A License to Marry?

So many broken homes … so many broken lives.

I don’t know if my impression is valid or not, but it seems to me that over the last two decades, the proportion of marriages collapsing and failing has increased. Certainly, the Coptic population in Sydney has increased over that time period, so it would be normal to expect that the mere number of broken marriages would have increased. But it also feels like the percentage is increasing.

Marriage break ups can never be pleasant. They are so painful that I wonder how anyone can bear to go through the experience. Certainly, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would purposely choose for that to happen. When a marriage beaks up, everybody loses.

The couple themselves lose a relationship that they had hoped would sustain and nurture them for the rest of their lives. Often there are feelings of betrayal and of isolation. There is the whole issue of how to break the news to the extended family. There is the financial insecurity and the social stigma. And of course, there is the unavoidable uncomfortable feeling that one has failed in some way (although some people handle this feeling by laying all the blame on their partner and none on themselves).

The community loses, for if we are truly united, then that which hurts one member hurts us all. All sorts of awkward issues arise: do you invite them both to your birthday, or only one? And if only one, will the other be offended? Generally, a divorced couple are severely limited in their ability to serve. They feel unable, for example, to stand in front of children and teach Sunday School. All too often, the result is social isolation and estrangement from the Church, just at a time when they need the support of their friends the most.

But of course the ones who suffer most are the children. How agonisingly sad it is to see innocent, angelic little souls being gradually hardened and scarred by the horrible experience of watching the two people they trust the most fighting with each other. Children look up to their parents. Children learn from their parents; not from what they say, but from what they do. If parents live their lives with anger or malice constantly in their hearts, the children grow up never knowing what it is like to live in peace and security. For them, the world is a cold, hard, scary and lonely place. Is it any wonder that such children often seek the love and acceptance they crave outside the home, often with disastrous results?

Studies have shown that when a couple are having serious marriage problems, but they stick it out and stay together, their overall happiness is much higher in the long run than if they separate. Other research has shown time and time again that the breakup of divorce leaves a worse long-term emotional scar on children than if they remain in a united but troubled home. Of course, such research cannot take into account every single individual situation, but as an overall view, it is compelling. There is every reason for a married couple to honour the commitment they made before God in Church on their wedding day and to strive to submit to one another in humility and love.

If there is hard-headedness involved, then what is required of the Christian spouse is clear: soften that hard head! If not for your own or your spouse’s sake, then at least for the sake of your innocent children! And if not for their sake, then at least for the sake of the salvation of your own soul!

One wise Father I know always says, “You can never solve a marital problem without genuine repentance.” How true his words are! Without accepting that grace of God that empowers a person to boldly say: “I was wrong”, the couple will have a lot of trouble resolving their differences. Yet if each of them seeks their own personal inner sanctity, their own personal relationship with the loving and merciful Christ, the problems that divide them would melt away.

Perhaps it is wise to be very, very careful in choosing who you marry, for it is a commitment for life. As a Church, perhaps we need to offer more guidance and counselling to young people thinking of getting married, and to couples after they are married. The problem is that when things are going well, the couple do not feel the need for guidance, and when things deteriorate, the couple are in no state to listen to any guidance!

Perhaps we also need to start with people very young, helping them to develop ‘marriageable’ personalities in the first place. If a person learns from a young age to be patient, kind, forgiving, thoughtful … they will take those traits with them into the marriage relationship and very likely make it a success. Some marriages fail because one or both of the couple are simply not fit for marriage: they lack the skills or the personality necessary for a marriage to work.

Maybe we could bring in a marriage license, something like a driver’s license? You’d have to learn the skills and then pass a test before you were allowed to marry. But then you’d be set for a life of safe and comfortable marriage. And then, perhaps we need a parenthood license…

Fr Ant

The Enigma of what comes After Death

I’ve recently been reading an old classic that had hitherto eluded my reading list. It’s called Reflections on Life after Life by Dr Raymond Moody. It’s actually the sequel to his original book simply called Life After Life, but I couldn’t find that one in the library. They were both written around the 1970s and they spawned a whole new genre that many others have since taken up with enthusiasm (though not always with good sense).

The basic premise is this: Dr Moody is a medical doctor who has been involved in a large number of resuscitations – people who are clinically dead, and are then brought back to life. Usually this happens within that brief window of opportunity before permanent brain damage sets in, somewhere around 5 minutes. There have been rare cases that broke that record and still came out perfectly normal. Medicine is like that; the moment you take something for granted a patient comes along to demolish it!

But the thing his books focus on is the weird experience that some of these patients (probably a minority) are able to recall after they have been brought back to life. In the first book (apparently) he outlines a number of general characteristics of these experiences that seem to be common among these patients. These include things that have now become a standard part of our culture and even our language. The tunnel, the light at the end, the beautiful place, the meeting with dead relatives, the shining person who emanates peace and joy, the command to return to life on earth, the reluctant return. In the second book he outlines some additional features that are by no means as common as those in the first book, but which are pretty interesting, such as the confused and lost looking souls and the sense of having ‘all knowledge’ suddenly become available to you (wouldn’t that be great?!) He also addresses some very interesting and important methodological issues in his research (which should set to rest many of the criticisms sceptics have raised, for he is quite thorough in his methodology) and most interestingly, speculates as to where this kind of research might lead in the future.

