You Talk Too Much

“You talk too much!”

Rather disrespectful words to say to a parish priest, don’t you think?

Sadly, I hear these words said to me on a regular basis. What’s worse is that they’re right. It’s not as bad as it sounds, for the person who is constantly saying that to me is me. But I have to tell myself that far too often. Here are a few examples:

Someone has come to discuss a problem with me. We sit down and they begin telling their story. I keep suggesting solutions that sound so simple and obvious, but would actually never work in reality.
I am talking too much.

The same person goes on, thankfully ignoring my useless interruptions. Now they are venting their emotions. Tears are flowing. I tell them a few meaningless clichés just to fill the silence between sobs. The clichés don’t help them, and they just make me feel even more useless because I have nothing meaningful to say. They would have been better left unsaid and I should have respected the silence that can sometimes allow that still small voice of God to be heard.
I am talking too much.

Now I am in a meeting and a decision needs to be made about some issue. An idea jumps into my head, and before I have thought about it I blurt it out. But it doesn’t really move matters forward, in fact it is more of a distraction from the real issue at hand. The meeting drags on longer and longer because of these red herrings.
I am talking too much.

Three or four youth are standing around and I go over and engage them in a little light conversation. Before I know it, I am doing all the talking and they are doing all the listening. That’s right of course, isn’t it? I’m the priest, and I have to teach? But it also means that I learn nothing about them; or from them. I miss out on all sorts of new perspectives and interesting ideas they might have opened up for me. I don’t get the chance to enter their world, to share in their lives and their cares and their joys.
I am talking way too much.

Standing at the pulpit I am delivering a sermon on Sunday. Things seem to be going well until I suddenly realise that I have left the real topic of the sermon and gotten on to one of my personal pet hates. With horror I realise that I am now using the pulpit not to spread the word of God, but the personal opinions of an individual. I look out, and all those innocent faces are looking at me attentatively, apparently enjoying my little gripe session. Dear Lord! I am teaching them to complain! Clearly, I am talking too much.

And so it goes on. And on. And on.

When will I learn to keep quiet?

Fr Ant

The Fellow Traveller vs. The Perfect Model

Serving God brings with it a grave and self-defeating danger.

Our Lord enjoins us to be perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect. In the Orthodox Church in particular, we are also surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses”, saints whose lives we celebrate and seek to emulate. The servant of God is filled with passion for the beauty of this holiness, and strives with all their might to inspire others to aspire to it.

And then, the devil strikes. He will leave the servant to work others up into a frenzy of zeal, and then strike the servant; not with disease or disaster or even death, but with the servant’s own weakness. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And when they fall, those who had come closer to God through their service face a crisis.

We see this pattern occasionally in the news. The regularity with which it happens among the “tele-evangelists” is one reason for their poor reputation in general. But it also happens within our own Church. The saddest thing is that it is not necessary, and, I believe, it is not Christian.

Let’s go to St Paul for some advice on this matter. He does indeed urge us to imitate those who have lived in intimacy with God and to learn from them: “…imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12). He even goes so far as to blatantly hold himself up as template for his flock: “Therefore I urge you, imitate me.” (1 Corinthians 4:16). Some servants of God take these words and run with them, assuming that they too can become this perfect model; nay, that God has called them to be this perfect model for the salvation of others. Thus do they fall into the trap, for they do not read the rest of what St Paul has to say on the matter…

You see, St Paul never claimed that the example he set was a perfect one. He was not calling others to see him as perfect and thus to strive to become as perfect as he. He was calling others to see that he is trying, struggling with his own weakness and frail humanity to raise his spirit above the mean level of worldliness and sin. He was not a Perfect Model but a Fellow Traveller. And that makes a huge difference.

