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Firsthand Lessons in How the Other Faiths Live

Today, Believers Are More Curious Than In Eras Past About Other Religions, as One Methodist Group's Field Trip Illustrates

September 11, 1998|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can a Greek Orthodox priest get married? Does the church choir sing in Greek or English? And why is St. Andrew, the revered patron saint, so important to Greek Orthodoxy?

These questions and others recently led 25 senior citizens from the United Methodist church in Maywood to visit St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles for a guided tour. Many of the visitors had met 40 years ago in adult Sunday school.

Some of their questions were answered on the hourlong tour led by George Bliziotis, a member of the cathedral's congregation:

* Greek Orthodox priests cannot marry once they are ordained, but married men are accepted into the priesthood. Women are not allowed to be ordained.

* The choir at St. Sophia usually sings in Greek, the first language of the older church members. The rest of the Sunday service is in English, except for the Gospel, which is read in Greek and English.

* St. Andrew was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus. He established the Christian church in Byzantium, the official home of Greek Christianity, in AD 37.

A sprinkling of stories about the landmark building, dedicated in 1952, found its way among the questions. Charles Skouras, who financed the building after his move to Los Angeles, owned 3,000 movie houses in New York during the 1940s. The cathedral's organ came from one of those.

Skouras' Hollywood friends modeled for some of St. Sophia's famous icons. The serene paintings depict angels and saints.

"Moses has a passing resemblance to Charlton Heston," said Bliziotis. "Remember, the icon was painted when he was playing Moses in 'The Ten Commandments' in 1956."

Icons--the serene, otherworldly paintings of angels and saints--are a hallmark of Greek Orthodox churches.

"We do not worship the images, we worship God. The icons remind us of the saints, who are the intercessors we pray to." Their glimmering images cover a screen that hides the cathedral's altar from the rest of the church. "The other side of the screen represents heaven, the church triumphant," Bliziotis explained. "The place we all hope to end up."

The crystal chandeliers that fill the church weigh 2,000 pounds each. Skouras ordered them from Czechoslovakia for $68,000.

"It was 1948, you could buy a house then for $9,500," the tour guide noted.

Instead of drawing a line between people of different faiths, scholars of religion now divide the world between believers and nonbelievers. They now find people who practice a religion are more curious than in years past about the other faiths of the world.

Most of the questions from today's curious faithful, though, are like those of the senior citizens on a tour. They're interested in etiquette not heated theological debates.

None of the visitors to St. Sophia, for example, asked why Christians in Constantinople parted company with Rome in 1054. The answer? Religious leaders in the West declared their bishop to be head of the whole church. The East disagreed, and the schism between them has never been mended.

Elsie Winans, 86, has her opinion.

"I don't think unity would be possible," said Winans, who organizes the field trips for the Methodist church group, including local temples and various Christian churches. "The personal nature of religion makes people want to worship in their own, individual ways. I, for example, enjoy a great deal of singing. And we do a lot of that in the Methodist Church."

She isn't considering a conversion.

"We visit the churches for the same reason we take part in the various ethnic activities in the city," she said. "If we are ever to have peace on Earth, we have to learn to appreciate each other's differences."

Margaret Loppi wanted to know every detail about Greek Orthodox Communion, the bread and wine served during a Sunday liturgy. She didn't ask about the theology, though. She was more interested in the process.

"How do you do it?" she asked.

Bliziotis described the procession down the center aisle, the practice of kneeling before the altar, the use of a golden spoon to distribute wine containing crumbled bread and then mentioned that Communion is offered only to members of the Orthodox Church. In the Methodist Church, it is open to anyone.

Ken and Ann Emory joined the tour to learn more about the music. He is the choir director at Maywood United Methodist, she plays piano. Ann, 72, said she learned something.

"I was impressed by the way the Greek Orthodox Church doesn't change anything," she said. "They keep their old values and customs.

"We Methodists want to keep up with modern mores. We have women clergy, for example. And we've had a big to-do about whether to ordain gays and lesbians." The Methodist Church leadership reaffirmed its stance against it at its most recent general conference meeting in 1996.

Bliziotis said he leads four tours in an average month, most of them from schools and churches.

"They're not here looking for a new church," he said. "They just have an interest in the different religions. All I can do is tell them what we do and why. I think they learn something."

* For information about guided tours of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, at 1324 S. Normandie Ave., call (213) 737-2424.

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