Icons — images of Christ and of angels and saints — line the walls inside St. Luke Orthodox Christian Church in Anniston. There are no pews. During services, the priest sometimes swings a censer of burning incense toward the icons and toward the altar and toward the people, filling the sanctuary with a sweet smoke that tends to linger well after the service.
All these practices might be a bit jarring for a first-time visitor to an Orthodox church, but Father Basil Henry, pastor at St. Luke, says they are as old as Christianity itself, and Orthodox Christians have worshiped this way for 2,000 years.
“For the first thousand years, Christianity was essentially one church. Around a thousand years ago, the Roman Catholic Church split away from the Eastern Church, and since then we’ve been two different communities,” said Father Henry, whose tall frame, long white beard and ankle-length black cassock make him appear more Russian than Alabamian.
Father Basil Henry, 48, grew up in Albertville, and before he was Father Henry, he was a Baptist preacher. It was a long road for a 16-year-old Baptist preacher to the altar of his own Orthodox Church.
As a teenager, he’d read a book titled The Cost of Discipleship by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The book’s message — that grace is costly and that to be a disciple means to leave all and follow Christ — moved young Henry, stirring in him the desire to spread the Gospel.
“I was a voracious reader, and that would lead me into a lot of questions,” he said. Without attending seminary, he began preaching, and he kept reading. He said he spent seven years studying all the branches of Christianity, visiting every denomination he could find, sometimes going to “three services in a single morning, just to go and see.”
He started asking himself where all the different branches came together, and says he found his answer in Orthodox Christianity. Focusing on those first 300 years of Christianity, Father Henry began reading the works of the Apostolic Fathers, the early Christian writers who are thought to have had personal contact with the 12 apostles.
“When all the apostles died … as they were passing the torch of the New Testament Christianity on, they passed it to people like St. Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome and Polycarp and others, and we have their writings,” Father Henry said. “And as I read them, they blew me away.”
Father Henry converted to Orthodoxy in Birmingham at the age of 25, and along with long-time friend Nicholas Bailey founded an Orthodox church in Tuscaloosa. The two held lay services until the church was able to locate an ordained Orthodox priest, and Henry set off again, this time to Alaska, to help plant more Orthodox churches.
After five years in Alaska, Henry moved to Pennsylvania, where he received his Masters of Divinity from St. Tichon’s Orthodox Seminary.
St. Luke is located in the historic Hamilton house in Noble Park next to Anniston High School. The sandstone Tudor, built in 1924 by Charles A. Hamilton (the co-founder of the Anniston Pipe Company), was restored by Anniston physician Carla Thomas, herself a convert to Orthodoxy. The Hamilton house is one of four in Noble Park that were restored by Thomas, homes that preservationists had placed on a list of “Places in Peril.”
The church moved in just before Easter of 2010. The church now has around 50 members.
Father Henry says Thomas converted at about the same time he did, and had lived without a church in her own town for two decades, attending Orthodox churches in Birmingham and in Atlanta.
Looking to start a church in his home state, Father Henry began looking for the right place and met Thomas. Father Henry was a deacon at the time at a church in Atlanta. Every other Sunday, for about a year, he and his wife, Cana, would load the car with a chalice and a Gospel and all the things needed to hold a service in the small waiting room of Thomas’ old Sixth Street clinic.
Once ordained, Henry rented an old Victorian home on Eighth Street, where they held church for about a year, until the completion of the Hamilton home.
“We started with just three — Thomas and my wife and I — and people just started coming,” Father Henry said.
A Greek family in Jacksonville now attends St. Luke, as do Romanian college students and Russian natives and their American husbands. A family who visited the church while on a field trip for their home-schooled son decided to convert. Father Henry estimated about a quarter of the church members are native Orthodox, and the rest are converts.
It might be easy for first-time visitors to get a bit lost in the traditions of an Orthodox service, but Father Henry said that is perfectly normal, and he recommends that people ask questions.
“What you usually do with Orthodoxy is you just kind of throw yourself into it, and don’t be afraid to ask things like ‘Why in the world are you kissing that chalice? Are you worshipping that?’ All these questions went through my head too,” he said.
Orthodox Christians worship as they have since the 1st century. They sing through most of the service, right along with the choir. The priest may not always face the people — not out of slight, Father Henry said, but because he is worshiping God just as the people are.
“Orthodox is an adjective. It’s not a denomination,” he said. “It means ‘right worship’ and ‘right teaching.’”
Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox … Father Henry said they’re all the same church.
“Whatever country you’re in, that’s the flavor. You’d been doing the exact same service here, but with the music from the country of that church,” he said.
St. Luke Orthodox Church has Russian roots, which is good because Father Henry said the harmonizing tones in Russian music are easier on American ears. Greeks use a monotone, Byzantine sound.
“America is unique. In most countries in the world — say in Greece — if you’re Orthodox, you’re Greek Orthodox. But in America, you’ve got every flavor,” he said.
“When you come into an Orthodox church, there are two things to think about. One, you’re experiencing the worship of the ancient church … You’re going into another world. You’re seeing what’s ancient,” he said.
“The other thing is, our worship is focused on the eternal. If you read the book of Revelations, notice the specifics. An altar, angels swinging censers, people wearing robes, candles … We believe that when we worship, we enter into that experience with everybody, worshiping before God.”
St. Luke Orthodox Church
1415 Woodstock Ave., Anniston
Contact Father Basil Henry at 256-235-3893.
Schedule of services:
Saturday: 4 p.m., Great Vespers
Sunday: 10 a.m., Divine Liturgy
Tuesday: 8 a.m., Matins
Wednesday 4 p.m., Compline and Bible study
Thursday 8 a.m., Matins
Friday: 8 a.m., Matins