To be a Christian today is not to invent something new. It is rather to be a part of something that you share with many billions of others who have lived in times and places as diverse as the Late Classical Roman Empire, medieval China and modern Gabon. They have been short and tall, fat and skinny, rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, slaves and free, old and young, male and female. Yet all of this huge mass of humanity is united by one transcendent belief: that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, saved us from our sins.
It has not always been easy to hold this faith. Often, to be a Christian has meant to suffer taunts and jibes at the least, a painful death at worst. The courage and utter dedication to the truth of the Christian Gospel of those who came before is profoundly inspiring, and gives today’s Christian a background or heritage against which to measure her own practice of the Christian way. The Coptic Church, like many others, has preserved the stories of those heroes of the past in books like the Synaxarium (read during the liturgy) and the Antiphonarium (read during the Midnight Praise). She has preserved their stories in beautiful icons, which are said not be painted, but ‘written’, since they are created chiefly to tell a story and communicate important theological truths about the meaning and purpose of human life in the light of the Christian message of divine love. We sing praises to these saints, celebrate special days to remember and honour their lives and sacrifices, and name our children after them in the hope that they will emulate some of their virtues. These are heroes worthy of the title, for their victories and achievements were not just in some passing arena of human endeavour, but in the arena of eternal life. Their crown is not a fading wreath of leaves, but a state of heavenly existence in the light of their loving Creator.
Christianity is first and foremost about love, about losing the ego, the self, by offering it up as a sacrifice of love for God and for others. “No one is saved alone” goes the old desert adage, but “Our life or death rests with our brother”. (more…)
Eastern and Western Christians agree that sin separates humanity from God and that Christ reversed that separation. But what is sin, and what did Christ do to reverse it? That is where they disagree. This blog looks at the Differences in the understanding of sin, salvation, punishment, heaven and hell between East and West and between the ancient and modern.
How does the Eastern understanding of Christian salvation differ from that of the West? Before we begin to examine this question, there are two important things to note. The first is that in such a short piece of writing I am going to have to over simplify things horribly. Please do not take what I have written as the whole story or anything near it. If you are interested in getting a fuller picture, I will provide some further reading at the end. The other thing to note is that all Christians adhere and accept the basic statement of the Christian faith, as summarised in a Creed. In fact, the way we decide whether a church is truly Christian or not is whether they adhere to this kind of creed. The version of the ancient Christian creed the Orthodox Churches prefer is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the one we recite in every liturgy and many other formal prayers. Other Churches have creeds with slight variations on this one, but the variations are not really relevant to the discussion at hand.
But if we all hold to much the same creed, we do not all interpret it in the same way. Apparently, there is no official statement made by an ecumenical council on how the section about salvation in the basic Christian creed is to be interpreted, which is one reason why there are so many interpretations around. Starting with St Augustine, and moving through St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church moved towards a view of salvation that cast God as something like a feudal lord dealing with his peasants or serfs. The ignorant and disobedient serfs withdrew their rightful service from their Lord, thus dishonouring or offending Him, and deserving punishment for this crime. “The honour taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow” (St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, book 1, chapter 8). Christ came to offer the service that we failed to offer, thus restoring the honour of the Father and averting the need for us to be punished for our crime. The Protestant Reformation sought to interpret the Christian creed afresh, using only the Bible as a guide. But of course, the Bible too needs to be interpreted, and again, there can be many differing interpretations. Martin Luther and particularly John Calvin took St Anselm’s satisfaction model to the more extreme penal substitution model where Christ did not satisfy the wounded honour of the Father and offer the service humanity owed on their behalf, but actually took the punishment of their sin on their behalf. They also introduced a full legal vocabulary and explicitly legal precepts to describe what happens in salvation.
The Orthodox solution is to go back to the sources. How did the first Christians understand salvation? (more…)
Protestant Christians often emphasise very strongly the importance of a personal relationship with God, so strongly in fact that in some Coptic circles you can be labelled a closet Protestant if you speak too much about a personal relationship with God. I believe such criticism sadly misreads the Apostolic Tradition. If we examine that Tradition we will find quite to the contrary, everything depends on this personal relationship with Christ. However, if the Orthodox see it as equally important if not more so compared to the Protestants, there are also differences in the nature of that personal relationship, differences that stem from our understanding of God.
