The Weekly Machen

During his tenure as journalist for the Evening News, Machen penned a series entitled “Wonderful London,” which focused on the fascinating breadth of experience offered by The Great City. For the fifth installment, our correspondent presented the reading with his experience of attending a Divine Liturgy at a Greek Orthodox Church. In the piece, Machen displays both a knowledge of the service as well as an appreciation for the mysticism of the Eastern Church. This article appeared in the Darkly Bright Press collection Dreamt in Fire: The Dreadful Ecstasy of Arthur Machen.

Wonderful London V:
The East in the West: The Greek Church in Bayswater
Arthur Machen
January 23, 1912


In the English Service Book there is a prayer which falls familiarly enough on many English ears. It begins: “Almighty God, Who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto Thee”: it is said at Matins, at Evensong and in the Litany. It has become a native and homely and friendly in its accents as all the other Prayer Book utterances; and it comes from a far way, from old Byzantium.

The compilers of the Prayer Book style it “A Prayer of St. Chrysostom,” and the other Sunday I heard it chanted in nasal, ringing Greek at the Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Bayswater. It is the prayer of the Third Antiphon in the Divine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Rite which is used, save during special seasons, throughout the Orthodox Eastern Church.

Hagia Sophia is a domed, red-brick building without; within it is a place of mysteries and dim splendours. It was a dark and misty morning, and my first impression as I entered was a glaring of gold mingled with rich colours, a wall of gold parting the church into two portions, and a long-haired, long-bearded priest clad in a golden vestment standing before a lighted altar, just within the central doors of the dividing wall.

Above, in the hollow of the dome, a great Christ in mosaic extended His arms in blessing over the church, and at His feet were the Apostles. And around the ring of the dome is an inscription beginning “Hagios, hagios, hagios, Kyrios Sabaoth,” familiar to us as “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts.” The choir in their gallery in the northern transept were singing an anthem and making a melodious pattern of music in the air; there was a sweet, faint smell of incense.

The Mystery of the East

A Greek ecclesiastic, arguing with an English clergyman of my acquaintance, once said to him: “You speak in your Anglican Service Book of ‘holy mysteries’; but I have looked at your church and there is no iconostasis and no veil: where then is the mystery, since all can see what is performed?”

The Greek put the view of his Church in a nutshell, and he spoke not only for Greeks and Russians-for what is known as the Orthodox Eastern Church-but also for the Copts of Egypt, for the Abyssinians, the Armenians, the Syrian Christians, the Nestorians of Persia, and the Christians of St. Thomas in Malabar. In a word, he expressed the standpoint of the East as opposed to the West; and he explained the use of that dividing wall of gold before the altar.

The nave where the congregation sit represents earth; the inner holy place, where the altars stands, is heaven. And the iconostasis (image or picture-stand) between the two signifies to us that beyond all visible, tangible, material life there is a great and holy and divine mystery which we see in part, and glimpse dimly, and conjecture by half-signs and by words half-uttered. But as we gaze and would know more clearly the doors are shut by invisible hands, and a golden veil is drawn across the opening, and the last secrets are hidden from the eyes of the flesh.

The lover cannot analyse his rapture, the musician cannot express in mortal speech the wonder of immortal music; the highest poetry, the finest painting, the marvel of Gothic architecture, the delight of cold water to a parched and burning month; all these essential things of life defy in the end all analysis. As with the mysteries of earth, so with the mysteries of heaven. A “rational theology” is a contradiction in terms; and so in the Moscow-road church and all over the East, there is a wall set between the altar and the people.

The Story of the Rood Screen

This iconostasis was, no doubt, the origin of the chancel screens of the West. In some very early churches of Pembrokeshire is practically exists still: a solid wall pierced by one low and narrow doorway. But in the West the idea of concealing the mysteries gradually died out, so that in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches of today the altar is usually and intentionally the most boldly visible and conspicuous object in the whole building.

