Sign language of the cross

A conventional Orthodox service can leave blind and deaf people feeling lost. But one church in Moscow has changed all that by catering for its congregation's special needs.

Most of the congregation at the Tikhvin Icon of Our Lady Temple are deaf or blind, and it is only thanks to the pioneering efforts of the church that they are able to come and express their faith.

The church was founded by Archdeacon Pavel Troshenkin and over the last eighteen years the team of priests has continued his work. They have worked with the deaf community to evolve the sign language that they currently use in worship.

The services are for everyone – and the ability to go there and worship and be able to mix with people from outside the blind and deaf community is part of what makes this church so important for those who attend.

“In our family, children are hard of hearing. Taking my children to a usual church was impossible. They simply wouldn’t understand. The first time we came here, my husband and I knew instantly that this was our church,” says parishioner Elena Mifeyenkova.

The church was chosen for these special services because there are no columns, so the priest can be seen from any point during the sermon. Confession is held in sign language in a screened-off section, and whereas in most churches the icons of the religion are purely visual, in this church the blind are able to touch them.

“In a usual church, icons are only available visually. This is the first church that makes relief icons accessible to blind parishioners,” says President of the European Deaf Blind Union Sergey Sirotkin. “I asked people why this could not be done before, but got no answer. I was told icons were only intended for visual perception, and that spiritual interaction was only possible through eyesight. I think, though, that this is wrong,” he believes.

People who come to the Tikhvin Icon of Our Lady Temple to express their faith say they are happy to have such a special place of worship, but until there are other churches like this, they will remain some of the few who can.