But first let us illustrate the central role that personal relationship with Christ plays in the Orthodox Christian life. For the Orthodox Christian, the whole life of Christ is crucial. It is not just that Christ died for us on the Cross, but that He took our human nature in the first place. By doing so, by being one of us, He sanctified and blessed all humanity. He shared our sorrows and our joys, struggled as we do against evil and sin and weakness, became in fact, like us “in everything, save sin alone” (Liturgy of St Gregory). St Athanasius put it thus: “He took what is ours, and gave us what is His”. This exchange forms the basis of our personal relationship with Christ. The closest relationships are those in which there is complete sharing. All that we have, we give to Christ: our joys and victories; our sorrows and failures; our strengths and weaknesses; the little and the large; the important and the trivial; in fact, all that we have, all that are and all that we say and do, we offer constantly, repeatedly to Christ, keeping nothing back from Him, keeping nothing for ourselves alone. There is no nook or cranny of our existence we hold back. And He Himself gave all of Himself that is possible. His love, peace and joy, His truth and wisdom, His power and majesty, His forgiveness and mercy, His hope and faith and much more besides – all this He gave to humanity and to each one of us individually through His incarnation as one of us, and His life, death and resurrection.
The only thing He could not give us is the essence of divinity. The world was made through the Logos, Christ, but He could not grant us to be creators of the world. Instead, He gave us a small reflection of creatorship in that we can make new human beings through the Mystery of marriage, or participate in the creation of a new person through the Mystery of baptism. In Christ, we share with God al that we are and he shares with us all that we can bear of all that He is. Orthodoxy falls down in amazed gratitude before this astonishing act of love and incomprehensible generosity. We do not just appreciate it with our minds, for relationships are more than merely intellectual. We live it with our hearts, souls and bodies.
And so we spend hours and hours developing this personal and intimate relationship with Christ. (more…)
To understand anything it often helps to know its history, to explore the factors that made it what it is. I wrote recently to make the point that every religious community must necessarily follow some sort of tradition, whether that tradition be derived from the Apostles, or the ancient Fathers and Mothers of the Church of the first centuries, or St Thomas Aquinas, or Martin Luther or John Calvin, or even L. Ron Hubbard. The difference between the different denominations is not whether or not they are traditional, but which tradition they follow. Of course, a Church may be either more or less faithful to its original tradition, and to be sure, Protestants tend to be more comfortable with changing their traditions than Orthodox or Catholics.
What do we mean by ‘tradition’? And which tradition characterises the Orthodox Christian Church? We mean here a faith, worldview and way of life that defines who we are and directs all that we do. Orthodox tradition has its roots in the life and teachings of Christ Himself, and is a long unbroken chain passed down faithfully through the millennia in an unbroken line. It includes the things we believe, most succinctly summarised in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that we often recite when we pray formal prayers. It includes the interpretations of that Creed expounded by the leading lights of the early Church who studied and wrote and taught in the generations after the Apostles and received their faith either directly or indirectly from them. It includes the Books of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, including the Deuterocanonical Books, and preferably in the Septuagint Translation which was the version used by Christ, His Apostles and the ancient Fathers.
Tradition is not something you put up on the wall and admire every now and then, but generally ignore when you go about your ‘real’ life. (more…)
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. (more…)
Sometimes we Copts forget that we are part of a wider community of Orthodox Christians, but I feel a sense of joy and comfort when I make any kind of contact with another community of faithful Christians. One of the ways I do that is to look in periodically on an Orthodox Christian news service, OCP Media Network. Please let me share with you two recent little items, one happy, one sad, from the lives of our fellow followers of Christ…
First, the sad. While the situation in Egypt for Coptic Christians is dangerous and difficult, the plight of our sister Oriental Orthodox Church in Eritrea is in many ways much worse. Here in the west, we hardly ever hear news of the dark and distant Horn of Africa. That silence is all the more disturbing when one realises what is going on there. Anyone who loves freedom and human rights should be outraged at what is happening to the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church. Together with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, the Eritreans trace their Christian heritage back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, and consider their first archbishop to be St Frumentius who was consecrated by the Egyptian St Athanasius the Apostolic in the fourth century AD. They have a long and rich history of spirituality and ascetism that reflects their unique culture.
