15 June 2024

A new icon screen has
been put in place in the
Greek Orthodox Church
in Stony Stratford

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

Over the past few weeks, I have visited the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford regularly, as I watched the erection of a new iconostasis (εἰκονοστάσιον) or icon stand in the church, along with new but traditional seating or pews (στασίδια, stasídia), new steps leading into the sanctuary area, and a new candle stand and a new polyelaios (πολυελαιος) or liturgical chandelier.

They all give a new yet a traditional look to the church, and after weeks of hard work and renovation they were blessed last Sunday morning (9 June 2024) by Father Gregory Wellington during the Divine Liturgy in what was an emotional and uplifting service.

The Greek Orthodox Community in Milton Keynes was founded 35 years ago on 7 December 1989 to meet the needs of Greek Orthodox people in in the rapidly city, seeking to support their religious, educational and cultural needs and to provide space to practise their language and traditions.

The church is dedicated to Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos, with a small part of the church set aside as a chapel dedicated to Saint Mary of Vlachernae.

The Greek Orthodox Parish Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos on London Road, Stony Stratford … designed as an Anglican parish church by Sir George Gilbert Scott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The community’s first home was in in Saint Martin’s Church, Fenny Stratford, for 20 years until the former Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on London Road in Stony Stratford became available. The former Church of England parish church was designed by the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and was built in 1864. It had ceased being a place of worship in 1969, and for many years was a community centre.

With generous and substantial support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the community was able to offer to buy the church in Stony Stratford in September 2006. The late Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateita and Great Britain officiated at the first Vespers in the church on 14 September 2008. The purchase was finalised on 11 May 2009, and it became a Greek Orthodox Church officially that year.

The community also acquired the parish hall beside the church, designed by the Stony Stratford architect Edward Swinfen Harris and was built in 1892. The hall was renamed the Swinfen Harris Church Hall in 2010, keeping alive the link with the town’s architectural heritage.

Father Gregory Wellington presides at the Divine Liturgy in Stony Stratford last Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Over the next few weeks, I plan to look at the icons in the church, particularly in the newly installed iconostasis (εἰκονοστάσιον, ikonostásion), in my prayer diary on my blog each morning, beginning tomorrow morning. But this evening it is worth looking at the theological and meaning and liturgical significance and the traditions of an iconostasis.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, an iconostasis is a traditional stand or screen of icons and religious images in a church that separates the nave and the laity from the sanctuary or altar area where the priest presides at the Eucharist or the Divine Liturgy.

The nave is the main body of the church where most of the worshippers stand, and the sanctuary is the area around the altar at the east end the church. The sanctuary is usually one to three steps higher than the nave, with the iconostasis usually set a few feet back from the edge of the top step. This forms a walkway in front of the iconostasis for the clergy, called a soleas. In the very centre of the soleas is an extension, often rounded, called the ambon, on deacons stand to recite litanies during the services.

The iconostasis is often tall but rarely touches the ceiling. This allows the ekphoneses (liturgical exclamations) of the clergy to be heard clearly by the people. In small, modern churches the iconostasis may be completely absent: in such cases it is replaced by a few small icons on analogia (lecterns), forming a virtual divide.

The lower, first tier of the iconostasis, with the Holy Doors and side doors, is sometimes called Sovereign (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The iconostasis typically has three openings or sets of doors: the Beautiful Gates or Holy Doors in the centre, and the north and south Doors to either side.

The Beautiful Gates, sometimes also known as the Royal Doors, remain shut whenever a service is not being held. Customs vary to when they are opened during services.

The north and south doors are often called Deacons’ Doors because the deacons use them frequently. Icons of sainted deacons are often depicted on these doors, such as Saint Stephen the Protomartyr and Saint Ephrem the Syrian. Alternatively, the side doors may be called the Angels’ Doors, with images of the Archangel Michael as the Defender and the Archangel Gabriel as the Messenger.

