Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
The day they took possession of it, priest and worshippers had gathered on the small green in nearby St Helens Lane. It was the first religious service that the building had witnessed in 461 years. During this time, among many other things, St Helen's Chapel had been a private house, a shop and a workshop. When the small congregation entered and began to sing, “It sounded as if the walls themselves were singing back at us, asking us: 'Where have you been all this time?'”
It is very hard – even for a benighted heathen like myself – not to be moved by Father Alexander Haig's account of how in the year 2000, the Orthodox Church came back to the chapel in Maidenburgh Street, Colchester. The emotion is in his voice and in his eyes while he tells this story.
St Helen, or St Helena as many call her, was mother of Constantine the Great and of course, Patron Saint of Colchester. Depending upon which sources you believe, she was born nearby in Colchester Castle – then her father King Coel's castle. She is said to have built the chapel for her own worship. According to history though, she was actually born in Asia Minor – modern-day Turkey. Here, religious doctrine, local legend and and blurred historical account all conspire together to make what Hollywood film-makers would call 'a reality soup'.
One thing is for certain though. St Helen's Chapel is very, very old. Nobody knows exactly how old but it was here before the Normans arrived and even then its restoration was on their To Do list. Appearances can be deceptive. The chapel's walls, three of which are on the foundations of the ancient Roman Theatre, have seen much rebuilding over the centuries. The exterior, in a town rich in other historical treasures is a rather unspectacular Victorian one. It is the interior which is so interesting. The luminous red-golds of the saintly icons which line the chapel's walls– along with the candles which quietly hiss and sputter during my visit, combine to make the little church far more atmospheric than many much-grander places of worship.
Father Haig, does his erudite best to crash-course me through the basic history of Orthodox Christianity, which is fascinating. Eastern Orthodoxy was the earliest form of Christianity. Catholicism is a stripling by comparison. A schism then occurred between Eastern Christianity (Greek) and its rival Roman Catholicism (Latin) in the 11th century. The emergent Catholic Church in turn experienced its own dissenters a few centuries later and so Protestantism was born. Father Haig himself was an Anglican priest for three decades, but converted to Orthodox in the mid-Nineties. The matter of women vicars, he says, was one issue which prompted his decision. Looking around St Helen's now and absorbing something of its overwhelming mystique I can partly sympathise with this. If you'd been brought up with a theological package – one rich in ritual and reverence– and then woken one day to find that your place of worship was now full of people playing drum-kits, blasting saxophones and guitars and happily clapping along, all conducted by someone a bit like Dawn French in her Vicar of Dibley role, might you not yearn for a return to an older weightier wholemeal faith – one with no additives and nowt-taken-out so to speak? The matter is obviously more complex than this but it is the simplest explanation that a theological chowderhead such as I can muster.
Father Haig's flock comprises Greeks, Greek-Cypriots, Bulgarians, Serbs, Arab-Christians and others. There may be between thirty and fifty worshippers attending any one service One feature of an Orthodox service is that all music is chanted or sung. The Orthodox faith believes that the voice comes from the soul, whereas musical instruments are of the earth. Similarly, the Sanctuary of the church, which represents heaven, is curtained off from the Nave, the area where the congregation pray. The Sanctuary may be observed when the curtains are opened but only the priest has access to this area. “It is” adds Father Hague, using an Olympian analogy, “As if life were a race – and this were the stadium.” Here he points at the many icons of the saints. “And these, are our spectators who cheer us on, should we tire or falter.”
Perhaps it is the sheer antiquity of St Helen's Chapel, or maybe it's something to do with the candles, the icons and the quiet measured tone of the priest's voice. But time seems to dissolve while I listen to him and I suddenly find that an hour has slipped by in what seems like five minutes. As I walk out dazed into the cold drizzle of Maidenburgh Street, I pause to look back down the hill and north to the distant fields on the outkirts of town. Well over a thousand years ago – when the Riverside Estate to the east – was still marsh and water meadows, a St Helen's Chapel, in some form or other, existed here. At the top of Maidenburgh Street, the High Street bustles moodily about its midweek business. Two minutes walk away, nestling in quiet sidestreets, is this ancient, holy building that has somehow fallen back into the hands of the very faith that created it. St Helen's Chapel is Number 2 on Colchester's Heritage Trail. It's also on a rather older, more venerable trail – one which leads all the way back to Antioch.