But today, the Eritrean Church in Eritrea is slowly dying. Persecution of the Church is hitting it on all levels. Abune Antonios, the duly elected patriarch who was consecrated by the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 2004, stood up to the Eritrean government when it tried to interfere in the affairs of the Church. As a result, he was deposed and replaced by a government appointee in an effort to turn the Church into virtually another department of the government. Abune Antonios was chosen for the patriarchate for his good character and his sincere devotion to raising the spiritual standard of the Eritrean Church. But now he has been held incommunicado by the government in an undisclosed location for some years, unable to pursue his spiritual agenda, while government puppets submit the Church to the agenda of a government that cares little for the Christian gospel or spirituality.
What is worse, the government has waged an unmitigated campaign against Eritrean clergy in an effort to weaken the Church. In the just the past eight years it is estimated that 1,500 priests and deacons have been conscripted against their will into the army for an indefinite period of military service, while clergy who refuse to submit to the government are arrested and defrocked. This has led to a drastic shortage of clergy for the parishes, and 1,500 parishes are in danger of being closed for lack of parish priests to serve them. Further, there are estimated to be up to 3,000 Christians currently held in Eritrean prisons as prisoners of conscience, subjected to torture and deprived of medical care.
It’s nice to be home after a long trip overseas.
Yesterday I with many others attended the rally at Martin Place organized by the Australian Coptic Movement. The rain did nothing to dampen the spirit of all those present, nor the fire in the belllies of the speakers. It is always interesting to come home and mull over an event like that. What did it really mean? And what will it achieve?
One thing that stood out for me was the attendance of so many other Arabic speaking Christians. In particular there were strong and high level contingents from Lebanon and Iraq, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Copts. The fact that the first attack in this sequence took place against a Syrian Catholic Church in Iraq, rather than in Egypt, indicates that to the terrorists at least, there is no difference between an Egyptian Christian and an Iraqi Christian. I wish that we Christians could learn this one truth from the terrorists! It is high time that true Christians of all denominations unite, discarding the petty arguments that have divided us for so long. Perhaps we needed a tragedy like this to move us? I sat next to a gentleman from the Chaldean Church, an Assyrian Church affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. He commented that we are all really one in Christ a number of times when I thanked him for coming to support the Copts. His Church has not yet been the target of these terrorists, but he felt that if any one of us Middle Eastern Christians has been affected, then we all have been affected.
It was great to see so many Australian flags being waved, and a running theme through the speeches reminded us that one of the best things about Australia is that everyone has the freedom to pursue their beliefs and faith without persecution. I applaud the Australian Coptic Movement for taking a collection on the day for the victims of the Queensland and Victorian floods. It takes a certain maturity to look beyond your own woes and empathise with the problems of others. There are about as many bereaved families in Queensland at the moment as there are in Alexandria. To put things in context, the Brazilian floods have resulted in something like 600 deaths. That is an awful lot of bereaved families. But of course, the difference between flood victims and terrorism victims is that one is unavoidable, the other so, so unnecessary.
Why do terrorists terrorise? What do they hope to achieve? (more…)
Thank you for your responses to the recent post on the challenges facing our Church in the coming decades, but I feel there may be some misconceptions about the current state of the involvement of the Coptic Church in the ecumenical movement.
My understanding is that the vast majority of the Eastern Orthodox community has accepted that we Oriental Orthodox are in Orthodox in faith and not Monophysite heretics. However, a small section based mainly on the influential Mt Athos monastic community refuses to accept that we are Orthodox. They insist that the proof of our Orthodoxy must include condemning Pope Dioscorus as a heretic and renouncing him, dropping him from our doxologies, synaxarium, commemoration of the saints etc. They also insist that we must accept the Council of Chalcedon (where the split happened in 451AD) as legal or canonical, plus the other three Coucnils that came after it. We currently only accept the first three COuncils as canonical, they accept seven (The Roman Catholics are up to 22 I think, including Vatican II as the most recent).
As far as I know, no one is suggesting that the Oriental Orthodox change their rites or submit to new authorities (except the Catholics who insist the Pope of Rome has absolute authority over all Christians). Even within the Eastern Orthodox community, the Ecumenical Patriarch, based in Constantinople, has no authority over the other Eastern Orthodox Churches, for each one has its own independent Patriarch and Synod. Further, there is a wide variety of rites, languages, cultures, liturgies etc within the existing Eastern Orthodox community, as there is in the Oriental Orthodox. None of that needs to change.
So in summary, the only thing keeping us out of communion with our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters is this insistence by a stubborn but powerful minority that we rewrite our view of history to agree with theirs.