Traditionally, in large churches with elaborate, tall icon stands, there are five tiers: 1, the icons to either side of the Holy Doors are of Christ Pantokrator and of the Theotokos; 2, above them are images of the 12 Great Feasts; 3, above them, the Deesis; 4, above them, Prophets to either side of Our Lady of the Sign; and 5, above them, the Apostles to either side of the Holy Trinity.

The lower, first tier is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming. Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

An icon of the Mystical Supper above the Beautiful Gates and the feasts tier with 12 icons of the liturgical year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An icon of the Mystical Supper or the Last Supper is usually seen above the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates.

Above this are two interchangeable tiers: the Deisis and the Twelve Great Feasts. In the centre of the Deisis is a large icon of Christ Enthroned. To the left and right are icons of Saint John the Baptist and the Theotokos in prayer. They are often flanked by icons of the Archangel Michael and the Archangel Gabriel, then Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and then, perhaps, other important Church Fathers.

The feasts tier contains icons of the 12 Great Feasts of the liturgical year: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September),the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

Above this, the top two tiers are also interchangeable with each other.

The Biblical Prophets and Patriarchs – including the 12 sons of Jacob – are often placed on either side of an icon of Our Lady of the Sign, while the Twelve Apostles may be seen on either side of an icon of either Christ at the Second Coming or the Holy Trinity.

However, only the largest and most elaborate iconostases have all five tiers. Many modern Greek iconostases only include the bottom (‘Sovereign’) tier, and on occasion a second tier of smaller icons, usually depicting either the Great Feasts or the Apostles, with an icon of the Mystical Supper, or occasionally the Hospitality of Abraham, above the Beautiful Gates. The iconostasis is often surmounted by a central cross, often with a depiction of Christ Crucified, flanked by the Theotokos and Saint John the Evangelist at the foot of the cross.

When the Beautiful Gates are open during the Divine Liturgy, all can see the altar and the sanctuary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

There are traditions about who may enter or leave the sanctuary and by which door. Neither the Beautiful Gates nor the space between them and the altar table are used by the laity; bishops enter through the Beautiful Gates at any time; priests and deacons do so only at specific times during services; all others enter the sanctuary through the side doors.

But it would be misleading to describe the iconostasis as separating the nave from the sanctuary. In truth, it brings them together, and the iconostasis is the link between heaven and earth, bringing the holy out into the world and inviting the world into the heavenly through Christ and the story of salvation. In other words the iconostasis connects rather than separates, and the doors open both ways between both realms. The rood screens in western mediaeval churches have served the same purpose liturgically and theologically.

The new iconostasis, steps, stalls and candle burner in Stony Stratford were built and installed over the past few weeks by a traditional team of church furnishers from Athens. At present, the spaces for the icons are arranged in the traditional or customary way, but are currently filled with prints. In time, the plan is to replace the prints with original, hand-made icons. So this is a project that involves considerable fundraising efforts and commitments on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Community in Milton Keynes.

The church already has a number of beautiful icons, and in the coming months and years to come I hope to see this project grow and develop.

Meanwhile, why not join me in my prayer diary each morning over the next few weeks as I look at the traditional icons in the iconostasis and throughout the church in Stony Stratford?

Continued Tomorrow

The former, informal iconostasis in the Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
37, 15 June 2024

The chapel in Trinity College Dublin was designed in the 1790s by Sir William Chambers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow is the Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity III, 16 June 2024) and Father’s Day. The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (15 June) remembers the life and work of Evelyn Underhill (1941), Spiritual Writer.

In the two weeks after Trinity Sunday, I illustrated my prayers and reflections with images and memories of cathedrals, churches, chapels and monasteries in Greece and England dedicated to the Holy Trinity. I have continued that theme this week, with images and memories of churches I know in Ireland that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

Inside the chapel in Trinity College Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 33-37 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you: Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

The stained glass window in the apse in the chapel in TCD depicting the Transfiguration is by Mayer & Company (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Chapel, Trinity College, Dublin:

My photographs this morning (15 June 2024) are from the chapel in Trinity College Dublin. Trinity Monday is no longer celebrated in Trinity College Dublin on the day after Trinity Sunday. Instead, Trinity Monday was marked this year in TCD on 22 April, when new honorary fellows, fellows and scholars were announced. The ceremony is one of the oldest and most colourful at TCD and refers back to its foundation in 1592.