It makes for absolutely intriguing reading, but I wonder what these experiences mean. It would be all too easy to simply say “Of course these are just confirmation of what the Bible has been saying all along”, but the indomitable sceptic within me cannot help but ask questions:

Most of Dr Moody’s patients were Caucasian Christians. Would these experiences be any different in India? Or Tibet?

What research has been done to examine the possibility of these visions being hallucinations resulting from the trauma of illness or side effects of medications used, quite often in high doses in operations and resuscitations?

The list could go on. I recently came across a much more recent study that seemed to promise a definite answer as to the nature of these experiences. In some cases, patients have described going through a feeling that they somehow left their bodies. They rose up in the air and could look down on themselves, surrounded by medical staff frantically trying to save their lives. Some of these patients describe the scene with exquisite detail, including things that by all the laws of logic they could not know. For example, one case in another book on the subject, Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings, has the patient describing the colour of the tie worn by a doctor who came into the room after he had become unconscious, and left the room before he regained consciousness. How could he do that???

Well, Professor Bruce Greyson in the USA thought up a brilliant experiment to try to settle the question. He set up a laptop computer on the top of a tall cabinet in a room where patients who are having pacemakers inserted have their hearts stopped temporarily as part of the procedure. On this laptop, a programme was installed that displays a random picture on the screen. There is absolutely no way for anyone to know which picture is going to be displayed beforehand, and afterwards, the laptop is removed without any of the medical staff or the patients seeing the picture. The idea was that if a patient had a near death experience and felt themselves rising up and looking down on the scene, they would see the top of the cabinet, and identify the picture on the laptop screen. If they correctly identified that picture, that would indicate that the experience was undoubtedly genuine and not just a hallucination or drug side effect.

But even the best laid plans of mice and men …

Unfortunately, I discovered that the research did not answer the question. Why? Because in the whole series of patients in the study’s time frame, not one single one of them happened to have a near death experience! Drats! Those doctors are obviously too good to be any good for such an experiment! Oh well; at least it illustrates the kind of experiment that might one day truly tell us whether these experiences are genuine or not. I for one will be waiting with bated breath, but I won’t be holding my breath long enough to pass out and have a near death experience.

You can check out Dr Moody’s work at http://www.lifeafterlife.com/

Fr Ant

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

When does life begin?

Sure, it’s not one of your more pressing questions in life, but sooner or later, you’re likely to need an answer. The answer to this question will decide many other questions that for some people are crucial. Like…

Is it OK to have an abortion?
If we’re infertile, is it OK to use IVF (test tube babies)?
Should we allow stem cell research?

And there are many more. These may sound like matters far removed from our daily lives, but in fact, like climate change, they threaten to creep up on us slowly and change the whole nature of our existence. A bit far fetched, you say? Consider the following scenario (by the way, I have nothing at all against Bill Gates – he just springs to mind so easily as the prototypical rich person).


The year is 2030. At an isolated ranch in the desert of California, a man in a white coat unlocks a heavily armoured door. Balancing a tray stacked with basic foods, he pushes his way into the sparse room and nudges the door closed again behind him. Not that it really matters, for the six inhabitants of this room have never left it in their whole lives. They came here as soon as they were able to walk, and here they have stayed for the last 15 years. Their skin is very pale, in spite of the special lamps designed to mimic the radiation of natural sunlight. Apart from that, you wouldn’t think twice if you passed them on the street. They look perfectly normal as they sit / lie on the ground / stand around the room. But the moment they spot the man in the white coat with the tray, they spring into action. There is no aggression in their behaviour, just hunger. Like so many pigs shoving each other to the trough, they descend upon the man until the tray is empty, then they retire with satisfied grunts to their corners to enjoy thier meal. They do not talk. They do not acknowledge the man. They do not thank him, or cry out to him to save them from their prison. To them, this room is the world – all the world they have ever known. And now finally, it suddenly dawns upon you what’s really wrong with this scene. All six of these boys look exactly the same. Not just similar … exactly the same. Exactly the same, in fact, as a young Bill Gates…


It is now possible to clone human beings. In the near future, a wealthy person may be able to clone himself, produce half dozen replicas, and just keep them alive. No education, no affection, no life – just keep them alive. Why? So that when he grows old and sick, he has a sure supply of compatible donor organs and blood at his service. The sort of health insurance you can’t buy – until now.

It’s a horrific scenario, but the scary thing is that it is possible, today. Scientists have already cloned a variety of creatures, starting with the celebrity Dolly the sheep. So far the only publicly announced clones, such as those claimed by South Korean Hwang Woo-Suk, have truned out to be frauds. But the day is near when the real thing will stare us in the face.