Nor is this merely a theoretical matter. I can think of at least two reasons why re-establishing communion between us is important and worth pursuing. Firstly, the very practical matter of inter-marriage. In the diaspora, we must accept that more and more of our youth will wish to marry Christians of other denominations. The lack of communion causes incredible heartache and tribulation, sometimes even destroying what might otherwise have been a very successful relationship. The second is the command of Christ that we be one in Him. We believe in the same basic Truths – why should we be separated from each other in this way? I do not think it was ever Christ’s intention that His flock be so divided one against the other. Surely we have a responsibility to do all we can to come together?
I like reading obscure books.
One I recently came across is titled Episcopi Vagantes by Henry R.T. Brandreth, and was written way back in 1947. It makes for interesting, if not disturbing reading.
An Episcopus Vagans is a man who is ordained as a bishop by another bishop who is not a valid bishop. So, for example, if a bishop is excommunicated from his church, and then proceeds to ordain a man as a bishop, that new bishop is an Episcopus Vagans. Some of the characteristics of these men are that they are not recognised nor in communion with any of the mainline Christian Churches, they tend to have tiny flocks, and they tend to be ordained for their own sakes, rather than for any genuine pastoral need.
And Episcopi Vagantes breed Episcopi Vagantes! There are a number of “lines” now, where one of them ordains another, who then ordains another, who then ordains another, and so on. There is a succession which they love to point out, but it is built upon a non-existent foundation. It is quite possible that in some of these ordinations money is exchanged, or each bishop lends support and ‘legitimacy’ to the other bishop by writing a flowery and official looking letter of recognition, and signing, “His Most Reverend Holiness Bishop Pseudoclericus, High Exarch of Pontogalatia and Phyricorpopoulus” or some such high sounding ecclesiastic title and name.
What’s the point of all this ordaining? To my mind, it seems that all these men have something in common: they have a warped view of what it means to be a bishop, or indeed to be a servant of God at all. Their episcopacy is self-centred, and all they do is arranged for their personal convenience, rather than for the genuine welfare of others. This is first manifest in their desire, their lust we might say, for the episcopal dignity. They see only the respect such a vocation commands among others, and the power and authority it bestows. They see all the regalia and trappings that go with it: the crown, the staff of shepherdhood, the cross, the beard, the gown, and they enjoy the ‘play-acting’ at some subconscious level.
But being a bishop is not about yourself, nor is it about play-acting. I know that St Paul said that he who desires the position of a bishop desires a good work (1 Timothy 3:1). But to understand this as validating the lust for authority or self-aggrandisment in a person is a gross misinterpretation of the text. If we take this verse in context with the many criticisms St Paul makes elsewhere of those who abuse their leadership positions, we see that desiring the position is a highly dangerous thing. I suspect that only the very purest of hearts, the very simplest of souls could possibly desire being a bishop for the right reasons. And even they, if they thought about it, would flee from it, not seek it.
Our Church has been blessed through its history (although not always) with a philosophy of humility and an understanding of the graveness of pastoral responsibility that has produced a culture where no man in his right mind would desire ordination to the clergy. Thus, HH Pope Shenouda is famous for explaining the difficulty in finding men to ordain as priests thus: “Those who wish to be ordained are not suitable, and those who are suitable do not wish to be ordained”. Time and experience have borne out the truth of this maxim over and over. The difficulty is overcome, of course, by the grace of God who knows how to speak in the hearts of those who are nominated by others and make them submit.
But I find the Episcopi Vagantes disturbing because they bear all the outward marks of being a faithful bishop of God, yet their whole lives are based upon a selfish lie. Brandreth, with admirable though naive Christian charity, points out the genuine piety in some of these bishops he has met personally. I find myself wondering – could it be genuine? I suppose it is possible that a simple minded man might really believe that his mission is given by God, even though his ordination comes from a bishop that the vast majority of God’s people do not recognise as a valid bishop. But it is also possible that these men are very good at appearing pious, whether consciously or unconsciously. We have all met people who have mastered the art of the humbly downcast eyes and the soft and gentle voice, while all the time their thoughts are full of deceit and self-interest and hypocrisy. You discover the truth only over a prolonged period of time, when their behaviour sooner or later lets the truth of what’s inside them escape into the outer world. No one can maintain a false facade forever.
