A Saturday morning liturgy at Ashland's St. Gabriel the Archangel Orthodox Church began much like any other &

the priest rang bells and blessed the icons and parishioners with incense, followed by singing and chanting of prayers, scriptures and songs, a short message on purity, then more singing.

But this service was different. It marked the first time the only two Orthodox Christian churches in the Rogue Valley have met together in Ashland, with the priests serving together and the congregation almost evenly split between the two tiny parishes.

Members of St. Innocent of Irkurtz, a Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia based in Rogue River, drove an hour to join St. Gabriel, an Orthodox Church in America congregation, in marking the reunification of the two churches worldwide.

"For us it's a big deal because it meant that in some ways we're not totally alone anymore," said Father Isaac Skidmore who leads the St. Gabriel parish. "We're able to share the faith with someone and be able to reach out with each other. In the Orthodox Church, to be able to share a liturgy and communion with each other is one expression of saying we are one faith."

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia has been separated from other Orthodox Christians around the world since the Russian Revolution, when it broke communion with the Russian patriarch, whom some believed was controlled by the communist party. That move kept the worldwide churches &

and the two local parishes &

separated until last August, when they reunited in Moscow.

"It's just like seeing a long-lost brother or sister back in the family again, and they're probably looking at us like we're the long-lost brother or sister," said JoAnn Kluge, a member of St. Gabriel. Kluge, who lives in Roseburg, often attends other churches, including St. Innocent, because of the distance. Now because of the reunification, she is free to take communion in any of them.

Although the two parishes share many of the same liturgies and core beliefs, there are still differences.

In general, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is more traditional than the Orthodox Church of America, although individual parishes vary greatly. Men and women worship on different sides of the room at St. Innocent, and men are more likely to grow a beard and women to cover their heads, although members of both churches observe those practices. They also keep separate calendars, which means their holidays often fall on different days.

But the two congregations are confident the differences are not great enough to keep them apart any longer.

"I don't think we've ever been apart in our hearts, but we need to get together for the church and the world," said Father Seraphim Cardoza of St. Innocent near the end of Saturday's service. "I'm hoping that we can build this church. Now our churches can grow."

He told parishioners that he didn't expect them to change their religious practices now that the church was reunified, but asked only that all could have more love for Christ.

Father Isaac presented Cardoza with an icon featuring two saints holding the church between them, a symbol of how they would now serve the Orthodox community in the Rogue Valley.

"This is the way they carried the church into North America," he said. "In our own way, we have the opportunity to carry the church."

Members of both parishes said they look forward to a closer connection as the two congregations share liturgies and potluck dinners and get to know each other.

"There's nothing that's holding us back," said Anna South, who was baptized at St. Innocent, but lives closer to St. Gabriel. "Whatever was keeping us apart isn't there anymore. I go to both churches. My heart is in both."

"I think it's a good deal because we've been divided for a long time," said Zach Kitamura, an altar boy at St. Gabriel. "We have our differences, but really we have more similarities."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .