Smile Politely

The Church Hopper #1: St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Urbana

OK, I admit it. I’m a church hopper. I have been hopping around from one church to another for a few weeks now with some kind of naïve belief that there might actually be a church somewhere in C-U that my whole family will like. One of the main obstacles has been the “L” word. I am a liberal while my wife is a conservative, so finding a church whose theology we both can embrace has been like searching for the Holy Grail. I wonder if James Carville and Mary Matalin have this problem?

Another issue has been a different “L” word: liturgy. Churches with good liturgy seem to be a scarcity in Champaign–Urbana. The word liturgy means literally, “the work of the people” and so, for me, a good church is one in which the people actually participate in the worship and do not simply sit back, relax and watch stuff on a big screen. If I wanted to watch TV, I’d stay home, eh?

So I keep hopping around. Hopping and hoping that I’ll find a church I can call home.

Then the other day I had an epiphany: why not put my church hopping to some use? After all, here at Smile Politely we review restaurants, movies and music. So why not churches? I’m sure there are lots of other folks out there who are looking for a church in C-U. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were actually some kind of a church directory that told you not only where the church was located but what to expect when you went there? Perhaps even use a five-star rating system the way we do with hotels and restaurants?

Yes, this is a great idea. We need a lot more of this give-me-exactly-what-I-want, consumer mentality towards churches. After all, this propensity to get mad, split from the mother church and start a new one just the way we want it is really what unites us all as Christians, right?

And that “Christian” attitude should keep this new series of articles alive for quite a while. I mean, if we were all still united as one Church, this series would be over after one article. But since we have splintered into thousands of denominations and off-shoots, I should be busy writing this column for the rest of my life.

So this week, Your Humble Heretic is proud to bring you the first installment of The Church Hopper. And I am equally proud to announce that the first victim, er… subject of this series is St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Urbana, which I attended last Sunday, April 6.

My wife, two children and I arrived at St. Nicholas around 9:55 a.m. as their website informed us that the Divine Liturgy began at 10:00 a.m. At first I thought we were late because it appeared that the service was already in progress. So we quietly sneaked into the back of the small sanctuary trying not to disturb anyone or draw attention to ourselves. Since the pews were not very long and were already half-filled we had to split up our family in order to be seated.

That’s when a very lovely and nice thing happened that is, unfortunately, rare in many churches. The person I was sitting next to, knowing I was a first-time guest, welcomed me and helped me understand what was happening. First, she told me not to worry because the Divine Liturgy had not yet started. We had actually walked in at the end of Orthros/Matins which had started at 9:00 a.m. Next, she showed me which book to use so I could follow along in the Liturgy. Then she offered to move to another pew so our whole family could sit together. This was very thoughtful. St. Nicholas gets big kudos from me for having kind, helpful congregants.

The sanctuary reminded me a little bit of the song Edelweiss: “small and white, clean and bright…” It was ornately decorated all around with icons of the saints, as is customary for Orthodox churches. But I did not find the sanctuary at all gaudy—it was actually quite lovely.

I also noticed that there was no sound system present, nor was one needed. The worship space was small and intimate enough that one could easily hear the cantor’s voice (which was clear and beautiful) in the back of the sanctuary and the priest’s in the front, even when his back was to the congregation.

The liturgy itself was fairly easy to follow. It especially helped that it was all in English (something I’ve missed when I’ve attended the other Orthodox church in town, Three Hierarchs, where the liturgy is in Greek).

Another thing I deeply appreciated at St. Nicholas was that the Eucharist was the central part of the service. I can’t tell you how many churches I’ve been to in Champaign–Urbana where communion is neglected. Some churches offer it only once a month while others will go three or four months before bringing out the wine and bread.

Of course, this brings up the one thing I wish were different at St. Nicholas (and the Orthodox Church in general). Communion is offered only to Orthodox Christians. So after all that “work” of the liturgy, which I tried so very hard to follow, it saddened me that I wouldn’t get to eat and drink the long-awaited meal. But then one of the most touching parts of the service happened. As my family and I sat there wishing that we too could go forward and receive the bread and wine, several Orthodox children brought some bread to us in the pews.

The worship experience at St. Nicholas frequently bordered on the mystical. For example, I had a profound sense of the Eucharist truly being a communion of all of God’s saints in every time and place because of the many icons of the saints surrounding the sanctuary. The chanting and incense also contributed to a mystical experience. Throughout the service, I often closed my eyes and simply listened to the chant which seemed to transform into an other-worldly beckoning into the Kingdom of God.

All of this liturgy and mysticism was wonderfully balanced, however, by Father James Ellison, the priest at St. Nicholas, and his insightful homily. He came across as down to earth and with a delightful sense of humor. I got to speak briefly with Father James after the service and found him to be a sincere, gentle and thoughtful person. His white beard and twinkling eyes make him appear a bit like St. Nicholas himself.

Speaking of St. Nicholas, there is a large poster in the fellowship hall of this church that shows the relationship between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. It’s also in this same fellowship hall that the congregation gathers after the service for some food and fellowship.

St. Nicholas is definitely a church I would visit again. In fact, I’m planning on it. Pascha (the Orthodox Easter) is coming up on Sunday, April 27, and St. Nicholas will have a service beginning late Saturday night. Check their website for exact times for all their services.

I hope you have enjoyed this first installment of The Church Hopper. If you ever get a chance to join the kind folks at St. Nicholas, I encourage you to do so. I know I am looking forward to worshipping with them again.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Urbana: 4½ (out of five) stars.

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