How do we know this? “Imitate me,” he repeats in 1 Corinthians 11:1, this time adding the explanation, “just as I also imitate Christ.” The perfect template is not St Paul, but Christ Himself, and St Paul is merely calling on others to join him in the struggle to become Christlike. We look to Jesus and Jesus alone as our perfect model. But if we want a model of human weakness striving to become like Jesus, then we can look to St Paul. He never claims to have succeeded. Instead, he often goes to great pains to record in writing that he is still frail and faulty, yet never losing hope or giving up:

1 Corinthians 9:27
But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.

Philippians 3:12-14
Not that I have already attained , or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.
Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10
And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.
For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Romans 7:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.
For what I am doing, I do not understand.
For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.
If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good.
But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells;
for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.
For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.
Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.
For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.
But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
O wretched man that I am!
Who will deliver me from this body of death?
I thank God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.

Does that weakness ring any bells?

We have then, a servant of God who presents himself, warts and all, not as a perfect person, needing to constantly maintain that perfection, but as a weak and sinful person, constantly striving to improve. He is not at the top, trying not to fall, but at the bottom, always striving to rise up. His call to others is not “be perfect as I am perfect” but “strive to overcome weakness as I strive”.

To hold oneself up as perfect, to believe one’s own publicity, as it were, is a delight to the devil, and abominable lie to the Lord. That way lies all kinds of hypocrisy, pride, envy and deceit. It was the attitude of the Pharisees that Jesus condemned so harshly. Because of this misconceived idea of service, many good people have refused to serve, discerning the falseness in it, yet not knowing any alternative. Because of it, many good people have been made to stumble, when their servant who was held up as being perfect inevitably shattered them by turning out to be just as weak as anyone else. All really quite unnecessary, had they sought truth, however uncomfortable, rather than a pleasant lie.

Truth is a nicer place to live.

Fr Ant

Thank You God

I feel very thankful at the moment. Strangely enough, at the moment, life is pretty tough.

It is one of those things in us that Christ turns upside down when we strive to truly follow Him. The natural response when things are hard is to cry out for deliverance. “Save me Lord!” And here is where the miracle happens; one by one, the experiences of God’s kindness and mercy accumulate in our lives and in our memories. Little by little we build up a principle in life: God is here…

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget , Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands”
(Isaiah 49:15,16)

We learn that to ask God to stop our troubles forever is not sensible, nor is it a prayer He will grant. It’s just not in our best interests. We look to short term gain while He takes an eternal perspective. But He grants us relief from the immediate problem, in His own time, of course. That’s where the thankfulness comes in.

Lately, the problems in my life have been a little larger and somewhat more complex than usual. Being back at St Mark’s College for a while has meant quite a few more convoluted issues to be dealt with than I really would have chosen for myself. (It is funny how people congratulate you on being appointed a responsibility like this. Here’s how it sounds to me: “Hey, congratulations on being given a crushing responsibility, which, if you don’t carry out faithfully will leave the spiritual blood of hundreds of innocent young souls on your hands! How wonderful that you won’t have time to breath for the next six months! We’re so happy for you!”)

But as usual, the experience is once again nothing more than a reaffirmation of God’s incredible power and His all-embracing love…

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Problem after thorny problem is solved, and it passes.
All things must pass.
No problem lasts forever.
God is very, very good to us, His children.

The blessing of difficult times lies partly in the fact that it is in these times that we most experience the power of God in our lives, and thus touch His love in a very concrete way. The old Arabic proverb is very fitting: “The bitterness that God gives is sweeter than the sweetness the world gives”.

It is in tough times, when our own hopeless inadequacy and sinfulness is brutally revealed that we finally know the truth about ourselves. And it is in those times we learn of the incredible mercy of God that elevates us beyond anything we had imagined…

“And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
(2 Corinthians 12:9,10)

And so I am thankful; very, very thankful. I am thankful that God is slowly removing from me the unbearable burden of achieving perfection by my own means, and replacing it, piece by painful piece, with dependance on Him. I am thankful for every problem that comes along, for it offers yet another opportunity for me to wait upon the Lord, to learn to trust Him, and eventually to touch and be touched by the tenderness of His infinite care. It seems such an inadequate response, but it is all I have to offer:

Thank You God.

