Unusual Paschal Services in Devon

Please see the article below.

Fr Patrick.

Our Nomadic Pascha


To quote Fr Anthony Hughes in our issue of 25th April, 'Each Holy Week is different.’  Well, Holy Week and Pascha have certainly felt very different for us from last year to this.  Last year, we were in the depths of the first Covid lockdown.  Celia had come up with the idea of putting out a weekly newsletter to keep us in touch with one another, and since we could not go to church, we turned small corners of our houses into churches.  Father Peter, so recently ordained, gave huge comfort by livestreaming services from Barnfield Road not only to us in the parish but to a much wider circle.  Some of us quietly read the services from the Triodion.  On Easter Day many of us joined a Zoom party which was the nearest we could get to greeting one another with a kiss.

The most obvious practical difference this Pascha was that churches could open for public worship.  This presented problems for us, though.  Not only was Saint Anne's quite unsuitable for any gathering with social distancing, but – and this was much more difficult – Fr Peter was hugely absent.  As Lent proceeded it seemed we had nowhere to meet and no-one to lead us.

But we were not alone.  Our close neighbours the Anglican parish of Saint James offered us the use of their church hall – well known to us from our after-church coffee and patronal and Easter feasts - whenever we needed it, and Fr Trayan rearranged his work schedule so that he could celebrate the Liturgy with us on some Saturdays.  Taking heart from this, we decided that we needed to keep Holy Week and Pascha as fully as we could.  Fr Trayan served the Liturgy on Lazarus Saturday and afterwards blessed our palm crosses, some of which were later posted to those who were still shielding at home.  A few of us met at Saint Anne's for the Bridegroom services and Wednesday evening Matins.  Saint James' Hall was not available the next morning, but we were invited to celebrate the Mystical Supper of Holy Thursday in the church instead, again with Fr Trayan presiding.  Later on Thursday Fr Patrick arrived in Exeter, and led us in the Service of the Twelve Gospels, both of the beautiful Holy Friday services, and the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday, all in Saint James' Hall, which by now we had become quite expert at converting into an Orthodox church in short order.

The biggest problem we had was, where could we celebrate on Easter Night with some hope of accommodating the numbers who have turned up in previous years?  Well, the biggest space for public worship in Exeter is the Cathedral.  Why not ask?  They can only say ‘Sorry, but no’.  But the Dean said they would be delighted, and arranged for us to liaise with the Custos, Luke Stevenson, who quickly took on board everything we needed to arrange, and was hugely helpful in setting out ‘bubble zones’ to accommodate the 100 people we had agreed the space could hold.  (Only the nave of the cathedral is currently in use for services.)  We had to operate a ticket system, and the 100 places were soon booked: sadly, we had to disappoint a further 40 or so who would have liked to come.

Matins was beautiful.  A little less exuberant than usual, perhaps; people had been asked to stay in their places and wait for the holy light to be brought to them, rather than surging forward, and to respond ‘He is risen indeed!’ in a normal speaking voice rather than shouting.  They were also not able to follow the procession of the altar party and choir, which left the nave through the south doors in the great screen, up the south choir aisle and back to the north screen doors for the proclamation of the Resurrection. But the effect, for those of us standing in the candlelit nave, was extraordinarily beautiful, as the singing faded almost to nothing and then swelled again on the return, and every light in the nave flooded on as the door was flung open for the procession to reenter.

Contrary to my expectations, almost nobody left during or after Matins.  (The crowd who traditionally gather outside Saint Anne’s on Easter night almost all melt away after the procession.)  And nearly all went up to take Communion, including a good number of very sleepy children.  Who then mostly stayed awake enough to take their own red egg as they left the Cathedral – our only stipulation being that they take them home rather than leaving the Cathedral and forecourt littered with broken eggshells.

And in the evening, back at St James’ hall, for a joyous coda Fr Nicanor led us in Paschal Vespers, as he has done every Easter for thirty years at least.  If you ask him, he will be happy to tell you why that is.

So we did keep Holy Week and Pascha as fully as we could, and for that we owe our huge gratitude to many people: to Nigel, the Churchwarden of Saint James’, for whom nothing has been too much trouble, to the Dean of Exeter and Custos Luke, to Fr Trayan, Fr Patrick, Fr Nicanor, Deacon Brandon, Servers Daniel and Alexander, to Irina and the choir (whose reward was being enfolded for three hours in the glorious acoustic of the Cathedral), to Hugh for ticket distribution, to Celia and Emma and Nadya at front of house, to the Prophet Elias Removals Company (Thomas and Philip) for transport of our little church from place to place…

And of course to our beloved Father Peter, who bequeathed to us as a community the strength and the shared love we needed to make this work.

Christ is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!
Martin Olsson