And our lives will change. For example, would it be wrong to clone a person in order to save their life by thus producing an essential organ? What if we clone a person and let the zygote grow to only three weeks old when it is just a bundle of cells, and then we skim off some cells for research every week so that the zygote never grows beyond the three week stage? Would that be alright?

These technical advances need a response, for they are changing the way we think about what it means to be a human being. In our rationalistic society, already many see a human being as nothing more than an advanced animal, merely a complicated biological machine. The soul, they say, is an illusion, it does not exist. Our ‘personhood’ is nothing more than the result of brain cells firing in a certain pattern. With this attitude, there’s nothing wrong with the scenarios I described above. What we do to animals we have the right ot do to human animals.

It is already among us. People who are pro-abortion by and large do not consider a human foetus as being a human being. That’s why they claim the right of the mother to kill it. What can we say about a society that pulls so many of its children apart, ripping them from their mothers’ wombs in little pieces?

This is disturbing stuff, but sooner or later, we are going to have make up our minds. And we as Christians will need to be ready to speak up.

Fr Ant

Is Genesis Myth?

Thankyou to Tony for his comment on my last post in which he brings up the approach taught by most Catholic Schools in Australia to the first 11 chapters of Genesis. I have come across these ideas before, and I think they are becoming so widespread in the Catholic Church they deserve some attention. In some circles, this approach is called the New Theology and basically jettisons any claim that any of the events in the first 11 chapters of Genesis ever actually happened. That’s everything up to and including the Tower of Babel, so for them, the real history begins with Abraham, and all that came before is called a ‘myth’, which, as Tony points out, may not necessarily mean what you think it means!

The concept of a myth is a very fluid one it seems. CS Lewis has much to say on the subject of ‘true myths’ in some of his essays (can’t remember exactly which ones) in which he more or less concludes that the purpose of a ‘myth’ is the moral or message, and that whether the myth actually happened or not, or whether it happened a little differenty is really of no great importance. I suppose you can think of the parables of Jesus which clearly were fiction, but intended to convey a lesson. Lewis of course was talking generally, but I think that the Catholics are applying a similar approach to the first 11 chapters of Genesis.

I think there are problems with this sort of approach. Once you start categorising bits of the Bible as possibly not having an historic basis, where might this not lead you? I wonder if an extension of this kind of thinking is responsible for people like Episcopalian retired Bishop John Shelby Spong rejecting any historical miracles of Jesus, together with the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and Ascension and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum you have stubborn fundamentalists who insist that every word of the Bible must be taken as absolute literal truth (LITERAL being the crucial word here) and thus, for example, deny any possibility that the universe is older than about 6,000 years, in contradiction to lots of pretty solid evidence and to the fact that the language of Genesis in no way insists upon this kind of interpretation.

We have to learn from the mistakes of the past. The medieval Church in the West had no business decreeing that the earth was the centre of the universe – what right did they have to do that? The Church is responsible for spiritual knowledge and teachings. The people look to the Church for guidance and wisdom about far more than just spiritual life, but the Church must always resist the temptation that such respect brings and never go outside its limits of competency. On a smaller scale, a parish priest is often asked whether to take this job or that, or to invest in this project, or send the kids to this school. He has a responsibility to make it clear to those who ask for such advice that any advice given is that of a friend, not that of a mouthpiece of God … unless, of course, God has told him otherwise 😉

Sure, one can draw inferences from the Bible about the laws of nature, but they will always be nothing more than guesses, and we must beware of giving them the status of Infallible Truths or putting them on a par with the doctrine and dogma of the Church. Science is always changing. If we as a Church throw our lot in with evolution, or the Big Bang, or even quantum physics, there is bound to come a time perhaps centuries later when these things will be superceded and the Church will be left with egg on its face, much as happened in the great crisis over Gallileo and Copernicus. There is no need for this, especially given that the Bible does not seem terribly interested in giving humanity the natural secrets of the cosmos – rather, it is occupied with the spiritual secrets of truth and love and holiness. We must accept that just because we are a Church, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to know everything and have the answer to every question! There are times when the only honest thing to do is to admit we don’t know. Which brings to mind a nice proverb: “He is wisest who knows himself for a fool”.

So, yes, my favoured approach would be to say simply something along these lines:

“The science, as far as it goes, can be comfortably accomodated within the Bible’s framework. But that’s all we can say. Whether the science of today describes reality fully and accurately is not a question for the Church to answer – it is for time to answer.”

Fr Ant

The Evolution Enigma

Last Night’s CCP Meeting was on the question of evolution. An intriguing and often highly emotional topic, it is one of those areas where, supposedly, science and fatih clash.

I’ve been doing a little bit of reading on the topic lately, and I have found there are a few conclusions that I think one is safe to draw about the current state of affairs. Please allow me to share them with you.

1. Evolution as a scientific theory is elegant, relatively simple, and in many ways quite a beautiful concept, if you look at it from a purely scientific point of view.