Gems in the Liturgy

The Prayer of the Veil

There is a little prayer prayed silently by the priest each liturgy that goes all but unnoticed by the congregation. It is indeed a very personal and intimate prayer, but it is one that the congregation can share, at least in spirit. It is called the Prayer of the Veil, for it is prayed at the Royal Door, the entrance to the sanctuary, which represents Heaven, the place where the Veil was split in two at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. That sign was the indication that we are now able to enter the Holy of Holies, previously an honour reserved only for the Jewish High Priest. But the Christian priest of today does not take this honour lightly! It must never be taken for granted, and thus the tradition of the Church teaches us that none is to enter or exit through the Royal Door except when necessary for the service, and that one should bow and offer reverence to God whenever passing through that Door.

But before he enters the sanctuary to begin the Liturgy of the Faithful, the priest must first pray this prayer. When the reading of the Gospel is finished, the priest, who had been standing next to the lectern and offering incense, must now return to the sanctuary to begin the prayers at the altar once more. But he comes to a stop at the Royal Door and prays the following prayer* :

“O God, who, in Your unspeakable love toward mankind, sent Your Only Begotten Son into the world, that He might bring the lost sheep home unto You; we ask You, O our Lord, thrust us not behind You when we offer this awesome and bloodless sacrifice. For we put no trust in our righteousness but in Your mercy, whereby You have given life to our race. We pray and entreat Your goodness, O Lover of Mankind, that this mystery which You have appointed unto us for salvation may not be unto condemnation unto us or unto any of Your people, but unto the washing away of our sins and the forgiveness of our negligence and unto the glory and honour of Your Holy Name, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and unto the age of all ages, amen.”

Basically, the priest stands outside the Royal Door and prays, “As You came out of heaven, and in Your holiness came out us sinners in the world – so now please allow me the sinner to enter into Heaven to be with You, and sanctify me that I may do so.”

He comes out of heaven to pray for his brothers and sisters in the world before the Word, the Logos. But having carried the burdens of the world, having prayed for those who are distressed, in captivity, sick, and so on, he stops before re-entering Heaven to seek ‘cleansing’ of his thoughts. For he will now enter the sanctuary to take part in the calling down of heaven to come and fill the Church, he will stand before the Throne of God, upon which sits the Lamb of God, slain for the life of the whole world, he will be in the presence of the cherubim and seraphim and the angels that surround God’s heavenly throne. He does not dare to enter into such a service without first asking permission, and seeking the acceptance of God, and the forgiveness of his own, many sins.

The priest confesses that he is one of those lost sheep for whom the Shepherd came out to search. He pauses, awkwardly, uncertain, “sheepishly”, outside the door, wondering if he is welcome, pondering whether he will be allowed back in. For he knows that he is not worthy; “For we put no trust in our righteousness…” he complains, since before God, “There is none righteous, no, not one … There is none who understands … There is none who does good, no, not one.” (Romans 3:11-13) If he were treated with justice, he would deserve to be cast out, “thrust behind” God, and not allowed to enter the Holy places, like St Mary the Egyptian of old. All he can hope for is that God will accept him, unworthy as he is, in His great mercy, for He came to seek the Lost Sheep like him.

The priest knows full well that if he approaches this Mystery in an unworthy manner, not only will he forfeit the blessings it bestows, but it will become a curse to him, for “he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:29) Thus he entreats God “that this mystery which You have appointed unto us for salvation may not be unto condemnation unto us or unto any of Your people, but unto the washing away of our sins and the forgiveness of our negligence and unto the glory and honour of Your Holy Name”.