I received a post-graduate Diploma in Ecumenics at TCD in 1984, and studied classical Greek there in 1987. Later, I was twice the Select Preacher in the Chapel, and I have chaired and been the secretary of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission (DUFEM).

Until 2017, while I was on the staff of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, I was an Adjunct Assistant Professor in TCD, sitting on academic and staff committees and Courts of Examiners, supervising research and overseeing examinations. Group photographs of the BTh and MTh graduates were taken each year on the steps of the chapel in TCD. I was also a visiting lecturer on other degree courses.

Overlooking Front Square, at the heart of the TCD campus, the chapel was designed by Sir William Chambers in 1798 to form the north range of Parliament Square. Chambers was George III’s architect, and he also designed the Examination Hall on the south side of Parliament Square. The building work was overseen by Christopher Myers and his son Graham Myers, and it is likely that Myers heavily influenced the end design.

The chapel and the theatre are similar in form, creating a pleasing balance to the square and evoking a sense of Palladian symmetry with the two buildings serving as end pavilions. However, the chapel is both longer and narrower.

The classical elegance of the design is seen throughout the chapel, particularly in the stonework carved by George Darley and Richard Cranfield. Inside, the classical motif continues in the plasterwork by Michael Stapleton, spiral staircases by Robert Mallet, and the organ gallery carved by Richard Cranfield. Henry Hugh, a general carpenter throughout the project, may have worked on the pews.

The 19th century saw significant modifications to the interior, with stained glass by Clayton and Bell depicting scenes of Moses and the Children, the Ransom of the Lord, the Sermon on the Mount, and Christ with the teachers of Law, installed in 1865. Polychrome floor tiles were added to designs of John McCurdy, and, in 1872, stained glass windows were installed in the apse and centre, showing the Transfiguration, to designs by Mayer & Company.

Reflecting the Anglican heritage of the college, there are daily services of Morning Prayer, weekly services of Evensong, and Holy Communion is celebrated on Tuesdays and Sundays.

The chapel has been ecumenical since 1970, and is now also used daily in the celebration of Mass for the college’s Roman Catholic members. In addition to the Anglican chaplain, who is known as the Dean of Residence, there are two Roman Catholic chaplains and one Methodist chaplain.

The chapel is often the venue for ecumenical events, such as the annual carol service and the service of thanksgiving on Trinity Monday.

The Chapel Choir in Trinity College Dublin was established in 1762 and sings twice a week at services in the chapel, Evensong on Thursdays and the Eucharist on Sundays. The choir is made up of students from across the university. There is also a student Conductor, a student Organ Scholar, and a professional Director of Music who oversee the running of the choir, its music, and its day-to-day activities.

With MTh graduates on the steps of the chapel in Trinity College Dublin

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 15 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘Estate Community Development Mission, Diocese of Colombo, Church of Ceylon.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update. The Church of Ceylon is one of USPG’s Partners in Mission (PIM).

The USPG Prayer Diary today (15 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Use this verse to pray: Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’ (Matthew 19: 14).

The Collect:

Lord, you have taught us
that all our doings without love are nothing worth:
send your Holy Spirit
and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Loving Father,
we thank you for feeding us at the supper of your Son:
sustain us with your Spirit,
that we may serve you here on earth
until our joy is complete in heaven,
and we share in the eternal banquet
with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Faithful Creator,
whose mercy never fails:
deepen our faithfulness to you
and to your living Word,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the Eve of Trinity III:

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Parliament Square, or Front Square, in TCD, with the portico of the chapel on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Looking through the Campanile towards Regent House in TCD, with the chapel on the right and the public theatre or exam hall on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)