2. Looked at against the wider background of our existence, it can be a very ugly concept. I have no doubt whatsoever that some of the worst atrocities committed by humans in the past century were justified, whether consciously or subconsciously, by an evolutionary world view. Hitler’s purification of the German race is an attempt to take control of evolution. What gave him the right to do so? Because he was the “Fittest” and it is the fittest who should survive. The deaths of millions in the gas chambers is no more than the necessary by product of this law of nature, and we should not weep over it. Or so he thought.

3. Evolution still has many gaping holes. We started to look at some last night but time constraints meant we had to leave the rest for another session. Chief among the unresolved issues are the incredible probabilities against putting together DNA in the right sequence merely by chance, the vexed question of how the first life could possibly have arisen, and the lack of any sensible mechanism for the introduction of new genes into an organism’s genome. There are more, but these are my favorites.

4. Even if one day it should become apparent that evolution is the true cause of life on Earth beyond a shadow of a doubt, I cannot see how this would affect our faith. The Bible is interested in telling us what God did. How He did it is really His concern, and although we get a glimpse, we must not expect to be able to understand His ways. I still can’t understand how my mechanic diagnoses and fixes problems in my car, much less the mechanism of the Creation of the whole Cosmos! But to me, if the universe really can produce life all by itself, naturally and without any supernatural input, that would be an even greater miracle. I might be able to get some wood together and build a chair. Sure it would take some time, and it would probably wobble, but I think I could do it. What I don’t think I could do is build a machine that builds chairs without any help from me. Now that’s hard! So if God built a universe that can produce life without any supernatural input from Him, that would be a far greater miracle than if He had built each species individually.

5. There is, however, the case of microevolution as opposed to macroevolution. Macroevolution involves one species evolving into another species, and as such requires whole new genes to be inserted into the organism’s genetic code. There simply is no known mechanism for this to happen in most cases, and there does not seem to be any possibility for us finding one. But Microevolution involves the slightest fiddling with the existing genetic code, such as that which produces a tall or a short person, the colour of your eyes, or the resistance of bacteria against an antibiotic. Microevolution is implied in the Bible since all the different races of humans in the world are descended from just one family of eight people (Noah’s family). Clearly, all the variations between races must have arisen by a mechanism such as microevolution. But there is no evidence that I can see that can overcome the need for whole new genes in macroevolution.

6. Many people accept or reject evolution for reasons other than the actual science. If you want there not to be a God, you can use evolution as way of supporting your case that He didn’t have to be around to make us. And equally, if you want there to be a God, you can find the many, many holes there are in the theory of evolution. So how can one come to a genuinely objective Truth? I’m not sure anyone can. I admit freely that I am biased. I believe in God, for many other reason, and so I come to the evolution question expecting God to be a part of the true answer. And I find more than enough evidence to fulfil that expectation. But the fact is that the jury still out. Evolution is not fact, not macroevolution, anyway. So until we find unavoidably compelling evidence one way or the other, I suppose people will continue to choose their side on the basis of other factors.

7. I don’t think we should be ‘afraid’ of evolution. Sometimes Christians speak as though there was a demon called evolution, and we must not dabble with evil spirits, so stay right away! But evolution is not a demon, it is an idea, and ideas have no personalities or motivations. They can be right or wrong, they can tend towards causing evil or good, but in the end, they are just ideas. I think it is good for a Christian to understand the concept of evolution well, and to also be aware of all its shortcomings.

In the final analysis, our understanding of our universe is constantly changing, constantly being updated as new information becomes available. Personally, I suspect that in a few hundred years’ time the theory of evolution will have been replaced by some other explanation that we cannot even imagine today, much as Gallileo could not possibly have anticipated quantum physics.

But I don’t think I’ll be around to see it. Then again, by then I will be occupied with far more important things…

Fr Ant


Musical Mayhem??? Part 3 (and final)

Addressing the remaining issues… (see parts 1 and 2)

C. “This is Protestant music.”

What exactly makes music Protestant?

What makes anything ‘Protestant’?

We define our denominations according to their theology, as well as their history, culture and demographics and so on. For example, we speak of the “Russian Orthodox Church”, and we know we are speaking of a group of Christians who hold to an Eastern Orthodox theology, who are mostly of Russian descent, although there are many members from other ethnic backgrounds, and who use chants and prayers and hymns in the Russian language and style.

But which of those descriptions is essential for the salvation of the Russian Orthodox individual? Which of them really characterises what it means to be Russian Orthodox? Do you have to be Russian? Do you have to speak Russian? Do you have to use that particular musical style? Certainly, the style helps define the CULTURE, but it does not define the FAITH. Greek, Macedonian and Japanese Orthodox Christians all hold to exactly the same faith, the same theology, yet they express their faith differently, according to their own culture and style of music. Without doubt, a style of music should enhance and complement one’s faith and beliefs, but there is nothing in our faith to say that only one particular style of music is going to do that.

Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely in love with the rich treasure trove of Coptic Hymnology. I wish everyone could taste it and enter into the beautiful world of the spirit it can open up. I believe strongly that it should be carefully preserved and experienced and passed on intact and inviolate to the next generation. But I also believe that there can be room in our lives for more than one style of music.

A musical style cannot, in itself, be ‘Protestant’. Yes, perhaps historically Protestants have tended to use it, but that doesn’t give them ownership over that style, anymore than Protestants doing mathematics gives them ownership over the set of natural numbers. Can you imagine that? “No! We mustn’t count in our Church! We’d become Protestants!”

D. “We don’t want to become Hillsong.”

Hillsong, if you don’t know, is a Pentecostal Assemblies of God movement based in Northwestern Sydney that has grown in numbers and in notoriety over the past few decades. It specialises in worship services that are closer to a pop concert than they are to a traditional Christian worship service. Thus they have appealed to a young generation who enjoy going to ‘church’ to sing and dance and have a great time. All the traditional Christian Churches have, I think, felt the impact of Hillsong as their own young people are at times attracted to go and find out what it’s all about, and occasionally, they stay and never come back. This has made the traditional Churches somewhat defensive whenever the name ‘Hillsong’ is mentioned.

What is it about Hillsong we don’t like? I propose that we should not be cranky about their apparent success at drawing young people in, nor about their professionalism in putting on concert services, nor about the industry standard slick CDs they put out. There is nothing inherently wrong in singing snappy, catchy tunes to praise God. Nor is their anything wrong in using the music that speaks to a new generation – “I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some” quoth St Paul.

No, our problem with Hillsong is their theology, and their philosophy. Theologically, they preach what has come to be known as the “Health and Wealth Gospel“. The gist of this is that material success is a sign of God’s favour and blessing – pretty much always. Thus, they soothe the consciences of the rich (it just means you’re God’s favourite) and their pastors are quite proud of their own personal wealth (extra special favourites!) It really is Christianity for Yuppies, but with such dangerous and subtle flaws that it genuinely runs the risk of no longer being true to the Gospel of Christ who remarked that not only did He have nowhere to lay His head, but encouraged His followers to sell everything they had. If the precepts of the Health and Wealth Gospel were to be consistently followed through, then God must have totally rejected St Paul the Apostle, since he was deprived of both health and wealth in the most dramatic of ways through his whole preaching life (just read 2 Corinthians 11 & 12 if you don’t know what I mean).

Philosophically, we have a big problem with reducing Christianity to the level of a consumer item. Yes, it is true that we should follow in St Paul’s footsteps and be all things to all men that we might by all means save some, but I don’t think watering down the Gospel and commercialising it is really what he had in mind. There is s fine line between doing something professionally and doing it commercially, and I think that Hillsong too often cross that line. It is true that Hillsong have a very large “front door” with large numbers going in. But it is a lesser known fact that they also have a very large “back door”, with lots of people leaving all the time in disappointment and disillusionment. Their congregation is not as stable as most traditional Churches, but the faces are always changing. Added to that is their Pentecostalism. That is perhaps a topic for another day, but I have deep concerns about modern day Pentecostalism and its ‘showiness’ and lack of theological foundation or even of sensible purpose.

No, it’s not Hillsong music that we distrust.

E. “This will make the youth think Church is giving them permission to listen to horrible worldly music on the radio.”

And they don’t already? OK, here’s my understanding of our Church’s attitude on Christian liberty: “All things are lawful to me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful to me, but not all things build up” (St Paul again). Our role then is not to ban our youth from engaging with the secular world, but to train them and equip them with the divine wisdom, discernment and passion for God that will make the influence flow the other way – not from the world into them, but from them into the world. Whatever happened to “Let your light so shine among men” (Jesus this time)?

We only fear our youth listening to modern music because we fear it will lead them away from Christ. But surely this means we have failed miserably in instilling them with a genuine love for Christ? A person of any age who loves Christ with all his/her heart will not need anyone to tell them “Turn that song off – its leading you away from Christ”. They should be self-aware enough to sense the danger and devoted enough to make the right decision. There is even the possibility that the young person might use the secular song to bring them closer to Christ. Some love songs, for example, if sung with God in mind as the Beloved, can actually be quite beautiful prayers. This is not something new – King Solomon made a Book of the Bible out of that very concept!

Christianity, more than anything else in this world must be from free choice and sincere desire for God. Sure, we restrain younger kids with strict rules of what’s allowed and what is not in order to protect them from hurting themselves. They don’t yet know how to handle the world, so we help them do it. But is anyone really going to argue that a 25 year old, who might be responsible for millions of dollars or dozens of workers at work, can’t be trusted to be responsible for his/her own salvation?

F. “What is our Church coming to???”

Its senses, I hope. We live in a world of change, and often the answers of yesterday lose their relevance very quickly. If we are to remain strong as a Church and true to our core Christian mission, then we simply have no choice but to quickly separate the chaff from the wheat, to distinguish what is merely cultural norm from what is spiritual imperative, so that we can preserve that spiritual imperative by applying it to the ever changing cultural landscape in which we find ourselves.