This is God’s “unspeakable love”, the love that no words can describe, no mind can comprehend. The love that transforms the lowly, the confused, the uncertain and the spiritually orphaned into true adopted Children of the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Before he can begin the Liturgy of the Faithful, the priest pauses at the door to experience this intimate moment of surrender to God and to be flooded with the warmth of His all-consuming love.

During this moment, the congregation are singing the appropriate Gospel Response. The general response is “Truly blessed are they indeed, the saints of this day, each one, each one by his name, the beloved of Christ”. Through this hymn they share in this intimate moment with the priest and with the saints who have lived before us over the past 2000 years and grew to know well the love of Christ. We dare to proceed to the Liturgy of the Faithful because they dared … and were not turned away! Rather, Christ accepted them to Himself and even named them “His beloved”. Can we possibly receive this same immense grace? Let us step forward boldly and find out – the priest completes his prayer and steps boldly into the sanctuary through the royal door, and the grand adventure of the Eucharist begins…

Fr Ant

* In order to save time, the priest will often pray this prayer while he is still standing at the lectern, during the reading of the Gospel.

When Cultures Collide

I have been granted a privilege in being invited to take part in a series of interviews on Aghape TV. But I wonder if I may have gotten myself into trouble last night … you be the judge.

The topic of discussion was the challenges of the next 50 years for the Coptic Church in the Western world. Among many other challenges, I suggested to my genial and longsuffering interviewer that one of the challanges was going to be the clash between cultures in the area of how we do things in the Church.

In Egypt or Sudan, Christians are forced into certain practices just to survive. These practices might include bargaining a price down vehemently, negotiating ruthlessly to gain some sort of advantage in a contract, using contacts and influential friends to get things done, misrepresenting the truth in order to achieve a worthy goal, or the ever popular “koussa” (zucchini), a popular euphemism for a small bribe paid to attain a certain goal. People are driven to these practices, often just to survive, or to maintain their sanity.

I recall the true story of a relative in Egypt who was shuffled from government department to government department for the better part of an afternoon, trying to get some document signed and stamped. At the last office, a minor functionary told him that the office that was authorised to stamp his document was in fact not in Cairo, but in Alexandria, and that he would have to take it there. With some frustration he travelled to Alexandria the next day, only to endure another day of being shuffled from office to office, and finally be told that he had actually come to the wrong place. The right place was definitely the department he had started in in Cairo!

I don’t think I could survive in such a climate. The men in white coats would certainly be called on to deal with my reactions! So I have a great deal of sympathy for those who resort to a little ‘greasing of the palm’ to maintain their sanity, so long as they are simply getting what any sane society would normally take for granted, rather than trying to get some unfair or undeserved advantage or causing loss to another person.

The problem for us stems from any attempts to apply these strategies to how we do things in Church, and especially in Church in the Western world. I can see no place whatsoever for such practices within the Church, whether in Egypt, Sudan or Australia. Within the Church the love, compassion and trust of Christ should and must prevail, or else we are no different to those who without Christ. This is a very serious issue, and cuts to the very heart of who we are as Christians. Keep in mind that the Lord Christ reserved His harshest condemnation for those who were hypocrites, the Pharisees and scribes, for example, for although they possessed the knowledge of the truth, they practiced a lie by not being faithful to it.

What compounds the problem for us is that young Copts who have grown up with the Western sense of right and wrong are often seriously offended when they see their elders employing Egyptian-style tactics to get things done. Who of us with first generation parents has not at some time or other cringed when the parent they went shopping with insisted on bargaining down the fruitshop man to get a discount on the mangoes? Who of us has not been infuriated when the Coptic tradesman promised solemnly on his mother’s grave that he would be there first thing on Monday morning … two weeks ago?

But when it comes to employing these methods within the Church, that is something altogether more serious. The work of God must be done in accordance to the laws of God, and young Copts know this: they are not stupid. What is more, they see other Aussies, non-Copts and even non-Christians who are quite capable of living their lives happily without the need for lying or seeking unfair advantage or using contacts to gain advantage over others. So when they see people within the Church, even servants within the Church doing such things, they begin to question the Church that produced such people. If those people are respected within the Church community, that makes things even worse, for that means that their way of doing things is accepted and even honoured.

