A Very Precious Person

Today is 14th November. It is the anniversary of the ordination of our own beloved Fr Botros in 1996 (Happy Anniversary Abouna!) but it is also the anniversary of the enthronement of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III way back in 1971. No doubt, a great deal will be written and said about this beacon of Coptic history, but I would just like to add a few personal little memories to the avalanche of praise that rains down this day.

You see, for me, it is not the more obvious achievements that inspire my love and affection for this man whom I have only met on a handful of occasions in my life. It is not the number of Churches he has established, nor ordinations he has carried out. It is not what he has done that impresses me, it is who he is; his character and personality.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Pope Shenouda has played a vital role in my being Coptic Orthodox Christian and in serving as a priest. Through his character and his leadership, he has created a Church where the Truth of Christianity is first and foremost, above all else. This may sound obvious, but it must not be taken for granted. There are sadly many Christian communities in this world where the Truth of Christianity takes a secondary role to material wealth, or politics, or power, or personal rivalries.

His Holiness also made the Church into a more open institution. He warmly welcomed people who do not fit the usual image of a Coptic Christian into the Church with open arms. His personal support for missionary work in Africa and elsewhere is a case in point. His concerted efforts to make the French and British Orthodox a part of the Coptic Church without losing their individual identity is another example.

My own service is yet another example. Who ever heard of a man being ordained a Coptic priest when he could not even say “Abana Allazee” (“Our Father”) in Arabic, but only in barbarous English?! In my early years, some people left our parish in disgust that this new-fangled priest was praying in English in the Sunday liturgy. Without the sense of support and confidence from His Holiness, neither I nor the many other Fathers and layservants who have grown up in Australia and other western lands could have continued in our service. His Holiness made us feel that we belonged in the Coptic Church, where many others in times past would have excluded anyone who didn’t fit the Arabic mould.

Even more influential has been His Holiness’ personal modelling of integrity and character. His courage and strength are now legendary, being displayed in the difficult Sadat years. His wisdom has been extraordinary and his theological and spiritual knowledge and ability as a teacher have had influence far beyond the limits of Coptic Orthodoxy.

But it is his meticulous and constant application of Christian morals that has inspired me the most. His Holiness is the kind of person who insists on the truth in all he does, big and small. He refuses to take shortcuts that are not in keeping with Christian morals and ethics, no matter how hard that might make things.

Added to this honesty is a compassion and selflessness that is astounding for one in a position of authority such as his. Patriarchs are bowed to and served hand and foot. How easy it would be to just take this for granted; he is certainly busy enough to just accept this and turn his mind to weightier matters. And yet…

It was very dark, and four new young priests were standing outside the Papal Cell in St Bishoy’s Monastery at 2am, waiting to welcome His Holiness back from Cairo where he had just delivered his weekly Wednesday Sermon to 10,000 listeners. They scratched sleepily at the itchy fuzz in their newborn beards. The car swept up the driveway, and the small figure of His Holiness emerged from the back door. With a smile beneath manifestly tired eyes he patiently greeted the small group, and after a little good natured banter, he began to climb the steps to his cell. Suddenly, he stopped and turned around. He called his secretary and sent him into the cell to get something for him. A moment later, he called up the four startled new priests and gave them each a little torch. “Here,” he said, “take these. I was told that the monastery generators have been breaking down lately, and you might find that your electricity cuts out every now and then. You might want to keep reading in the dark, so use these.”

I still keep my torch as a treasured memory of a love that cares for each and every soul individually. Even at 2am after an exhausting Patriarchal day.

That is but one example of many of the courtesy, the thoughtfulness and the genuine love that His Holiness lives in our midst every day. Most of our youth have never known the Church without Pope Shenouda. May they continue to be led by his example for many years to come. Fr Ant

Which Truth Is True?

There are many interesting contrasts to be found in history. By putting two personalities side by side and comparing their lives, one often gains valuable insights and lessons. Consider two famous reformers whose lives overlapped; Mohandas Ghandi (1869-1948) and American Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957).

