Being Orthodox 1: Introduction


Fr Peter Farrington of the British Orthodox Church wrote a very important article in the Glastonbury Review about the history of Protestant missions in Egypt and their influence on the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of many resources now available on this fascinating period of Coptic history. While the main gist of Fr Peter’s article describes the low view the British missionaries had of the Coptic Church of the day, (some even considered Copts to be on a par with Muslims in their ignorance of the Christian faith!) he also describes the willingness of the Coptic clergy of the time to benefit from the help of the Europeans, even to the extent of sending candidates for the priesthood to seminaries run by the Protestants to train them in theology. This shows an admirable ecumenism on the part of the Coptic decision-makers, but it also reflects one of the darker trends in Coptic Church history over the past two centuries.

The trend I am talking about is the tendency to associate Western Christianity with advanced Western civilisation, and therefore to see both as something superior to aspire to. What this means today is that due to this historical phenomenon, patchy though it has been both in time and place, the Coptic Orthodox Church has adopted some worrying aspects of Western Christianity, and forgotten that they are foreign innovations. The same thing happened in the Eastern Orthodox family, a phenomenon they call the ‘Western Captivity’, echoing the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrew people. But the Eastern Orthodox have experienced an inspiring revival of ancient, patristic and apostolic thought over the past hundred years or so, mainly through the brave work of scholars such as Vladimir Lossky and Alexander Shmemann, that has gradually purified their theology from the Western innovations and restored it to something much closer to that of the ancient Church. In the Coptic Orthodox Church, there have always been those who have delved deeply and honestly into this matter and come out with much the same results as the Eastern Orthodox revival, but until recently, they were not influential in the Church. They published their views in scholarly journals like The Coptic Church Review, Coptologia and the Glastonbury Review, the learned journal of our affiliated British Orthodox Church, or in the mammoth masterpiece, the eight volume Coptic Encyclopedia, but for the most part their work was ignored in parishes and Sunday School classrooms. I rejoice to see the winds of revival finally blowing through the corridors of the Coptic Orthodox Church, a trend I believe is being tactfully supported by HH Pope Tawadros II. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 1: Introduction”

Tradition and Denomination

Celebrating the Eucharist is a tradition instituted by Christ Himself. It embodies the core faith and life of Christianity.


Some of my best friends are Protestant! I have engaged in innumerable fascinating discussions with Protestant friends over the decades on the differences and similarities between the two approaches to being Christian. One of the benefits claimed by some Protestants is that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are “traditional” Churches while Protestant Churches are not. By this it is usually meant that the traditional Churches adhere to a body of beliefs and practices developed by human beings through the centuries while the non-traditional Churches are not limited by such constraints, and are therefore able to enact the Christian Gospel free of any merely human innovations. But is this really true?

Human nature is such that we cannot, like God, create anything ex nihilo, out of nothing. All we can do is take what is given to us and perhaps synthesise or modify it into something else. In this sense, all that we do is traditional. When we drive our cars on the left side of the road, when we wear clothes of particular fashion, when we follow certain healthy diets, when we use qwerty keyboards; all these are examples of traditions that we follow. If we didn’t, life would be impossible. Imagine if you could not depend on medical research to tell you what a healthy diet looks like, but had to work it all out on your own, right from scratch! Traditions allow us to get on with life, to progress in life, to build on the wisdom and experience of others rather than have to do it all ourselves from first principles. To be sure, it is often interesting to go back and read how a tradition came about, and thus understand why it is a good tradition to follow, and to be sure, some traditions occasionally need revision or even total reformation or replacement, but the idea of living your life according to a set of traditions is something we all do every day of our lives, and indeed, could not live the lives we now live without doing it.

So it is somewhat hard to believe that of all the things in the world of human beings, there is this one particular case, this one exception to the rule, Continue reading “Tradition and Denomination”

Raucous Receptions

We parish priests often tear our hair out (those who have any left) when we hear of parties or receptions thrown by members of the Church that don’t reflect our Christian values. One of the sins most modern Christians really despise is hypocrisy, and yet some of them don’t seem to realise that a celebration that encourages non-Christian behaviour is a form of hypocrisy. Perhaps they feel that Christ does not really think that drunkenness, immodest clothing and sexually-enticing dancing are wrong? Hmmm, I’d like to see where the Bible says that.