Surely then, these are the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” the Bible warns us about? And we have had our own Coptic version of an Episcopus Vagans recently in the person Max Michel, who was ordained by some invalid bishop as Patriarch of his own new Church. All the characteristics of an Episcopus Vagans fit him perfectly: the lust for clerical position, the self-interested motivation for ordination, the lack of recognition by any mainline Christian Church, the tiny flock. I saw him once in an interview on TV where the Muslim interviewer posed some pretty probing but valid questions. Sooner or later, the wolf emerges from beneath the sheepskin. His initial demure demeanour gave way to personal attacks, anger, childish pouting and whines of being persecuted. But he wasn’t being persecuted – the questions were pertinent and the interviewer was quite polite (and quite bemused by the end). He just had no answer for them.
The episcopate is a precious treasure given by God to shepherd His flock in this world. Those who abuse it and bring it into disrepute would be better off to “Have a stone tied around their neck and cast into the sea”, to paraphrase our Lord.
May God have mercy upon their souls … and ours.
It is sadly all too common a situation.
In the Enlightenment period, (roughly 1500-1800AD) it is apparent in the writings and the lives of most of the great thinkers. And today, one meets it regularly both inside and outside the Church.
I am talking about the disillusionment with ‘institutionalised’ Christianity.
Honest hearts, struggling with their own weaknesses and faults, look to the Church hoping to find a solid rock of Truth, a firm foundation of Hope on which to model their lives. It is to our shame that such hearts sometimes find nothing more in the Church than an organisation, an institution, a structure. The vision is missing and the original principles of Christ are, shamefully, relegated to a lower priority than principles invented by humans.
This is the great danger of becoming an institution. I hope you don’t misunderstand what I am saying; we benefit greatly from belonging to such an institution; but only if it is done right. If it is done wrong, we can suffer equally greatly.
Here are some of the more common signs of institutionalisation gone wrong:
– acceptance of using the strategies of the ‘world’, whether within the Church, or in dealing with those outside it;
– divisions based on loyalty to a personality rather than to Christ Himself;
– acceptance of the principle, “The goal justifies the means”;
– emphasis on achieving things rather than on being a good person;
– dry ritualism rather than using the rites as personally-moving prayers.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the WWJD question – What Would Jesus Do? It finds an application here. If our Lord were to come to Church this Sunday, I wonder what He would think of it all? It was He who said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, and His Apostle said, “For the letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life”. If Christianity teaches anything, it is that how you live your life, who you are, deep inside, is what really matters. The outer appearance is secondary, and should naturally flow from what is real inside the heart of the person.
Is it too dangerous for the Church to be an institution? Many in Western Churches have taken that view, and starting from Martin Luther back in the 16th century have gone outside the institutional Church to try to recreate the Church in a more natural setting. But I think this runs an even greater risk. Human beings are who they are, and in the absence of having “The Church” as their foundation, they will seek other foundations, and not always in the right place. Thus we see Churches that care far more about the personalities of the leaders or about being rebellious, or about being ‘hip’, or about one tiny little aspect of Christianity or… or…
The Truth of the Gospels remain untainted by the faults of those who follow the Gospels. If you have a bad experience with a surgeon, it would be irrational for you to condemn all surgery as harmful. Back in my medical days I was privileged to assist a wide variety of surgeons as an intern and resident. At one end of the spectrum was a gentleman whose operation style was anxious and jumpy. One never felt he was really quite sure of what he was doing, despite his many years of experience. At the other end of the spectrum was a quiet, elderly man whose deft, pinpoint accurate touch made every motion of his hands enchanting. I would leave his operations with the feeling that I had not witnessed an operation, but a work of art, like finely performed symphony orchestra concert. It was truly a poetry written with scalpels and stitches.
We should strive to make our institutional Church like that. Our history and our heritage are ingredients of the highest quality, and more than capable of producing works of beauty. We walk in the footsteps of Christ, and in the footsteps of those who walked in His footsteps – St Anthony of the Desert, that noble spirit who blazed the path of quiet contemplation; Pope Peter the Seal of Martyrs, the scholar, the profound philosopher who was martyred with his people; St Athanasius the undaunted spirit who could not accept that evil should dominate the Church … the list goes on.
In these examples and the many thousands more whom history has not recorded lived the spirit of the true follower of Christ. For them, the institution of the Church was the arena for living out the teachings of Christ, each in their own way, and sharing that way of life with others.
The Proverb says, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness”. The Church will be, for you, whatever you make of it. If the Church is the little seed that grew into a towering tree, seek then for the sweet sap of the Love and Truth of Christ within its heart, rather than being content to gnaw upon the dry outer bark of human institutionalism.