I’m sorry, but musical style is not one of the spiritual imperatives of the Gospels. Yes, music has a powerful effect on people, but it is also true that it affects different people in different ways. I find today’s contemporary pop music just as cacophanous as my parents found the Beatles back in the 60’s, or their parents found jazz back in the 20’s.

Authentic Christianity isn’t bogged down in changing fashions.
It speaks the language that gets the message through, for it is the message that matters, not the medium.

Fr Ant

Musical Mayhem??? Part 2

Continuing on from the last blog, I will ponder some more of the possible objections to our Church having a band that plays contemporary Christian music.

B. “This is not our tradition.”

It is true that we are blessed with a long and rich tradition of worship in the Coptic Church. Not only does our Liturgy trace its roots back directly to Apostolic times, but our hymns go back even further. It is truly awesome to walk into Church in procession on a major feast day singing the very words and tunes that the ancient Egyptians would sing as the Pharoah entered the Temple in procession! It astounds me and humbles me to think of the hymn Epouro cascading down the generations of the past three or four millenia to land on our threshold here in Mt Druitt, Sydney in the 21st century! This is a precious pearl to be carefully guarded and preserved, and we have a tremendous responsibility to pass on to our children the good sense to enjoy it and appreciate it, and the immense importance of preserving it. This we do in many ways already, and we are planning more ways to implement in the future, such as DVDs explaining the liturgy and a Children’s Liturgy.

But having one precious and ancient pearl does not prevent you from also acquiring some less unique treasures, does it? Why should we not preserve the beautiful and pristine traditions of our Church while at the same time also using the culture of modern Australia?

This is nothing new. When the Apostles met at Jerusalem to discuss the rules to be imposed upon the Gentile converts to Christianity, they came down very firmly on the side of allowing them to keep their own culture and ways of doing things, so long as they did not transgress the Law of Christ. They would not even impose upon them the practices of the synagogue, although until then, all Christians had been Jews and had simultaneously attneded both synagogue and Christian liturgy. When the Hebrew St Mark the Apostle came to Alexandria, he did not impose Hebrew musical styles on the Egyptians, but allowed them to tailor the style of the liturgy to their own tastes, so long as they built faithfully on the skeleton of dogma he gave them. And three hundred years later, when the unparalleled Champion of Orthodoxy, St Athanasius, sent St Frumentius to establish a Church in Ethiopia, he did not insist at all on the Ethiopians adhering to Egyptian culture. Rather he allowed them to adapt their own familiar culture, once again, and use it to build a tradition on the foundation of the correct faith.

Yes, our tradition must be preserved, because we are the only ones who can preserve it as a living tradition, rather than in the reference books and libraries of the world. I would personally hate to see the raw and honest contact we make with God in the Liturgy where we use only our voices to worship Him replaced by some loud amplified musical instruments drowning out our voices. There is no place for modern music in an ancient rite like this.

But many of our youth understand that loving and preserving Coptic music doesn’t stop you from enjoying modern music. In fact, the kind of person who usually enjoys Coptic music the most is the musical personality type. This gift allows them to see deeper into its structure and logic. But that is also exactly the same person who is most likely to appreciate any style of music!

For decades, we in the Coptic Church have had a sort of split personality when it comes to western music. We sing it in our Youth Meetings and camps, and yet we warn our youth against it on the radio and in video clips. To a great extent, this is a very valid attitude, for the motivation and intention of the musical artist and the nature of the lyrics and their message are critical to deciding whether that music is going to help or hinder my walk with Christ. But I think we must guard against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Music that is being used with the intention of bringing one closer to Christ, and that has enough in it to lend it effectiveness to achieve that goal should not be dismissed, particularly if it may be the best point of contact with some of our youth who are feeling alien in Church. We must cater for the needs of those who should be in Church, not only for those who already are in Church, or else those outside will never want to come in.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Fr Ant

Musical Mayhem???

Our Church has a new band.

The musical variety, I mean. Complete with guitars (acoustic and electrical), drums, keyboard and a group of vocalists with angelic voices. All made up from our youth.

I got to hear them play (or ‘jam’, as they preferred to call it) last Sunday, and I was stunned. Not only did the songs sound great (they did Shout to the Lord and another one I haven’t heard before), but the teamwork and cooperation involved and the practice and effort they had clearly put in were quite impressive. “This,” I thought to myself, “is a beautiful icon of what it means to be in harmony with one’s brothers and sisters.”

The style of music they play is of course, quite western. Rather ‘rock’ in fact. I wonder how the rest of our parish community will relate to this new development? No doubt there are those with more conservative tastes in music who will find this style a bit too loud and too energetic to strike a spiritual chord with them, and that is fine. Our youth have often expressed the fact that they find middle eastern hymns too slow and too quiet to move their impatient young souls! It is nice that we can offer a varied menu in Church so that everyone can find something to suit their spiritual palate.

