in English up in Oxford.

Liturgy started at 10:30; the earliest train to Oxford we could catch was at approximately 8:30am, and that got us up there around 9:50. It was about a twenty minute walk from the Oxford train station to the Holy Octagon, and I remembered where it was easily enough.

This was the first time I had seen the interior of the Oxford church; while humble in a lot of respects — it is a very simple brick building — they have done a lot with what they have. Also, while somewhat smaller than All Saints, I’d say they packed in about 30-40 more people than we typically do — it was filled to the gills. On the other hand, it was 2 February on the Old Calendar (the Meeting of the Lord, or Candlemas as doubtless some of the English converts might call it), so it being a major feast might well have accounted for the attendance.

The celebrant was Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware); the homilist Fr. Ian Graham; the cantor Dr. Lingas. Talk about a delightful treat of a morning. Metropolitan Kallistos served with a great deal of enthusiasm and verve; I’ve said before that recordings really do not capture how animated he is, and I would like to reiterate that point. Fr. Ian’s homiletics are very different from what we were used to, but not in a bad way, and it was very valuable to hear on this particular Sunday. Dr. Lingas — with one other person — sang essentially a stripped down version of The Divine Liturgy in English; what was interesting was that many of the same, shall we say, pastoral realities were present as I run into at All Saints. For example, the “Dynamis” of the Trisagion was, as is the case for us, merely a repeat of the first iteration rather than a separate, longer, melismatic comp0sition. Also, as with Bloomington, as soon as the Liturgy was over — time to start chatting! In all fairness, they actually have to go to a separate building entirely for their coffee hour, so there’s no hallway into which they may just quietly slip. It was nonetheless comforting to see that such issues are not geographically limited, shall we say. One fascinating difference is that at All Saints, more or less everybody in the congregation tries to sing everything; in Oxford, the people were largely silent.

The Oxford church is on the property of something called Ss. Gregory and Macrina House; it’s a house that exists as a center for non-liturgical Orthodox activity at Oxford, including some accommodations for students and the occasional visitor. It also appears to be where the offices for the Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius are presently located, and is also where the coffee hour occurs. I hope to have some occasion to spend more time there in the future.

Following Liturgy, we ate lunch at the Eagle and Child; alas, it was full enough that the Rabbit Room was inaccessible, but the bangers and mash — and the fish and chips, and the beer — were still quite tasty regardless.

The rest of the day was spent strolling around the town and the campus, and it was a gorgeous, if chilly, day for it. In some respects, it was good we were there on a Sunday — most places where we might have been tempted to spend lots of money were closed. That said, Blackwell’s is an exceedingly pleasant place to spend several hours (and perhaps hundreds of pounds). They have shelves and shelves of things which have to be special ordered here — Greek New Testaments and Septuagints, English-Norwegian dictionaries, and so on. On the other hand, Oxford is certainly a place where people with those kinds of interests are concentrated, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. One more reason to contrive a reason to move there someday. Alternately, it’s a great reason to have a little notebook in which one can write down ISBN numbers and look online for better deals in US dollars.

We attended Evensong at Queen’s College; it was almost entirely at the other end of the spectrum of liturgical practice and singing from Metropolitan Kallistos and Dr. Lingas, but it was a nice reminder of what good liturgical singing can sound like in the Western tradition. I forget how much I like a pointed psalm sung antiphonally.

Finally, it was time to go back into the city. We got good sausage rolls from a bakery called La Croissanterie, and boarded the train.

Tips: It is reasonably common to encounter cash-only locations in Oxford. The bakery was cash-only, a coffee chain called Caffè Nero, and admission to the Saxon tower of St. Michael’s at the North Gate (“the oldest building in Oxford”) was cash only. (Megan went up; I didn’t. Again, something about paying to see part of a church just doesn’t sit well.)

Evidently, if the Orthodox visitor to Oxford were to contact the Ss. Gregory and Macrina House well enough in advance, they might find that they would be able to stay there. I don’t have any other details, and they don’t have a website or an e-mail address I am able to find, so the easiest way to contact them appears to be by phone — 01865 513117.

Yeah, Oxford is still my favorite place in the universe. What can I say?

Coming soon: how we actually got to bum around, y’know, London for day, and why the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant should be avoided at all costs.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part V

magic-flute-ticket1Word to the wise: programs are £4 apiece at ENO, and cash only.

Thus it was that all I had for Emily to sign at the end of the evening was my considerably-large ticket stub.

Thus it was, too, that I kept thinking to myself throughout the production, “Man, I wonder who that Sarastro is? It sounds a lot like Robert Lloyd,” and had to ask Emily afterward, “Who was Sarastro?”

“Robert Lloyd,” she answered.

“Oh. Well, that explains everything.”

Flute was, well, Flute. I’ve seen it probably more than any other opera, and as a piece of theatre, it just doesn’t wear terribly well for me. The dramatic impetus is silly, the reversal in terms of who the bad guys are is extraordinarily abstract, and the more people try to explain how deep it actually is the more it sounds like Wolfie and Manny just pouring a bunch of pretentious nonsense onto the page. I’ve never seen a great staging of it; because it is so ridiculous, there’s not really staging so much as there is performers moving around whatever the director’s concept is. This concept involved Tamino fighting off a bear attack with the flute.

Let me say that again: there was a bear attack, which Tamino fought off with the flute.

As Frank put it, “I was not prepared for the bear attack.”

That said, as a piece of music, it is incontrovertibly wonderful. When it’s well-sung, you don’t worry too much about the ridiculousness, and luckily, this production was well-sung. It was a reasonably young cast, save for Lloyd, and everybody brought a lot of energy and musicality to the table. Emily held her own very well and sounded like a million bucks; she has always been a perfectionist in the five years I’ve known her, so I expected no less. Her overall approach struck me as being very similar to that of Kurt Streit‘s; there’s a very similar slender, shimmery, laser-pointer-accurate approach that blossoms when she’s darn good and ready for it to blossom. Like Streit, it’s a bit early music-y in that regard, and it allows a lot of musical artistry to be displayed that might otherwise get lost in the blast of a vocal firehose.

Following the show, Megan, I, Frank, Emily, and Ayla, an old schoolfriend of hers, and her boyfriend went to a bar called The Marquis for a drink. (“I’d like a Booker’s Manhattan and some nachos.” “I’m sorry sir, but we aren’t serving cocktails or food any longer this evening.” “So what can I order?” “Beer.”) Just about the entire cast and the conductor were there, too. You know, in high school, we went to Denny’s after shows for coffee and cheesesticks. In Seattle, a place called McMenamin’s provided the post-performance libation and nourishment. It’s nice to know that, even amongst seasoned professionals at a very high professional level in a different country, the initial impulse after a performance is to go out and drink something bad for you.

Afterward, it was becoming imperative that we Feed the Megan, so there was a Parting of the Couples. Frank and Emily had an early morning trip to Scotland for an audition and also needed to eat something; we hugged goodbye, affirmed that we hoped it wouldn’t be three and a half years before we saw them again, and that was that. Thanks for making time to see us, guys — it was awesome.

We had a light dinner at a restaurant called Browns. Good pasta, good wine, decent service, not obnoxiously expensive. At the request of Megan’s father and mother-in-law, we toasted them in absentia; I managed to get the cuff of my brand new white shirt in the marinara sauce.

It was Valentine’s Day, we were together, we were in England, we had seen friends, we had seen one of those friends in an opera, and Megan had given me daisies.

Doesn’t get much better than that.

Then it was off to bed; we had to get up early to make it up to Oxford in the morning.


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