Syrian Orthodox Church Visitation
St. Peter's Syrian Orthodox Church Project
A while back, I had the opportunity to visit one of the local congregations in the Southern California area as part of a pre-reformation church history research project. The church of my choosing was the Syriac Orthodox church; specifically St. Peter the Apostle Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch in San Dimas, CA. I will describe in detail the different aspects of the church including worship, liturgical service structure, doctrine, and the church building itself. I will give my personal opinion for each aspect covered while at the same time respecting the church as we do differ in some ideas and practices.
When I first arrived, I noticed the architecture that was unique to the buildings surrounding the church. The church had a small front lot and a grassy area surrounding it. The building itself was not very tall but had an old fashioned triangular roof with a cross at the top. The shape of the roof itself is not necessarily an oriental style but accentuated the small cross at the top. There weren’t many windows in the main building with the exeption of a few by the side and the ones in the recreation building on the side. I thought the building was modest and welcoming, a fair balance between modern and eastern religious style. The foyer was decorated with fancy lights on the ceiling and had a banner in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of Sayfo, the Armenian Genocide. I thought it was good that they commemorate something that isn’t talked about very often in churches. It reminded me of how Christianity has a global history that spans beyond what is happening in western culture.
Structure and Practices
The foyer also had two paintings with boxes of sand where the members would stick a candle in the sand a say a prayer. I learned that the paintings were of Mary and Saint Peter. This seemed similar to what I’ve seen Roman Catholics do so I asked what they were praying for. The guide told us that these two were at the head of their church lineage, and that they did not pray to Mary and Peter, but instead asked them to watch over and intercede for them. In my honest opinion, I don’t see a difference in prayer to the dead and supplication for intercession. Some may see this as a cultural difference in religious activity, but this seems to be a matter of doctrinal error. Seeing as Jesus is the only mediator, the practice of prayers, or asking for something, directed outside of the Trinity seems to be in error at best
Beginning the Service
The main area of the church had plain pews on each side with no decorations on the side walls. Though it isn’t a rule, the pews were mostly separated between males and females with the older ladies at the front wearing head coverings. The majority of people were older females, followed by older males and a few people about my age. I noticed there wasn’t much racial diversity as most of the members appeared to be a mix Syriac and Aramean. This is more of an assumption that they were mostly a similar mix of eastern ethnicity because many of the members were relatives. The church is patriarchical, including a system of priests, deacons, etc. The Head Priest wears an illustrious red robe with yellow ornamentation. The whole design is filled with little cross symbols. The reverend wears a black cap called a phiro. The deacons wear white robes with red and gold ornamented scarves. Their rank is shown by the way they wear the scarf around the robe; some resemble an x-shape and higher-ups throw the end behind their backs. The clergy stand in a way where they face only where the priest is facing, which is usually towards the altar (the whole ceremony is done at the front with a curtain that draws on the scene during ‘intermissions’). The altar is the only place where shoes must be taken off. The design consists of a large red, gold, and green structure. It had many little designs similar to the priest’s robes. The altar was shaped like three walls of a house with enough ornamentation to overwhelm the senses. I found that all the intricate decorations captured my focus for most of the service. I wasn’t a big fan of so much detail because it’s not what I am used to, but it demonstrated their zeal for tradition and adherence to the original style of liturgy which I appreciated.
The liturgical service lasted about two hours and required a lot of standing. There were recitations of prayer and songs from the prayer book. These were mostly in Syriac but the translations to English were on the front screen. These prayers sounded similar to those done by a muezzin at mosques as they slowly speak out the words at different pitches. The actual sermon lasted about fifteen minutes and was spoken in Syriac, Greek, and English. The sermon was about opening up to the outside world and maintaining relations with the younger generation. This seemed to be in sync with their beliefs which are not emergent but more along the lines of ecumenical, especially with those in the oriental orthodoxy and Catholic Church. Personally, I believe Roman Catholicism is at odds with biblical teaching, but the church seemed to believe they maintain their orthodoxy while still claiming to be in accordance with Catholicism. The Eucharist cannot be done without the Peshitta (Syriac Bible) and a special tablet. They also affirm transubstantiation in this sacrament
I also learned a few other interesting facts after the service. The Sunday school books and study tools used for the children are approved by their global council and are the same in each church throughout the world. They try to stay out of politics and are part of an ecumenical church association. They are also part of the World Council of Churches. Much of their decorum in the service is symbolic in different aspects regarding the life if Christ. They also have specific prayers for absolution of sin and prayers to the Holy Virgin Mary. Overall the traditions upheld in the church are beautiful and the service is interesting. The doctrines taught there would put me at odds with core beliefs but aside from this it was a worthwhile learning experience.
© 2018 Chase Chartier