For those who may not be aware of their stories, Mohandas Ghandi was an Indian lawyer who fought for civil rights for Indians in South Africa and then later was one of the leaders of the movement to achieve the independence of India from British rule.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was also a lawyer who became a Republican senator in the USA from 1947-1957, the post-war period when communist Russia was growing in power and spreading its influence around the world. Many in the USA felt as threatened by communism as they do today by Muslim extremists and terrorists. This led to the “Cold War”, in which no actual fighting took place between Russia and America, but a tense state of rivalry existed continuously. McCarthy was at the forefront of the movement to keep communism out of America.

These two men tried to change their societies for the better, or at least what they each saw as being better. Ghandi saw the injustice of South African racism and fought to create fairness and equality between whites, blacks and Indians. He saw how Imperial Britain was plundering his native land India for its own selfish purposes and fought for the freedom of his people. McCarthy saw a great threat from Communism in America and fought to stop its ideas spreading in the nation built upon democracy, individual ambition and the free market.

But where Ghandi often looked for the good in others and within himself, McCarthy saw evil where it did not exist. While Ghandi had a very strong grip on reality, McCarthy believed and acted upon falsehoods. For Ghandi, truth was paramount. He refused to take advantage from anything that was false, no matter how much it might benefit his cause and advance his goals. He went so far as to identify God with Truth, a very Christian concept! With this attitude, it is no wonder that he was brutally truthful with himself, weeding out his own failings and inconsistencies constantly and thus treating others with a deep and genuine humility. Perhaps it was because he set such a high standard of truth for his own inner life that he was able to tell the difference between truth and falsehood so easily in his external life.

McCarthy on the other hand took the opposite view. In order to achieve his goals, he was willing to arrogantly throw unsubstantiated accusations at people left right and centre, thus stirring up mass hysteria. While some of his allegations turned out to be true, time has shown that most of them were exaggerated or totally false. He was in fact, a skilled exponent of the “Conspiracy Theory”. This is a well known phenomenon in modern society (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory). Its common features include allegations of secret plots, usually carried out by shady characters who appear innocent but have great hidden power or influence. The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are very hard to discredit. When anyone points out the obvious mistakes in them, they are immediately painted as being part of the conspiracy! McCarthy accused even many of his fellow politicians as being closet communists, which no doubt contributed to his own eventual self-destruction.

Another stark difference is evident in the tactics and ethics of the two reformers. On one occasion, as Ghandi was a leading a major protest against the British, he insisted that the protest be halted over the Christmas break. He would not take the Christian police and security guards away from their families on a day he knew to be very precious and special for them, even though he himself was Hindu and not Christian.
On the other hand, we find McCarthy willing to bully and threaten, abusing his position as a senator throwing wild allegations around that tarnished the name of many good people and organisations unnecessarily. He seems to have felt no compassion for the many lives he damaged, for the innocent wives and children of those he wrongly accused of being communist.

Both Ghandi and McCarthy had enemies who opposed them and did their best to discredit them. But again, it is interesting to note the character of their respective enemies. Ghandi’s enemies used smear and innuendo together with unjust imperial power to try to stop him. McCarthy’s enemies were not opposed to his goals, but rather to his tactics, and used the legitimate power of the senate and common sense arguments to censure him and stop his irrational witch hunt.

Both men suffered for their efforts. Ghandi spent a number of years in jail throughout his campaigns, a situation he accepted with calmness and dignity. Nor did he allow this painful experience to weaken his commitment to his noble goals, nor to embitter his feelings. In a most Christ-like display of forgiveness, he held nothing against his enemies and treated them always with dignity and respect. Through this patient and confident strength, he overcame his enemies. He was an example to his countrymen, an example that was probably the biggest factor in the fact that independence came to India peacefully, rather than with a bloody war of independence. In the end, he was assassinated: the man who fought for peace and non-violence all his life died by violence. But his legacy lives on until today. India celebrates his birthday as a public holiday, and it is also International Day of Non-Violence.