In the middle ages the process was a slow one; the dividing wall was pierced with many apertures, and so were obtained the beautiful rood-screens of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Such a screen veiled the altar to a certain extent, but its true purpose was lost; it became a decorative feature and so disappeared.

The East is more tenacious, and the iconostasis with its three doors still remains. Its panels of rich gold are adorned with glowing saints and angels-the Greek Church does not allow of any sculptured or carven images- above it is the rood or cross, with St. Mary and St. John on either side, and on the beam under the cross runs the golden legend, “O, Christ, creative and sustaining Power and Wisdom of all tho things of God: save Thy Holy Church.”

AltarOn the altar within the Holy Doors stood a painted crucifix with nine candles burning about it, and standing before it the priest- whose long grey hair and beard gave him the appearance of a venerable Arab sheikh-was chanting the opening Litany.

For the peace that is from above, and for the salvation of our souls, let us make our supplications to the Lord.”

And then the choir answer, “Kyrie Eleison.” Then follow the Three Antiphons with their prayers; and the silver-covered Book of the Gospels is brought into the sanctuary; two acolytes in long white albs girt with blue fillets and a cross-bearer in like habit going before it, and standing before the central doors. And the choir sings the hymn called Trisagion, or Thrice Holy.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy upon us.”

The rite I witnessed was somewhat maimed, since the priest was not assisted by a deacon, who in the eastern rituals takes a very large part in the service; now engaged in fervent dialogue with the priest, now addressing the people, now commenting in the manner of the Greek chorus on the high and awful significance of those things which are being performed in secret within the Veil. Thus in the Liturgy of the Indian Christians of Malabar the deacon utters the voice of warning:

From everlasting to everlasting; the Altar is fire in fire; fire surrounds it, let priests beware of the terrible and tremendous fire, lest they fall into it, and be burnt forever.”

But, as I have said, there was no deacon at the church in Moscow-road, and the service was sung by priest and choir alone.

White-robed Torchbearers

But ever and again the white robed order of the cross-bearer and the torchbearers came out from one of the doors, stood awhile before the centre of the screen, and entered the sanctuary.

The Epistle and the Gospel were read, and then follows a rite which comes down from the earliest days of Christianity, which has been nothing but as form for twelve hundred years or more. This rite is the expulsion of the Catechumens, that is of persons under instruction, but as yet unbaptised. These people, with pagans and lunatics, were debarred from being present while the most sacred portion of the Liturgy was being performed; and so the deacon makes the proclamation:

Let all the Catechumens depart; Catechumens depart; let all the Catechumens depart.”

Sometimes, he cried, “Look upon one another,” and “The doors! the doors!” in Masonic phrase, the Lodge was styled; the initiated, and only the initiated, were to be present.

This done, the great drama of the Liturgy moves solemnly and splendidly onward to its tremendous consummation. I saw the golden priest going about the shinning altar, encompassing it on every side with faint blue smoke from the waving silver censer. He bore in from the door in the north the veiled Elements, the torchbearers and the cross going before him to the gate; and the people bowed their heads and made on their breasts the signs of the cross in the Eastern fashion-from right to left instead of the Western left to right. And as this was done the choir sang:-

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing the holy hymn to the quickening Trinity lay by at this time all worldly cares; that we may receive the King of Glory, invisibly attended by the angelic orders. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

The doors close behind the priest, and the golden veil is drawn across the glass of their upper portions. Altar and priest are hidden and invisible; now and again there comes a chanting voice from within, and the choir answers “Kyrie Eleison” to a second Litany.

The priest is praying secretly, and then with a loud voice he utters the words of Institution, which in the Latin Church are never audible to the people.

Celestial Symbols

There are certain subjects which are too sacred to be discussed intimately and in detail in the columns of a daily paper; it must suffice to say that, according to orthodox Eastern doctrine, the Consecration is not effected by these Words of Institution, but by a formula which follows.

