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Icons at Athelhampton

St Edward the Martyr at Athelhampton looks like many another Dorset country church, but it is an apparently unlikely setting for an outpost of the Orthodox Church. Andrew Headley has been to see it and to meet its priest.

Every Sunday, the little church at Athelhampton opens its doors to its congregation and is filled with the sound of worship.  Nothing strange about that, but it is the church itself which is unusual, being the only Orthodox church in rural Dorset.

It is one of those delightful curiosities in which our county abounds that what was once the parish church of a tiny hamlet should now be home to what many think of as an exotic version of Christianity.  In fact, until 1053 all Churches were Orthodox, including in England.  In that year the Roman Catholic Church broke away in a dispute over the nature of the Trinity and the authority of the Pope, who until then had been no more than first among equals among the Church’s five Patriarchs.

The Athelhampton church was built in 1861 by Hicks of Dorchester and dedicated to St John.  It is said that Thomas Hardy was involved in the design of the small, well-proportioned building; certainly he was working for Hicks at that time.  The church served Athelhampton, which mostly meant the family and staff at Athelhampton House, and the neighbouring hamlet of Burleston.  Its catchment was never large, therefore, and in the early 1970s it was declared redundant and bought from the Church Commissioners by the then owner of Athelhampton, Sir Robert Cooke.  He used it for storage but maintained the building in good condition.  It is still owned by Patrick Cooke, Sir Robert’s son and the present occupant of Athelhampton, who is a very supportive landlord and occasionally attends services.

It was in 1996 that Father John Nield, a former Anglican priest, and his wife, Beryl, came upon the church.  He wondered if it might be a home for a group that he was leading in West Dorset, a group that was investigating a move towards the Orthodox Church.  The group had already dedicated itself to a saint with strong Dorset connections, St Edward the Martyr, and when Father John found that one of the windows in the church depicted St Edward, it was almost as though the group’s move there was meant to be.  Father John was ordained into the Orthodox Church and became the first parish priest.  On his death in 2001 he was succeeded by Father Chrysostom McDonnell, who had been leading a community in Cornwall, but he moved to Poole last year, when the former Anglican church of St Osmund’s in Parkstone was bought for the Orthodox Church by an American trust, and was succeeded at Athelhampton by the present priest, Father David Harris.

The building both inside and out is unmistakeable in its origins as an English country church, but its decoration and internal fittings are fully adapted to its new use.  Most significant is the iconostasis, the screen that divides the nave from the chancel.  In Orthodox churches, the whole of what Anglicans would call the chancel is referred to as the altar and may be entered only by the priest or by men (no women) authorised by him.

The other most noticeable difference is the array of icons, which play such an important part in Orthodox worship.  Painting an icon is regarded as an act of prayer, their purpose being to help devotion by making more alive and immediate the saints or other sacred figures to whom supplication is being made.  A traditional icon is painted in egg tempera and natural pigments on a board prepared with gesso and one does not have to be a member of the Orthodox Church or even a believer to appreciate what works of art many of them are.  Among the icons in the church at Athelhampton are two of St Edward the Martyr.

There is a Divine Liturgy (Eucharist) at the church every Sunday at 10 am, with the congregation coming not only from all over Dorset but from Devon and Hampshire as well.  Most are former Anglicans and a few are former Roman Catholics, with only one or two brought up from birth in the Greek Orthodox tradition.  Ministering to such a far-flung parish causes some logistical challenges: Father David, whose home is in Fordingbridge, sometimes takes the Communion to a parishioner who lives in Axminster.

The services are in English, but someone brought up in the Anglican tradition would not recognise much except the Nicene Creed and the central act of the Communion.  Even that takes a different form, with the bread being dropped into the chalice of wine and given to the communicant on a spoon.  The order of service has a strong emphasis on litanies, with the congregation giving a standard response – usually ‘Lord have mercy’ – to sentences read out by the priest.  As in the Roman Catholic service, the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos, plays a large part both as an object of veneration and as a channel of intercession.

The differences between the various Orthodox Churches are not fundamental but usually a matter of language and local custom.  For example, confession plays a larger part in the Russian Orthodox Church than it does in the Greek, but all Orthodox Churches are in communion with each other through the Patriarch of Constantinople, rather as Anglican Churches throughout the world are in communion through the Archbishop of Canterbury.  For this reason, although the church at Athelhampton firmly follows the Greek Orthodox tradition, it is noticeable that the smart new signboard outside does not include the word ‘Greek’.

The way in which Father David Harris came to the Orthodox Church reflects the experience of many of his parishioners, but it was perhaps even more intense in his case as he had been a Anglican priest for eighteen year, latterly as the parson of a rural parish in Kent.  He became aware of the Orthodox Church in his teens and studied it as part of his theological training, but only became seriously interested in the early 1990s, when the Church of England moved towards the decision to ordain women as priests.  ‘I don’t know whether a woman can be a priest or not,’ he says humbly, ‘but I was convinced then and am convinced now that the Anglican Communion on its own is not competent to make a decision on the subject if it claims to be part of the “Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church” along with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.  Being part of that Church has always been integral to Anglicanism’s understanding of itself, so the decision was tantamount to the Church of England tearing up its own title deeds and I couldn’t accept that.’

Whether one agrees with that point of view or not, it takes little imagination to understand what a life-changing decision it was and the practical difficulties it brought in his wake.  Fortunately, Father David had qualified in pharmacy before entering the priesthood and was able to resume that profession.  Later, he and his wife, Lesley, moved to Fordingbridge and opened a tea-room, and it was then that they started coming to Athelhampton as members of the congregation.  He became a Reader and was ordained as a deacon of the Orthodox Church three years ago, then as a priest last year on his predecessor’s move to Poole.

Converts to Orthodoxy, if already baptised, enter the Church through ‘chrismation’ or anointing with oil.  For many of them it is a difficult decision and process, but afterwards they describe it as ‘like coming home’.  In physical terms, that home for Dorset followers of the Orthodox Church is the quiet little church at Athelhampton.

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