But it seems the problem is not just a modern one. Thank you to Fr Athanasius Iskander of Canada for sharing the following excerpt from St John Chrysostom in the fifth century.

Marriage is a bond, a bond ordained by God. Why then do you celebrate weddings in a silly and immodest manner? Have you no idea what you are doing? … What is the meaning of these drunken parties with their lewd and disgraceful behaviour? You can enjoy a banquet with your friends to celebrate your marriage; I do not forbid this, but why must you introduce all these excesses? Camels and mules behave more decently than some people at wedding receptions!

Is marriage a comedy? It is a mystery, an image of something far greater. If you have no respect for marriage, at least respect what it symbolizes: “This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the Church.” (Eph 5:32)  It is an image of the Church, and of Christ, and will you celebrate in a profane manner? “But then who will dance?” you ask. Why does anyone need to dance? Pagan mysteries are the only ones that involve dancing. We celebrate our mysteries quietly and decently, with reverence and modesty.

How is marriage a mystery? The two have become one. This is not an empty symbol. They have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God Himself. How can you celebrate it with a noisy uproar, which dishonours and bewilders the soul?

Continue reading “Raucous Receptions”

A New (Old) Take on Repentance


Ancient Christian icon from Egypt. The faith of the early Church is inspiring even today, two millennia later.

Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.

Ephesians 5:14


As Lent begins one senses a silent groan in some hearts and minds. How are we going to survive 55 days of strict fasting? What shall we eat? I can’t wait till its over! Lent is a time of prayer and fasting and charitable deeds, but also a time of repentance. Sometimes this same negative attitude can be transferred to our approach to repentance. It can seem such a chore, or at least something we must drag ourselves reluctantly to do.

But there is another way of looking at these things. It may seem quite new to some, but in reality it is very, very old. In fact, it was the way most of the first Christians looked at these things. Apart from my love of all things authentic and original, I find it so much more satisfying, so much more sensible, and so much more realistic than the later interpretations of the Christian enterprise that have spread through most Churches, including our own. It goes something like this:


God = existence = goodness = light = life.


Therefore, since sin is a separation from God, then to sin is to be diminished in existence, goodness, light and life and to instead be in a state that we describe with words like non-existence, evil, darkness and death.

In this state, our ability to do anything to help ourselves is also diminished. Thus our ability to save ourselves from this state is diminished, quite severely in fact. It’s a little like a drowning man who reaches a stage where he is so deprived of oxygen that his brain can no longer function well enough for him to realise that he needs to swim upwards or keep his head above water.

This is why it was impossible for us to save ourselves. It is the answer to the question, why couldn’t humanity just repent and change itself back into the image of God? Continue reading “A New (Old) Take on Repentance”

A Subtle Snare

“There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself … as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist! There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ. Man! Ye see it in small matters. Did ye never know a lover of books that with all his first editions and signed copies has lost the power to read them? Or an organiser of charities that had lost all love for the poor? It is the subtlest of all the snares.”

CS Lewis. The Great Divorce.

We live in an age of knowledge and of great power, and the individual citizen today can do things that the most powerful of heads of state could only dream of fifty years ago. This power brings with it opportunities unimagined, but also a raft of new temptations, or rather old temptations adapted to new situations (is there ever anything new under the sun?)

Today, I can sit in my living room and order a rare book from London or read a paper written by a scholar in Zurich at the click of a button. I have access to a marketplace of ideas that is so huge its very size smothers me if I stop to think about it. For the curious mind, this is intoxicating! How easy to lose oneself in an ocean of stimulating knowledge and new ideas! How wonderful to acquire new understanding, to see old things in new ways, to penetrate the depths of ignorance and shine the light of comprehension upon their previously dark treasures!

Apologetics is a marvellous revelation for those whose mind is so inclined. We drink the heady mead of rationality and find that the logic of this world points to its Creator! How wonderful! How sweet! And yet, apologetics is only medicine for the doubting soul; and no one can live on medicine alone. One needs heavenly bread and living water. Apologetics points the way, it heals the wounds of confusion, but then it is time for the daily bread of communion with the existent to carry out the process of nourishment.

