Sunday, 23 June 2019

34. Lazarica, Birmingham

In John Berger’s still-respected book on the way we view art Ways of Seeing, there’s an essay that’s different from all the rest. Where the critic and theorist has previously made his points and arguments with well-chosen words, he suddenly opts to use pictures alone reasoning that the images can tell the story on their own.

This springs to mind today because I’m tempted to do the same in recording my visit to the Lazarica in Bournville. I usually take a couple of shots to go with my posts but, sitting down with my camera afterwards, I realise I’ve taken nearly a hundred this morning such is the visual splendour of the church’s magnificent interior. Nevertheless, I shall stick with words.

The Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Prince Lazar - and the worship which takes place within it - is an assault on the senses. Within its high brick walls is spectacle of colour. The deep blue of the background is covered by paintings and icons everywhere you look. On every surface from the base of the pillars to the inside edges of the soaring arches to the magnificent centrepiece high in the dome. Golden fitting and banks of slender candles just add to it. There’s the heady atmosphere of rich incense to breathe in and some sumptuous harmonic liturgical chanting from the priests and a choir on a high balcony. A wonderful mixture.

This morning is a special day in the calendar of this church. Today is the feast day of The Holy Prince Lazar, the patron saint of the church. Looking on the church’s website at all the services coming up, I noted that this day alone is marked in gold lettering. There’s a celebratory feeling all round. 

But this morning seems to want to earn its gold status by packing in even more than a saint’s day. There’s a visit from the Bishop to add a bit of pomp and the arrival from a Serbian monastery (I hope I’ve got this right) of a significant icon. This beautiful, huge ornate icon, famed for its miraculous powers of healing, is brought in and placed in its own display case to be prayed to, touched, kissed and - more often than not - photographed by anyone at any point in the morning.

The Bishop has come from afar too, much further than me I’m given to understand seeing that his parish also seems to cover his native Scandinavia. To add yet more to the packed programme for the day, he’s here to help conduct the ordination, or at least the promotion, of one of the many clerics and priests on view. It’s a ceremony rich in tradition and importance, but not without a smile and a message of good luck - this is, after all, good news.

And as if all that were not enough, there’s the normal Sunday business of worship, Gospel reading and communion to be dealt with and that - in an Orthodox church - is never a speedy or hurried process.

Orthodox services have, in my admittedly scant experience, an air of casual chaos to them even if everything is perfectly planned. There are a dozen or more priests on show, of various rank and with greater or lesser roles to play. Their ministrations are watched and helped along by others acting almost as live stage managers, constantly repositioning microphones and celebrants with equal assurance.

Add to this the tradition of wandering to the front to kiss the icons on arrival and the casual attitude to when the whole thing actually starts and there’s a sense of being part of a slowly shifting audience watching a rather unconnected but compelling drama. By the time things are reaching a conclusion there’s standing room only for the groundlings - partly due to the fact that the church has no chairs but mainly due to the steady arrival of more and more people.

Stepping outside to grab a bit of fresh air and stretch out the gathering problem of cramp in the calves, I take a stroll over to the Lazar Hall to see preparations being made for a real feast. Long tables beautifully laid and a Serbian musical duo warming up. In the sunshine outside a dozen conversations and in progress and the youngsters are doing what youngsters do the world over - racing around on the grass and inventing their own fun.

Of course the setting isn’t everything, I understand that. People don’t go to the same church each week simply because it looks so appealing no matter how great that appeal may be. But there’s something about the magnificence of this gem of a church which must add a very rare and special ingredient. Once sampled it would be difficult to cut out of your diet.

Serbians are prepared to come from a long way away to visit this church - so should you.