IN TI I E Bournville area of Birmingham there stands a beautiful church. Called simply Lazarica, it was built as the memorial church of the exiled Serbs in Britain and was named after Saint Lazar, the great Serbian martyr of the 14th century.
Lazarica was consecrated in 1968 to serve the tens of thousands of Serbs living in Birmingham and other parts of the Midlands, many of whom came to England as political refugees from Yugoslavia at the end of World War II.
The church was built in the traditional 14th century Serbian Byzantine style and all the material used was imported from Serbia in Yugoslavia.
Inside the church — true to the ancient custom of the East — the sanctuary is separated from the rest of the building by doors and curtains which are opened only during certain parts or the liturgical services.
Not only the sanctuary, but all the walls of the church are covered with icons of Christ, of his Blessed Mother and of other saints. The carvings, the walnut furniture, the icons. the handpainted windows and the copperbeaten doors are all by artists from Serbia.
The faithful are members of the Serbian Orthodox Church which is headed by partriarch with headquarters still in Serbia. The Serbian Church is one of 15 Eastern Orthodox Churches which cherish traditions going back to the beginnings of Christianity and comprise a sizeable portion of Christendom — some 150 million believers.
Although they do not follow the Pope, the Orthodox Christians are regarded by the Catholic Church as possessing perfectly valid orders, Mass and sacraments. They too hold the essentials of the Christian Faith, including a great devotion to Our Lady.
If you attend the Sunday liturgy at Lazarica, you will encounter a new and unforgettable experience. One of the striking features, of course, is the language, or languages, used -Slavonic, with readings in Serbian, and a occasionally English. -- The Sunday liturgy lasts for a couple of hours. It is colourful, devout and very moving. The form of the Eastern Orthodox liturgies has remained unchanged over the last thousand years.
The whole of the liturgy is usually sung in gorgeous polyphonic sounds and without the accompaniment of any musical instruments. The concelebrants and other ministers serving at the altar, are all clad in magnificent vestments, with the main celebrant holding a cross in his hand, with which he blesses the congregation.
Communion is always given under the two species of bread and wine, the bread being in the shape of wafers rather than hosts.
The sacraments are called "mysteries" by the Orthodox, who do not limit their number to seven but add to them what are known to us as "sacramentals". Babies are baptised by being immersed three times in the water, according to ancient custom.
Confirmation is administered at the same time as baptism and by the baptising priest himself. Holy Communion is given even to the newly baptised baby, with the idea of not depriving babies from the life of grace.
When the Serbs make their confession, both the priest and the penitent stand facing an icon of Christ. All seven-year-olds and over are required to confess any serious sins they may have committed. Similar to Catholic tradition, the Orthodox priest gives the sincere penitent his advice, blessing and forgiveness in the name of Christ.
In the sacrament of marriage, the most distinctive sign is the crowning of the bride and the groom, symbolising their royal state within the family structure. Even though marriage is regarded as a holy and permanent union, divorce may be granted by an Orthodox bishop in exceptional circumstances, and subsequent remarriage is allowed.
The sacrament of the sick is called "Holy Unction" and is similar to that in the Catholic Church, but with a more elaborate ritual and with several priests taking part. When Orthodox Christians hold lighted candles at a funeral, they are reminded that the light of the departed person is not ex tinguished because his body will rise again on the Last Day.
What about Holy Orders? The majority of Orthodox priests and deacons are married men, but they have to get married before they are ordained, and if a priest's wife dies he cannot marry again. The bishops, on the other hand. are all celibate men who are usually recruited from the ranks of the monks.
The highest ranking bishop is the Patriarch, who has primacy of honour rather than jurisdiction and who makes important deci sions only in conjunction with the other bishops of his Church, normally by holding a Synod.
Traditionally, all Orthodox priests, bishops and patriarchs are elected rather than appointed, with the laity taking part in the election.
Communist revolutions in Russia and in Eastern European countries had one unexpected side-effect: they caused many Orthodox Christians to emigrate to new parts of the world — to Britain, France and Germany, the Far East and Australia, the United States and Canada.
This side-effect is a lucky development in the sense that it is a step forward in the direction of Christian unity. Whether in Birmingham or in other parts of Britain and the West, we Catholics have the opportunity now to meet to communicate with and to try to understand our Orthodox Christian brethen (Serbs, Greeks, Russians, Armenians, etc) from whom we have been separated for 10 centuries and about whom we have been quite ignorant of, indifferent to and even uncharitable towards in the past.
Yusuf H. R. Seferta