Service in the house of the Lord is honourable and fulfilling. It provides the servant with a deep sense of belonging and achievement, whatever the nature of that service may be. I am doing something good for the Lord! Yet it is so easy for that “for the Lord” to turn quietly into “for me”. The very satisfaction and fulfillment one derives from service can become in itself an end, usurping its proper role as a means for the crucifixion of the ego and the losing of the self in the ocean of love that is God. And soon, God Himself is forgotten.

Intoxication is a dangerous thing. Continue reading “A Subtle Snare”

The Anaphora

A little contemplation on the liturgy, with a linguistic turn…

The Anaphora in the Coptic rite is that part of the Eucharistic liturgy that begins with the priest praying the words,

“The Lord be with you all”,

to which the congregation respond,

“And with your spirit”.

The word anaphora is Greek and is derived from two roots: ano or ‘upward’ and phero meaning ‘to bear, carry or bring’. Thus we find it used in Matthew 17:1…

“Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves”

So, the Anaphora is that part of the liturgy where we are enjoined to allow ourselves to be carried up to God. Note that in Matthew 17:1, it is Jesus who leads the three disciples up the mountain, in that sense ‘bringing’ them. And yet, they must walk on their own legs to actually follow Him, so in that sense, they ‘bring’ or ‘carry’ themselves. Neither is sufficient to get them up the mountain by itself. Christ will not pick them up physically and carry them if they choose not walk on their own feet, and if they walk alone without Christ they will not know where to go. So also, our lifting up of our hearts to God cannot be accomplished by our own efforts, or by the grace of God alone, but the two must act in concert, in harmony.

As part of this dialogue, the priest enjoins the people to

Lift up your hearts: ano emon tas kardias

Again, the words are Greek rather than Coptic. Looking into the Greek origins reveals layers of textured meaning that are sadly lost when translated: Continue reading “The Anaphora”

More Things …


Three interesting new resources I have come across recently, and thought I might share with you today:

In 1991 a huge project came to fruition with the publication of the eight volume Coptic Encyclopedia. Containing nearly three thousand entries by a variety of authors, both members of the Coptic community and foreign scholars in Coptology, it is perhaps the most comprehensive reference on all things Coptic ever produced. The hard cover eight volume set is not only very expensive, but has also been out of print for some years and hard to get a hold of. So it was with great pleasure that I came across this wonderful project at Claremont Graduate University in California. An excerpt from the announcement of this project: 

The Coptic Encyclopedia, published by Macmillan in 1991, is an eight-volume work. Its 2,800 entries, written by 215 scholars, took 13 years to compile. But as a paper-bound document it was only available to a limited readership and nearly impossible to amend. The digitized version, renamed the Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia, can be constantly updated and is available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Apparently, Phase 1, which began in 2010, is to digitise and make available all 2,800 articles in the original 1991 edition. You can access the articles far completed here.  Last I checked, they were somewhere in the “O” section, working alphabetically from “A”. Phase 2 will be to add multimedia accompaniments to appropriate articles, especially pictures and perhaps audio. Phase 3, and most exciting of all, is to provide continuous updating of existing articles and add new ones to reflect ongoing research and developments in the field of Coptology, and to track the unfolding history of the Coptic Church in the twenty first century. Three cheers for CGU!

How often have you turned up at Church on a feast day or during a fast and wondered why everyone was doing things differently? Continue reading “More Things …”

Things to Read and Hear

 I’ve been listening to some terrific podcasts by Fr Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox scholar and parish priest. It is a series on the clergy of the Christian Church through the ages and begins in the Apostolic Age, working its way slowly through the centuries. For anyone who loves ancient Christianity, and who desires to live the Orthodox Christian faith today as closely as possible to its original form in ancient times, this set of talks is a veritable treasure chest! Keep in mind when you listen that Fr Thomas is from the Eastern Orthodox family and thus views the Council of Chalcedon from that perspective. (While the Oriental Orthodox Churches like the Coptic Church reject that Council, most other Christian Churches accept it).