The Words of Institution effect what is known in the West as “The Sacrifice of the Mass,” and then, according to the teaching of the East, the Sacrifice is quickened by the Invocation of the Holy Spirit “upon us, and these proposed gifts.”

So the great and holy mysteries are accomplished on the altar behind the golden wall and the golden veil, under the Christ of the dome, who stretches out hands of blessing upon the people.

The symbolism is of heaven brought down to earth, of the priest standing a mortal amidst a host of the undying. The awful orders of the angels are about him, about him are the companies of the saints, around him stand the martyrs in dyed robes, having exchanged earthly anguish and the flames of burning torment for the eternal aureoles of heaven. With the prayers of the priest and of the people their prayers ascend to the place of the Majesty on high, and there is represented in a mystery the High Sacrifice of Calvary.

And I do not know that it is possible to find any better expression for the idea of this Eastern service than that of the old Wesleyan hymn:

Victim Divine, Thy grace we claim
     While thus Thy precious death we show;
Once offered up a spotless Lamb.
     In thy great temple here below,
Thou didst for all mankind atone,
     And standest now before the throne.
We need not now go up to heaven
     To bring the long-sought Saviour down;
Thou art to all already given,
     Thou dost e’en now Thy banquet crown;
To every faithful soul appear.
And show Thy real Presence here.

Charles Wesley turned the Rite of St. John Chrysostom into very good, plain English.

The Weekly

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Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “The East in the West

  1. This is wonderful – thank you!

    Oddly enough (as it seems to me) I have been insufficiently aware of the history of this Church – for example, Charles Williams, with his distinctly Byzantine development of his Arthurian retelling could have read this article, and similarly visited it himself, and his character Dimitri Lavrodopoulos in War in Heaven might have gone there, had he not become a Satanist (!).


    1. David,

      It is interesting that you mention Williams. Apparently, CW gave some lectures to an Orthodox group in London. I believe this is stated in Grevel Lindrop’s bio, or perhaps, in Literary Lives of the Inkings by the Zelaskis. It very well could have been this church that received the lectures. Do you know anything about this?


  2. Machen wrote, “There are certain subjects which are too sacred to be discussed intimately and in detail in the columns of a daily paper.”

    This remark might be the most important sentence in this essay, insofar as the essay is read as a clue to understanding how the author Arthur Machen thought. Beyond that aspect, the remark suggests one of the most serious and profound of subjects, namely the communication of religious knowledge and the grave importance of a kind of supernatural tact thereof.

    This is something about which I personally can be ambivalent. I came of age in the 1970s, when there was a great deal of overt evangelistic outreach going on, for probably several reasons. Two of them were, first, the influence of the counterculture, with its emphasis on demonstrations, speeches, signs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards, free newspapers, popular music, and buttons that indicated one’s politics or philosophy or that staked a claim for something that might even be regarded as shameful as deserving acceptance by the public, such as marijuana use; second, among Evangelicals and others, of the belief that the Second Coming of Christ was probably imminent, and so the Gospel needed to be proclaimed assertively so that as many people as possible might believe and be saved.

    So that was prominent in my background as a young person who’d grown up in Evangelical circles — in which one was encouraged to bring casual conversation around to witnessing for Christ — in fact, as I seem to remember from a Christian youth group or commune called Shiloh, strangers might be accosted and asked if they knew Jesus or had been born again.

    It was only gradually that I learned about a different understanding of the communication of religious knowledge. In large degree it makes sense to me and yet I can also see merit in a warmhearted readiness to “share” — we liked that verb — about Jesus.

    This second way of thinking is what is often called Reserve. A great discussion was written by Isaac Williams as one of the Tracts for the Times.

    To come back to Machen — I wonder if, as a boy and young man, he didn’t draw back in distaste from revivalism in Wales.