But I wonder if anyone will be downright offended by this new musical style. Here are some of the responses I fully expect to hear in coming weeks and months:

A. “Rock music is satanic. Any music with a beat, or worse, with a drum beat, is evil.”

B. “This is not our tradition.”

C. “This is Protestant music.”

D. “We don’t want to become Hillsong.”

E. “This will make the youth think Church is giving them permission to listen to horrible worldly music on the radio.”

F. “What is our Church coming to???”

Hmmmm. I’d better contemplate these questions, which I have no doubt will flow from some very sincere and genuine hearts, so I can be sure they don’t have a point. Mind if I share my machinations with you? Perhaps you can also give me some feedback.

A. “Rock music is satanic. Any music with a beat, or worse, with a drum beat, is evil.”

This objection is based, I suppose, on the fairly valid physiological finding that our bodies do enjoy synchronising with an external rhythm. You experience this when you hear a snazzy tune and your foot starts to tap in time with it. Or perhaps when you watch a troop marching and feel like getting up and joining in their apparently perfect regularity. Of course, dancing, modern and ancient, also depend a lot on this rhythm.

But I cannot see that rhythm is in and of itself in any way evil. In fact, music that does not possess rhythm is usually quite unacceptable to our ears. Classical music has rhythm. Middle Eastern Church hymns have rhythm. Liturgical responses have rhythm (often set by the triangle and cymbals). Tasbeha Praises are boiling over with rhythm. One of them, in fact, the First Hoas, uses rhythm to powerfully evoke a sense of marching along with the children of Israel as Moses led them through the Red Sea and out of Egypt. It is a true ‘marching song’. Does this therefore make them evil, because they have the power to draw attention to themselves and engross us, perhaps even hypnotise us with their beat? I don’t know anyone who would say that.

Surely then, it is the lyrics of the song, the intent of the composer and the intent of the singer that makes a song of good or evil effect? There are love songs on the pop charts that become the most beautiful prayers of love for God if you just replace the guy/girl the composer intended with God, and direct the words to Him. Of course there are others that a lost cause however hard you try to ‘baptise’ them.

In our African Coptic Churches every Sunday, there are drums being played along with the traditional cymbals and triangles. That is their culture, and they do not feel that a song is complete if it does not have a drum accompaniment. The worshippers sway from side to side gently as they sing the liturgical responses; try and stop them! It’s part of the expression of their joy in praising God. Like David the Prophet, they are ‘dancing to the Lord’. And why would you want to stop them? It’s quite moving to watch and inspiring to take part in.

Now we are not talking here about introducing our band into the liturgy – God forbid! Our beautiful ancient rites are of a totally different nature and serve a totally different purpose. Where there is joy in the liturgy, it is of the more solemn type, suitable for being in the direct physical presence of the Creator of worlds whose real Body and Blood rest upon the altar. But when we are outside the solemnities of the liturgy (or any other traditional Coptic rite for that matter), surely there is a degree of freedom to use whatever musical style speaks most effectively to our hearts? The one does not cancel out the other, but the same person can enjoy both, deeply and fully, in the different situations and environments.

Perhaps that’s enough deep thought for one day. I might leave the other points for future blogs. But please, do let me know if you agree or disagree with my thoughts, either by leaving a comment below, or if you prefer, by personal email to frantonios@ optusnet.com.au.

Fr Ant

One FLEW out of the Atheist Nest

I’ve just finished reading the latest book by British philosopher, Antony Flew. He is now in his eighties, and has come to a conclusion that has startled the world. The title of the book sums up his conclusion quite nicely:

“There is A God”

The subtitle explains the amazement of the world:

“How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.

The preface of the book explains that from the 1950s onwards, Flew basically laid the foundations of modern atheism in a series of ground-breaking papers. For example, he contended that atheism should be the ‘default’ position – we should start NOT believing in God. The burden of proof then lies with the faithful, to prove His existence, rather than the atheist having to prove He doesn’t exist. he suggested that we have not yet described how it is logically possible for a God to exist who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who exists everywhere.

Flew’s philosophy was the foundation upon which modern atheists such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith) built their ideas and arguments against the existence of God. As you might imagine, they are not at all pleased with his turnaround!

So what has changed his mind? In a nutshell, he has come to the conclusion that there are things in this universe that are best explained by the existence of God. His arguments are all based on reason, logic. For example, how does something come from nothing? – there is no other sensible way to explain the existence fot he universe. The incredible fine-tuning of the universe in general and earth in particular that makes our existence possible – this is powerful evidence of Someone who had an intention, and designed the universe to be just so. The mystery of our consciousness; the fact that we know that we exist – how can matter, which is physical, produce consciousness, which is clearly non-physical?

Flew has been accused of giving in to fear in his old age (he is 85). As his inevitable death approaches, they say, he is hedging his bets. He is accepting belief in God just in case it turns out to be true, laying Pascal’s Wager. But this analysis couldn’t be further from the truth. Flew goes to great pains to clarify that although he has accepted the existence of God as truth, he is still sceptical about an afterlife. And indeed, his history and arguments in this book show clearly that his conclusions are the result of a very honest analysis of the issues and are not at all motivated by any emotion whatsoever.