 But his account of the first two centuries is engrossing and makes sense of so many things in our history that we generally hear in isolation and out of context. For example, one can gain a valuable insight into the true spirit of ancient Christian leadership when one learns that the titles for the leaders of the ancient Church were actually taken from the titles of slaves! The Episkopos (over-seer) was the household slave in charge of overseeing the affairs of the household on behalf of his master, and for the welfare and benefit of the master and his family. Episkopos is the title the early Christians adopted for their bishops. The Economos was in charge making sure the ‘economy’ of the house ran smoothly, and thus would look to the day to day details of household provisions and accounts and so on. His role was to preovide the resources that everyone else needed to live their lives happily and safely. Again, the early Christians adopted this name for those among the Elders (‘presbyteros’ ) who were entrusted with caring for the day to day affairs of the household of God, and ‘economos’ has evolved into the modern title, ‘hegomen’.

But note that both these positions were those of slaves. Applied to the Christian roles, what this meant is that the bishop and the hegomen were both ‘slaves’ of the Master of the household, God, and their role was to care for His children. As slaves, they were not to boss the children around or exert authority over them so much as to serve them and provide faithfully for all their needs. And this is of course in keeping with the command of Christ:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45 

It also intriguing to hear about the developments in the years after Chalcedon, a period of history in which we Copts were not involved for the most part – being more occupied with things like survival in a hostile environment of Melkites and later Muslims. Here, this account explains so much of why both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are what they are today. Continue reading “Things to Read and Hear”

Body Contact Spirituality


 We often speak of our spirits, our thoughts or our feelings being in contact with God. But in Eastern Christianity, we also pay attention to our body being in contact with God. What exactly does this mean?

 Church tradition teaches us to pray as a whole person, body, spirit and mind together. Contact with God is more than a purely rational experience. This is also true of most things in life that really matter. For example, the bond between a mother and child is a physical one. There are lots of hugs and cuddles and kisses going on all the time. There are smiles and frowns, coos and gurgles, friendly pats and gentle caresses, and the occasional bitten finger when baby mistakes Mum’s thumb for a teething ring.

 On a deeper level, there are hormones and nervous system mechanisms that are activated by the mother-child relationship. Mothers of newborn babies have a lot of the hormone oxytocin circulating in their bodies. While this hormone contributes to the changes in their bodies that prepare them for breastfeeding, it has also been shown to have the effect of strengthening the emotional bond between the mother and child. God’s own natural love potion!

 When we commune with God, we feel emotions towards God. Emotions are always associated with powerful physical changes. Continue reading “Body Contact Spirituality”

Sing A New Song (or write one)

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I had a lot of trouble with the ‘X’.

Below is a an experimental hymn to be sung during Holy Communion. It is an acrostic hymn; that is, each stanza begins with a different letter of the alphabet, in alphabetical order. Not a lot of ‘X’ words to choose from, so I cheated a little.

I would like to encourage the English-speaking, musically talented members of our congregation to think about creating some new communion hymns. The ones we have are beautiful, but you can only sing them so many times before you start wishing there were some more. And surely, there is so much more that can be said or sung about the unique mystery of the Eucharist? Here is my idea of the ideal characteristics of a Holy Communion hymn:

1. It should be joyful. This is actually not my idea, but a strong Church tradition. Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is perhaps the most joyous experience we can have on earth, so the Church teaches us that we must not sing sad hymns while we have it.

2. It should help us experience the mystery of the Eucharist more deeply.

3. It should focus largely on Jesus Himself, so far as possible, although of course it can present Jesus as He is reflected in the lives of His saints, for example.

4. It should touch the heart as well as engage the mind.

5. It should be in keeping with the general style of the Coptic liturgy’s musical tradition. Communion is, after all, the final part of the liturgy, not an ‘add on’ after the liturgy has finished.

6. It should be relatively easy for the whole congregation to join in. A repeated chorus helps those whose memory may not be crash hot.

7. It should have an enjoyable tune. Praying should be an experience of joy!


So, I had a go. I am not very musically gifted, so I ‘borrowed’ a traditional tune Continue reading “Sing A New Song (or write one)”