With time, the rational majority in the USA began to feel uncomfortable with McCarthy’s fanaticism and his conspiracy theories. Courageous senators began to stand up against him and openly challenge his tactics, thus running the risk of being accused of being communists or communist sympathisers themselves. But in the end, sanity prevailed, and in 1954 the American Senate censured McCarthy; a rare dishonour. This broke his power and effectively put an end to his policies. From that time on, he was shunned by other senators who would leave the chamber when he spoke, or blatantly turn their backs to him and ignore him. His public popularity waned, and he died three years later, most likely from alcohol-induced liver failure.

One would imagine that Ghandi died with a sense of peace, having maintained his integrity all his life, and having lived and died for the principles he believed in so strongly. McCarthy on the other hand, appears to have fallen into alcoholism during his later years and died a broken man.

Perhaps this contrast can teach us much about life. It is not enough to have noble goals. The way we go about achieving our goals is often just as important as the goals themselves. “The end does not justify the means”, the famous proverb says, and McCarthy’s life is an ample illustration of the truth of that saying.

Devotion to Truth is another of the major lessons I see here. Ghandi’s insistence upon truth and his unwillingness to accept or use innuendo, allegations or gossip to his own advantage raised him above his enemies and many of his fellow reformers. McCarthy’s crass self-serving methods discredited him and lost him the respect of his fellow Americans, so that “McCarthysim” has passed into the English language as a most derogatory term. Sadly, he might have been a hero of history had he used more ethical methods. The difference was Truth. Both of them claimed to be telling the truth, but only one of them really was.

For a brief summary of their lives, the interested reader will find Wikipedia useful:


I have not yet read a good biography of Joe McCarthy, but I can highly recommend Ghandi’s autobiography; “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”.

Fr Ant

The Driven Christian

Emigration out of Egypt only began in earnest in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. There were a number of factors that drove the Egyptian people, hitherto quite patriotic and devoted to their native land, to leave it in search of greener pastures.

Perhaps the main factor was economic. By the late 1960’s, the socialist reforms of President Gamal Abdel Nasser had squeezed the life out of many a middle class businessman and made it impossible for them to maintain their standard of living. Another factor was the opening up of the world that came with the advance of technology. Television and movies brought new cultures into the field of vision of the average Egyptian, particularly western culture with its motorcars and soft drinks and apparently unlimited potential for personal development. The advent of affordable and safe air travel also removed the obstacle of the three month ocean voyage that had until then been the only feasible way to emigrate.

It is little wonder that the countries that received the largest numbers of Coptic immigrants – USA, Canada and Australia – were the countries that seemed to offer the most of what they yearned for: freedom of religion, economic and educational opportunities, and social sophistication.

It is a fact of history that most immigrant Copts came from the upwardly mobile middle classes. The upper classes had no reason to emigrate and the lower classes did not have enough money to emigrate. Until today, in these diasporic lands, the Coptic population has a disproportionately high number of professionals, even if the more recent immigrants have been unable to find work within their own profession. This is usually seen as a very good thing, something to boast of, but it also has its downside.

For example, the pressure that Coptic parents exert on their children to succeed in their studies is legendary. I wrote some weeks ago about the Coptic community’s view that if you don’t become one of the “Big Four”: a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist or engineer, then you have pretty much failed in life. That was slightly tongue in cheek; but only slightly. Now it is true that this kind of pressure often does lead to our kids working very hard at their studies and achieving quite highly, but it is also true that many of them suffer badly, whether emotionally, psychologically or spiritually from the experience. And what of all those people who ‘fail’ this unrealistically high standard? What of the fact that there are far more gifts and talents than this limited bunch, and far more to life than making money?

Another drawback is the danger of elitism. Any community within a society that sees itself as somehow better than the rest of society is in grave danger of falling into a superiority complex. And to be frank, this just is not Christian! Feelings of superiority are used all the time in our community for the noble task of producing successful future generations. How many times in their life does the young Copt hear this: “Don’t copy what those people are doing. They’re bad people. We’re not like them!”

I like the first part of that advice. The Bible tells us not to conform to the ways of the world, but to be different (Romans 12:2). But the reason the Bible gives us is certainly not that we are better than those who live in the world! If anything, we are warned to remember that we are all just as weak and susceptible to sin deep down as anyone else! (Romans 11:30, Ephesians 2:11-13). No, our reason for not copying others is because we have met Christ, and you cannot remain unchanged once that happens. He changes us, not because we are better than others, but because we have understood that we are worse. There is no room here for any feelings of superiority.