    I don’t know anything much about that topic, but my guess is that the religious awakening(s) in Wales showed up mostly in the “chapels” rather than the Anglican-affiliated churches (in which Machen’s father was a pastor-priest, if I’m not mistaken). There might have been a social class issue involved that would have placed Machen on the other side from most of the Welsh converts. Bold preaching (was some of it open-air?) and fervent praying and singing and so on might have put off a young person with a fondness for medieval architecture, etc. He could, then, have been attracted to “Reserve” not only for theological reasons but personal, psychological and social, ones.

    There’s an interesting passage in “The Great Return” in which the narrator — call him Machen — *accepts* the censure of a Welshman who reproaches him for his antipathetic remarks about evangelical activity. I wrote about this here:

    Dale Nelson


    1. Dale,

      Thanks for the background on the evangelical movement of the seventies. I know very little about that.

      I think you are definitely right about Machen’s aversion to the style of worship as found in the revivals and the chapels. I suspect, like his son, Machen’s father was High Church in orientation, so we can’t discount that as a divide. Perhaps “Reserve,” has something to do it with it, but Machen’s oft-stated preferences often focused on mysticism and sacramentalism vs morality preaching and pragmatism. I would think it had little to do with social class, since Machen’s family was not socially privileged, but more along those theological and liturgical lines.

      Thanks for the links to the article and for mentioning that incident from The Great Return. That is a wonderful passage.


      1. Offhand I can’t give a citation, but that there was a social class element in the church vs. chapel situation in 19th-century Wales is something I’m pretty sure of. The Anglican church in Wales tended (I believe) to be associated with the professional people and land-owners, while various Nonconforming “chapels” appealed to many laboring people, e.g. miners. One factor in the disaffection of Welsh people for the Anglican church was that the bishop in Wales typically didn’t speak Welsh. Possibly the Anglican pastor-priests had “livings” at public expense while Nonconforming pastors didn’t. What I write here is a matter of impressions.


      2. Yes, certainly, you’re right about the social class divisions! I only meant to comment that where Machen is concerned, it doesn’t play much of an issue. His father was quite poor and could not send him to university. Furthermore, he changed the family name from Jones to Machen to obtain an inheritance from his wife’s family. Whatever he was receiving as a stipend form the Church, it was by no means great. So, while generally speaking, there was a class a factor in the relationship between the established Church and the Nonconformists, I doubt this mattered much to Machen. For him, the crack was along theological and liturgical lines.


  3. Further thoughts on Machen and “Reserve,” etc.

    As a young man (and later on), Machen may have been disgusted by preaching and hymns that seemed to him too blatant, too coarse, and also “reductive.” Possible he was attracted to contemplation of mysteries (and even the Mysteries, i.e. the doctrines and sacraments of the Christian and catholic Church), but put off by what seemed to him to be expressions intended to incite emotionalism, an insensitive bandying-about of overly conceptualized truths, and a reductive, overly moralistic, even Pharisaical religious culture. And, again, as I said earlier, Machen may have felt some social distaste for evangelicals insofar as they often came from a different class than his own.

    I think he would have liked this statement by Konstantin Pobedonstsev, in Reflections of a Russian Statesman:

    “Only fools have clear conceptions of everything. The most cherished ideas of the human mind are found in the depths and in twilight: around these confused ideas which we cannot classify revolve clear thoughts, extending, developing, and becoming elevated. If this deeper mental plane were to be taken away, there would remain but geometricians and intelligent animals; even the exact sciences would lose their present grandeur, which depends upon a hidden correlation with eternal truths, of which we catch a glimpse only at rare moments. Mystery is the most precious possession of mankind. Not in vain did Plato teach that all below is but a weak image of the order reigning above. It may be, indeed, that the grandest function of the loveliness we see is the awakening of desire for a higher loveliness we see not; and that the enchantment of great poets springs less from the pictures they paint than from the distant echoes they awaken from the invisible world.”

