Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, is famous for saying, “History is more or less bunk!” What he meant was that it is important to live in the present, not in the past*. But I disagree.
In July, we commemorated the ninth anniversary of the passing of Fr Mina Nematalla. For those who weren’t born nine years ago, Fr Mina was the pioneering Coptic priest who was commissioned by his maternal uncle, the late Pope Kyrollos VI to travel to far-away Australia in 1968 and establish the first Coptic Church on this continent. He arrived, with his family and a tonne of Church equipment by boat in Sydney on 26th January 1969 and proceeded to serve this flourishing congregation faithfully for the next 31 years, until his departure on July 1st 2000. Today, his remains repose in a specially built crypt behind the sanctuary of our parish Church.
Some have questioned the wisdom of this crypt, wondering whether this meant that we are attributing sainthood to Fr Mina. It is important to make this point crystal clear: no one is attributing sainthood to Fr Mina. That is something that only the Holy Synod can do, and they have, I think, some fairly stringent criteria on which they make their decision, including a waiting period of at least 50 years from the date of departure.
No, the presence of the remains of Fr Mina in the crypt is for a very different reason. He played a unique role in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Australia. No one else will ever be the founder of our Church on this continent. I cannot see anyone else taking it upon himself to personally greet every Coptic immigrant who arrives in Sydney at the airport, to take them to stay in his own home until he had helped them to find their own accommodation, Help them find a job and to go with them to school to enrol their children. That was how Fr Mina spent a lot of his time in those early years, and there remain in Sydney many who still remember his kindness with deep, deep gratitude. This was the true spirit of Christian love in action.
And this is a very important piece in the story of our Church; one that should be preserved for all future generations. In a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years, almost everything about the founding of the Church in Australia may well have been forgotten. But hopefully, the crypt will remain as a monument, not only to Fr Mina, but to all of those who served with him and gave so much of themselves in order to lay the foundations for the beautiful service and community we enjoy today.
Having the crypt makes no judgement of Fr Mina’s character, good or bad. Like any pioneer, Fr Mina lived through ‘interesting times’. He did all he could to guide the infant Church through periods of division, conflict and tribulation as well as periods of great grace and fruitfulness. This is to be expected. The role of the clergy in a diasporic Church was unclear at the beginning, for no one had done this sort of thing in our Church for at least 15 centuries! So Fr Mina and the early congregation were forced to work it out for themselves, far from the Mother Church in Egypt, and it is not to be wondered that there were often conflicting opinions.
One approach to our history is to gloss over these problems, to ignore them and hope they go away. I suppose they are seen as a sort of ‘dirty laundry’ that should not be aired in public. But perhaps it is possible for a mature community to take a different approach, one that is more in keeping with the honesty and humility enjoined upon us by the Gospels. Just because a Church community experiences a testing time, this doesn’t mean that the community is a failure. What matters is what is how they react to these difficult times – do they respond in a manner that is consistent with the message of Christ?
Our Church in Sydney has been through some very difficult times over the years. In fact, most would agree that we are going through one right now. But that is not what matters. It is our reaction to these testing times that matters. There are a variety of possible responses, and none of them are new. All possible attitudes have been tried before at some time in our long history as a Coptic Church. Troubles have been occurring both from within the Church and from without for nearly two millennia. Some would say this is the sign that the devil is not happy with us (thank God), and thus he does not cease to attack us with every weapon available to him!
With apologies to Henry Ford, it actually makes a great deal of sense to look back and see how people handled problems in the past; to learn from their successes and their failures.
Approaches that have failed include the following:
1. Taking sides or forming parties
2. Legalism, insisting upon the letter of the law and neglecting its spirit
3. Any type of self-seeking, trying to use the problems to gain personal advantage such as power or popularity or fame
4. Allowing anger and emotion to rule one’s thoughts and actions
5. Loyalty to any human person above loyalty to God
6. Gossip mongering
Approaches that have succeeded include the following:
1. Sincere, personal repentance
2. Patience and confidence in the power of God over all human weaknesses
3. Prayer in faith
4. Making the effort to build bridges and seek reconciliation between people
5. Honesty, integrity and transparency (these require a liberal dose of courage). No hidden agendas, no sneaky tactics
6. Willingness to genuinely listen to others, to see their point of view, rather than sticking doggedly to one’s own point of view, whatever the evidence
7. Dedication to Truth, to justice, and to mercy
8. Focusing on the basics of Christian life
This last strategy is to me the most important. At the end of the day, Church is NOT about politics and personalities. It is not about buildings and structures and finances. Church is the place where we all come to meet with God and find our peace with Him. Hopefully, it also the place where we learn to love one another from a sincere heart, for “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now” (1 John 2:9).
Church goes on. Individual personalities come and go. Even if they flare brilliantly for a time, then they pass into obscurity; this is the fate we all shall experience. All that is asked of us is that we do our best; that we trade faithfully with the talents the Master has given us; and that we do all that is within our power and our understanding to follow in His footsteps.
That is why it is important to have Fr Mina in the crypt in Church. He was a fixed point of faith, worship and Orthodoxy in a churning primal sea of change for the Church in Australia. May God grant us all even a tenth of his diligence and his integrity. An ounce of his common sense wouldn’t go astray either!