This creates a conflict in the mind of the youth that is very difficult to resolve. Does she stick to her principles, or to her Church?

To me it seems horrendous that our Church should ever subject its youth to such a dilemma. I recall with anxiety the words of Christ:

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble , it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)

All of us who serve in any capacity whatsoever in the Church have a very serious responsibility to ensure that what we do is not just the right thing, but also done in the right way. If we in the Church are unable to adhere to the most basic ideals of honesty and integrity, how can we expect our congregation to do so in their own personal affairs, as is compulsory for the authentic Christian?

As Copts in Australia, we have the opportunity to pick out the best of both our cultures, Egyptian and Australian, and discard the worst of both cultures. There are many beautiful aspects of Egyptian culture that can enrich our lives, such as the warm and generous tradition of hospitality to others, the closeness and mutual support within the family unit, among many others. But the practices listed above seem to me to be quite clearly in the ‘worst’ category, and certainly, they are not in harmony with the words of the Bible that we all revere.

So what do you think. Am I going to get in hot water?

Fr Ant

The Blog in Your Own Eye

How hard can it be, really?

As a priest, I often hear people complaining about others. For a multitude of motives, people will come to complain to Abouna, perhaps because he is ‘in charge’ at Church, or perhaps because they think he will fix the person up, or perhaps (I hope not) because they think it will benefit them somehow to tarnish the reputation of their enemy in Abouna’s eyes.

Before I go further, I should probably point out that it doesn’t work, just in case you’ve ever been tempted to think it might be fun. Priests in general do not hold a ‘bad idea’ about anyone. We tend to take the view that all of us, (including the priests) are sinners grappling with their own weaknesses and all equally in need of God’s mercy and grace.

But I wonder why some people do so enjoy picking out other people’s faults? We all do it. It’s an easy trap to fall into. But why do we do it?

Does it make the critic feel superior, perhaps?

Or perhaps it makes him feel better about himself: if you can’t rise to the level of others, the next best thing is to bring them down to your own level.

Does it make him feel intelligent, something like: “Oooh, aren’t I clever for picking that up, when the person I’m criticising clearly has no idea!”

Or is it a sort of passive way to get back at someone. You know you can’t punch them in the face, so you fantasise about condemning them.

Does it distract him from the painful subject of his own faults?

I think I would be very unhappy if my self-esteem depended on putting others down. How miserable! And what a waste of time! Surely my self-value is not relative? Whether I am a good person or a bad person depends on who I am, not on how bad others are. If all around me were evil, horrible people, and I was no worse than a simple liar, that doesn’t make me a saint, simply by comparison!

The danger in finding lots of specks in other eyes, of course, is that I might never focus on the log in my own eye. This has two rather undesirable consequences:

1. I will never be able to repent from my sins, for I will never become aware they even exist.

2. When the time comes for me to be judged by the real Judge, He will apply the same degree of mercy to me that I applied to others. Uh-oh…

Now I am getting worried. I’ve been writing a lot of opinions on this Blog. Sometimes, they have been quite critical. Have I been focusing on the specks in the eyes of others, while all the time neglecting the blog in my own eye?

Fr Ant

PS A person whose vision is obstructed by a log is unlikely to have the ability to see something as small as a speck anyway. Think about it….

“… To Wide Critical Acclaim”

“Wow, that was a great sermon today, wasn’t it!”
“Yeah, and last week’s was really good too!”
“Oh really? I missed that one.”
“It was mad! One of the best I’ve heard.”
“The one two weeks ago wasn’t so good though. Not enough oomph, you know? I thought it was really dry.”
“No, I remember that one. Yeah, they let the standard drop a bit sometimes, don’t they?”
“I’ll tell you what, though, I went to St Fruitious Church a while back – not happy Jan.”
“Oh, the sermon was a real dog. No life in it, you know? Doesn’t rate compared to our sermons we get. I don’t really know how the people at St Fruitious put up with that.”
“Yeah, I know. We’re really lucky here. Nothing but the best quality, hey?”