His attitude to Christianity is interesting. He seems to be saying that if any religion is true, it is most likely to be Christianity, and there is an interesting dialogue at the end of the book between Flew and Bishop NT Wright, a Christian theologian, in which Wright presents a powerful defence of the Christian faith. Perhaps Flew’s final reflection in the book sums up his current position best:

I am very much impressed with Bishop Wright’s approach … Is it possible that there has been or can be divine revelation? As I said, you cannot limit the possibilities of omnipotence except to produce the logically impossible. Everything else is open to omnipotence.

This book is not for everyone – the arguments in it are often quite complex and some background knowledge of philosophy and its ways and jargon is most helpful. But Flew’s style of writing is a delight; he is one of those old-style English writers who uses the English langauge so elegantly and economically.

Who knows if he will eventually come to a faith in Christ?

He is, after all, only 85…

Fr Ant


The recent episode in a Sydney Art Gallery opened up a lot of wounds. Talented photographer Bill Henson had half his exhibit confiscated by police and found himself arrested and charged with producing child pornography. The offending material was a series of semi-nude photographs of a young girl, just on the verge of puberty.

“Philistines!” was the predictable outcry from the trendy arts community. “It’s Stalin and Mao all over again! Are we becoming a police state? What about freedom of expression? No one can tell us what we can and can’t do in the name of art! You cannot muzzle free expression in art!” They pointed to the subtle and beguiling beauty of Henson’s work, and there is no doubt that the censored examples of his photos shown in the general media do indeed possess great artistic merit.

Interesting that Henson shares his surname with the creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson. You remember them? They first became famous through the ubiquitous Sesame Street children’s programme, and then graduated to their own prime time variety show, lead by Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and a host of cute characters. The Muppets epitomised the guileless innocence of childhood. Much of their wholesome humour stemmed from the fact that they behaved like children wandering through an adult world, represented by their guest celebrities. Today’s Bill Henson has also addressed the innocence of youth through his images, but he has stripped it bare, he has vulgarised it. He has focused on the physical body, as if it were the core and centre of a person’s being, when in fact it should be the least important aspect of our existence.

It is a sign of the times. We live in an age where children are no longer allowed to be children, and where that sweet stage of innocence is snatched from them far too early. Even children’s cartoons contain sexual innuendos. The Australian answer to Sesame Street, the venerable Play School, had its own controversy not long ago when they decided to replace the traditional male and female hosts with two females for a few episodes. “Families are changing,” the producers explained, “and we must cater for all forms of family, including same sex couples.” Play School is a show for pre-schoolers: has the world gone mad???

More interesting still was the breaking of a story shortly after the Bill Henson incident that involved international arrests of men involved in child pornography. As of today, 90 men have been arrested in Australia, and more are expected to follow. They were tracked through their downloading of horrible pictures of child abuse from a European website. Those arrested included a policeman and chillingly, a number of teachers. The timing could hardly have been more significant. No one complained about those arrests. The arts community did not come out in support. There were no cries of “Philistines!” or “Freedom of expression!”

What’s the difference? Henson supporters would point out that his pictures were taken with the consent of the girl and her parents. They tell us that nudity doesn’t have to be sexual, and that these photos were not intended to be sexual, whereas the child porn definitely is. But they miss the point. In today’s world, with the media’s obsession with sex, nudity has become sexual. Pornography that is done very artistically is still pornography. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that is the only difference I see between Henson’s work and the web porn – one is very artistic and subtle, the other is coarse and crass, but they both mean the same thing: the exploitation of children, the feeding of the culture of obsession with sex and the children being robbed of their innocence.

Are we descending into an age of decadence? There are strong parallels between our times and those of the decline of the civilisations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The ancient Greeks were pioneers of art, their works much admired by all some two and a half millennia later. Poetry and theatre, mythology and paintings and sculpture. And yet, the ancient Greeks are also known for having adopted the practice of “boy love”, not in the innocent sense, but in the sense of an adult man engaging in sexual relations with young boys. And the Romans became famous for their decadence, indulging in orgies that dulled their consciences and destroyed their values until they had little strength or will to repel the invading Barbarians.

Consider the trends of the past 50 or so years. First divorce and de facto relationships became more accepted. Then it was the sexual revolution caused by the contraceptive pill, and the number of sexual partners people had sky rocketed. Sexual references, once restricted to late night TV shows, have gradually crept earlier and earlier on our evening televisions until now the can be seen by children around the dinner table. Then there is the emergence of homosexuality out of the closet and into our laws, workplaces and culture.

Is paedophilia the next corruption of God’s beautiful creation to become accepted in our society? I fear that work like Henson’s is just one more little step in that direction, a step to develop tolerance in the community to child nakedness.

May God have mercy on our world, and on the children of the future …

Fr Ant