    I’m sorry to have to say that Pobedonostsev was an anti-Semite, etc., so before one embraces his remarks above as a great expression of Machen’s outlook too one might hesitate to associate Machen with him.

    Dale Nelson


    1. It is a fascinating – and nicely (in a couple senses of ‘nicely’) detailed – account of what is, and is not, seen and heard, in the Eastern Orthodox rite ( where, for example, the “rite” of “the expulsion of the Catechumens” “has been nothing but a form for twelve hundred years or more” and yet is still fully present, and not merely curiously so) with an especial accent on the changing visibility of the altar, in contrast to “the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches of today” where “the altar is usually and intentionally the most boldly visible and conspicuous object in the whole building”, at all times. The visitor is and has been for “twelve hundred years or more”, as welcome as the fully “initiated” faithful, but clearly welcome to witness “great and holy mysteries”.

      With the Welsh revival only seven years in the past, and with its Methodist background and context, it is interesting that Machen provides a Wesleyan close to his article. Interesting, too, that in the course of 1913 the Kikuyu controversy arose, when the Anglican Bishops of Mombasa and Uganda “held a Communion Service, at which those who were not Anglicans” – “mainly Methodist and Presbyterian” – “were invited to […] receive the Holy Communion” (Stephen Neill, Anglicanism (Penguin, 1958), p. 366).


      1. David,

        The Wesley brothers never actually left the Anglican Church, a fact pointed out by Machen more than once. In his essay for the Academy journal, “Noctium Phantasmata,” Machen wrote: “The Christian Church is composed of the Latin, Greek and Anglican obediences…” Here, we find a modified form of the classic Anglican Branch Theory of Church history. Like many British Christians, Machen believed Canterbury to be on equal terms with Rome and Constantinople. When is comes to Methodism as a separate denomination, Machen questioned its legitimacy. All this is, of course, controversial but Machen didn’t shy away from controversy. However, I believe what really irked him about the Welsh revivals had less to do with Methodism, and more to do with the Calvinistic strain found in the movement.

        As an Orthodox Christian, I kindly disagree with my favorite author when he suggests that Wesley “turned the Rite of St. John Chrysostom into very good, plain English.” However, I appreciate what he attempted to do. He felt compelled top explain to a reading public, unfamiliar with the Eastern Church, that the Anglican Church had more commonality with its foreign-feeling worship than it does with various forms of Protestantism. To do this, he noted a hymn by Wesley, who he considered, not a Methodist, but an Anglican. In short, Machen considered himself to be a Catholic Christian.

        As an aside, in one interesting story, Machen has is a Calvinistic preacher recite a section from the Roman Catholic liturgy while in a mystical state:

        As for the ordination of Wesley by the Orthodox bishop, that is not universally accepted as a historical fact, but it would be interesting to know if Machen was aware of the story.

        Machen did not know German, but if there were contemporary translations of those cited works, he may have read them.


    2. A couple more thoughts – how significant is Machen’s specific attention to “Wesleyan” and Charles Wesley in the context of the Welsh revival? Sadly, I do not know enough about the revival to know what tensions – or easing of tensions – between Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists were involved. In the context of Machen’s visit to the Church of Hagia Sophia, I wonder if he had heard the suggestion that John Wesley was ordained an Orthodox Bishop by Bishop Erasmus of the Greek diocese of Arcadia, Crete, when he visited London in 1763 and they met?

      How good was Machen’s German and how widely did he read or browse in German works? Odo Casel’s Die Liturgie als Mysterienfeier was published in 1923 and his Das christliche Kult-Mysterium in 1932 and the second edition in 1935 – searching quickly, I cannot immediately see when the latter was first translated into French and English. One can imagine he would be interested, if he knew of it. Ildefons Herwegen, who included the former in his ‘Ecclesia orans’ series, wrote for the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1910 in English, but I am not sure how early any German works on Liturgy and Mystery appeared under his editorship.


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