The dialogue you’ve just read is fictitious, but I am sad to say it’s not far off some real world discussions I have heard. Attitudes like this bring a question to my mind: What is the purpose of a sermon?

Having heard the two parishioners above, you might be forgiven for thinking that a sermon’s main goal was to entertain you. Change some of the nouns in that dialougue and you could be listening to two people discussing the latest movies. That is what film critics do. Their job is to assess the value of a movie, and then report on it to the public. I am not a professional film critic, but I imagine it must make it a little hard to just sit back and enjoy the experience when you have to be on the lookout for faults and shortcomings, and make sure you remember them for future reference. When I hear people talking about the ‘quality’ of a sermon, and comparing sermons, and so on, I get a little worried. I wonder whether they have benefitted from the hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, or whether they missed out on hearing that voice because they were too busy being merely ‘critics’.

Most of the priests and servants I know have a very simple rule about speaking in public (and in private too, most of the time!) It is this: DON”T SPEAK. Don’t let yourself speak. Pray with all your heart that God will be kind enough to put you to one side, and let His Holy Spirit speak instead of you. It is remarkable what a difference this principle makes.

I have had the experience (all too often) of going into a talk all full of confidence, based on my hours of careful preparation and research, only to find that it fizzles into a whole lot of gibberish, and no one gets anything out of it. On the other hand, I have also had the experience of finding myself forced to give a talk I haven’t prepared, realising that I am totally incapable of doing it, begging and pleading for God to come to the rescue of these poor people who must endure sitting and listening to me, and then finding that it turns in to one of the best talks I have ever given. In these situations, it is not uncommon for me to find that I myself needed to hear those words the Holy Spirit brought out of my own mouth – it’s almost like I too am in the audience, listening to His words attentively.

Now please don’t get me wrong – I am not describing some sort of mystical trance state here! I am simply remarking that the Biblical principle of “When I am weak, then I am strong” applies really well to this situation. Which makes me think a little further … who are we little humans to be critics of the words of the Holy Spirit? Is it our place to come out of a talk or sermon and give the Holy Spirit a mark out of ten?

“Great sermon today – I’d give it 8 1/2.”
“Oh, come on. Surely not! The stories were old and that’s the fifth time he’s used repentance as his theme in a month. I’d give it 6 1/2.”

Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right…

Perhaps a better response is to do what all true movie lovers do – just sit back and pay attention, and let the sermon seep into your consciousness. Open your heart and mind as well as your ears and eyes. Be on the lookout for that phrase or idea that God wants you to hear today. Don’t get sidetracked with irrelevant details like how the speaker delivers his speeach, or whether he has a nice voice or not, or whether you’ve heard this before, or any of the multitude of other criteria that critics use.

God speaks to us in many ways every day of our lives. Some of these ways are subtle and hard to pinpoint, while others are quite obvious. We all expect to hear Him speaking to us in a sermon or talk – that’s a pretty obvious place for Him to speak! Don’t waste the opportunity by being critic.

Fr Ant

Coptic Women Priests?

I recently came across an interesting book by a pretty conservative Eastern Orthodox theologian on the topic of women in the Orthodox priesthood. You can guess that he was against the idea. What struck me about the book, though, was that some of the arguments he used were totally alien to my understanding of the priesthood.

Especially noticeable was one argument that kept pooping up, whether directly or indirectly, that I might paraphrase as follows:

Priesthood means authority. Authority means control, power, being in charge.
The woman is not fit for this role, since she is the man’s helper, not his boss.
Therefore, we can never have Orthodox women priests.

