Ann George attends a very Anglican service, albeit with surprises in store

At the end of 2017 I started to transfer my 2018 appointments into my new diary and my eyes fell on the little note: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I have many memories jostling around that phrase, and most of them are connected to Jerusalem one way or another. I remember the deep chill of a Jerusalem winter, when you understand why you had been told in England during the previous July to pack your warmest winter coat. I remember three Christmas lunches eaten in the courtyard with my arms bare to the wintry sun, as warm as an English summer, then the temperature plummeting at sunset, my cosy room like a hobbit’s house with its thick walls keeping in the warmth from the single-barred little electric heater.

Before my stay in Jerusalem I had had little experience of services outside those featured in the Book of Common Prayer and later, the English Missal. I remember my first attendance at a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity event: a Roman Catholic mass in Eastbourne in the early 1970s, where the church was obviously struggling with its image after Vatican II. I had been conscripted into the choir, but actually there were only a few unknown hymns to sing and no mass setting, and I was amazed at the time that it was not considered necessary for any of the choir to go up to the communion rail, let alone a member of the Church of England to be given a blessing. In the early 1990s I was offered more heady fare at Ealing Abbey’s mass during the Week of Prayer, but in between, living abroad, I had worshipped in a wide range of churches of the Anglican Communion.

All this experience was nothing compared to the amazing variety of Christian worship offered every day in Jerusalem. From the secretive, exclusive Messianic Jewish congregations to the flamboyant Millenniarism of some of the house groups, from the sedate BCP 8 o’clock service at the Anglican Cathedral to the Easter dance on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church congregation, the roving worshipper is encouraged to consider that there are many, many ways of coming to Jesus, and many churches proudly bearing much longer pedigrees than one’s own.

First of all, not just one or two experiences were offered each time the Week of Prayer came round; no, indeed; each day of the week there was a service offered, perhaps in the sweet little Syrian Orthodox monastery of St Mark in the Old City, which is built on one of the two sites revered as the place of the Last Supper, or perhaps you might find yourself in the Russian Compound behind the Town Hall in West Jerusalem where you can hear the wonderful men’s voices of the Russian Metropolitan Cathedral. I remember the Baptist Church being on the list and the imposing Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, too, but surprise, surprise, I didn’t take up those particular opportunities.

But the most important thing to do is to worship in these places. Jerusalem, I decided, was not a religious supermarket. If you go into God’s house and attend a service, you need to pay serious attention. This is not easy, as most of the orthodox liturgies in particular are likely to last 3 hours or so, it is standing room only, and the service is rarely translated into a modern language, and, if translated, will probably be in Arabic or possibly French. I went to these services with the desire to keep a watching, prayerful brief on the service itself, but at the same time, to say my own prayers.

And this is exactly what my Orthodox friends did at their services. They rarely attended the whole of the liturgy, but often timed their arrival for the sanctus procession, had several favoured icons where they lit candles at different points in the service, and took the antidoron (the blessed but not consecrated bread) at the end of the liturgy. Never once did I attend an Orthodox liturgy with friends when they actually made their communion. My Armenian friends only made their communion 3 times a year: Christmas, Easter and their birthdays.

Taking all this into account, I am sure that you can imagine how many confused people there were in these churches during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Jerusalem. Much whispered explanation had to be done at times by helpful local worshippers, which could also, of course, be very distracting. It was not all joy, but a real exercise in Christian charity to keep myself from being frustrated by the sometimes inane questions that were being hissed around me.

But there was the real joy, however, of being able to take the antidoron, and not just take it for myself, for it is customary to take a big enough piece so that you can share it with someone who has been unable to attend the liturgy. Many times I have made my way back to the courtyard after a service, found Auntie at the round white plastic table sitting over her cigarette and her cup of coffee, huddled in her cardigans, and I broke my piece of bread and shared it with her.

Ann George is a member of FinF Council