I’m not sure what you would make of this?

I don’t intend to get into the whole “a helpmate meet for him” argument in this post. It just seemed to me that this argument was weak because it was built on one big mistake: Priesthood is not first and foremost about authority; it is about service.

That this is the teaching of Christ couldn’t be any clearer. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

HH Pope Shenouda III wrote in his spiritual classic a chapter entitled “Poor Men” (Al Masakeen, I think). In it, he describes his pity for those who are ordained to the ranks of the priesthood, pointing out that they will be judged not only for their own deeds, but for those of the people whom they serve. Imagine, he says, the poor Pope – who will be held responsible for the fates of millions of souls! Perhaps you can guess he wrote this when he was still a layman, before entering the monastery. Prophetic, though, wasn’t it!

Now that’s the understanding of priesthood (and indeed, any kind of Church position) that I can relate to. The world is all about power and control and advantage and prestige. But those ideas should never be allowed to get in and contaminate the spiritual service. If ever the priest needs to exercise some sort of ‘power’ or ‘authority’ over his flock, it should never be out of a lust to control others, or pride or selfishness. It should be because that is the only avenue left to him to achieve the will of God and the spiritual goals of the Church. It can also only be successful if the people he serves are willingly accepting that authority. Yet it is an authority that any sane man would flee from, for it is very, very dangerous.

What if he makes the wrong decision? What if those he serves suffer because of his orders? There is a great scope for doing damage here! I recently saw a documentary about the Jim Jones tragedy in South America. In short, an American pastor grew gradually more and more manipulative of his flock. Being very charismatic, his influence upon them grew to such an extent that he was able to take 900 of them to a jungle in South America to build a new country, Jonestown, where everything would be perfect. With a frightening array of tools of psychological manipulation, these people virtually became his slaves. Eventually, the whole thing ended with him making them all commit suicide with him. Scary.

No, religious leadership is about serving. It is about the genuine needs of those being served – not the needs of the servant. Because of this, it is often a very harsh, very difficult path to follow. Which means that any sensible person would run a mile to escape it. If you have ever seen a Coptic bishop being ordained, you will have noticed that he is brought in to Church with two strong bishops holding him firmly by each arm. Although this is largely ceremonial now, its original purpose was to stop the candidate from running away! Pope Shenouda himself repeatedly refused to be ordained as a bishop, until Pope Kyrollos VI virtually forced the matter by one day unexpectedly placing his hand on his head in the corridor, and saying “I ordain you, Shenouda, Bishop in the Orthodox CHurch of God …” There was no escape.

Pope Shenouda is famous for saying “Those who wish to be ordained as priests are usually unsuitable, and those who are suitable, usually do not wish to be ordained”. There is a lot of wisdom in this. Only a person who really understands the responsibility and the sacrifice of priesthood is suitable to be ordained. Yet that is the very person who would run away from it because of that huge responsiblity and sacrifice!

Which seems to me the biggest reason why it is unlikely that we will have women priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church … they are too smart for that 🙂

But seriously, I think we are very blessed to have a ‘humble’ attitude to service in the Church. We do not see it as authority, or prestige, or position or power. Priesthood is simply one important service among many others. The Church runs through teamwork, joint effort, not through the efforts of any one individual. There is simply a need for one individual to organise that teamwork, and that happens to be the priest. There is a need for one individual to be set aside for the very scary task of administering the sacraments, and that happens to be the priest. It is a frightening thing to approach an altar with the Body and Blood upon it – frightening because we are sinners, and we are approaching an unimaginably powerful Holiness. But the priest does it because someone has to, and because God has called him to be that someone. No one in their right mind would put themselves forward to do it – only those who don’t quite understand what it really means.

Sadly, in modern life, even Christian Churches have become infected with this idea of power and authority – hence the fight over who is to rule. I hope our Church never loses its innocence. It’s not about anyone ruling.

It’s all about serving.

Fr Ant