Herein lies the danger. “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” said Jesus (Mark 10:23). As immigrants or the children of immigrants, we have come to our new homelands to strive for a better life for ourselves and for our children. Yet if we succeed in this very striving, we run the grave risk of losing our place in the Kingdom of Heaven!

Perhaps the solution lies in not being drawn into the ‘game’ of modern western society. I am always stunned (and a little repulsed, frankly) by the underlying premise in virtually every single American movie or TV show I have ever seen: that to be valuable, you must achieve something, and make something of yourself. These stories are usually about someone who has failed to make something of themselves; their family is ashamed of them, and they are ashamed of themselves, but by the end, they come through and prove themselves by scoring the winning touchdown or getting that promotion. Sound familiar?

If you had a view of life that was firmly founded in the Bible, it should sound anything but familiar! It should in fact trouble you. Since when has getting a promotion been a priority for Christ? When did Jesus ever tell His followers that they had to make something of themselves in order to be valuable? His message was the exact opposite of this: we are valuable not because of anything we can take credit for, but only because God loves us. He loves us not because we are lovable, but because He is Love. THIS is where the Christian draws their sense of self-worth and value.

That doesn’t stop the Christian from using the talents God has given them to achieve things. Nor does it stop the Christian from rejoicing in this success. But the big issue here is what is the priority? Is my priority to achieve above all else? Or is it to live with God above all else? If I strive for the first, I lose the second. But if I strive for the second, I will often also win the first. And even if I don’t, it matters little: I will still be content with my life.

Australian society is a lot less success-driven than American society (and so say everyone I’ve met who lives in America and visits Australia). But we are moving slowly in that direction over the years. I am probably betraying my Australian bias here, when I say that Australian society is far more relaxed about life. The average Australian is proud of what they can achieve, but they also take great pride in achieving it with as little effort and as little fuss as possible. And if they fail, it is no big deal – for that is not the source of their sense of self-worth. Life is too short to waste stressing about stuff like that.

Further, Australia is (supposedly) a classless society. In theory at least, the Prime Minister may hobnob with a bricklayer on absolutely equal terms. This too provides some protection for the successful Christian from the temptation to feel superior to others.

So we are left with a number of questions:

Where do you derive your sense of self-worth?
What is it in your life that makes you feel good about yourself?
Must your feeling good about yourself come from putting others down?
Does your happiness come from things that are eternal, or temporary?
And is it in line with the Gospel?

Fr Ant

History is NOT Bunk

Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, is famous for saying, “History is more or less bunk!” What he meant was that it is important to live in the present, not in the past*. But I disagree.

In July, we commemorated the ninth anniversary of the passing of Fr Mina Nematalla. For those who weren’t born nine years ago, Fr Mina was the pioneering Coptic priest who was commissioned by his maternal uncle, the late Pope Kyrollos VI to travel to far-away Australia in 1968 and establish the first Coptic Church on this continent. He arrived, with his family and a tonne of Church equipment by boat in Sydney on 26th January 1969 and proceeded to serve this flourishing congregation faithfully for the next 31 years, until his departure on July 1st 2000. Today, his remains repose in a specially built crypt behind the sanctuary of our parish Church.

Some have questioned the wisdom of this crypt, wondering whether this meant that we are attributing sainthood to Fr Mina. It is important to make this point crystal clear: no one is attributing sainthood to Fr Mina. That is something that only the Holy Synod can do, and they have, I think, some fairly stringent criteria on which they make their decision, including a waiting period of at least 50 years from the date of departure.

No, the presence of the remains of Fr Mina in the crypt is for a very different reason. He played a unique role in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Australia. No one else will ever be the founder of our Church on this continent. I cannot see anyone else taking it upon himself to personally greet every Coptic immigrant who arrives in Sydney at the airport, to take them to stay in his own home until he had helped them to find their own accommodation, Help them find a job and to go with them to school to enrol their children. That was how Fr Mina spent a lot of his time in those early years, and there remain in Sydney many who still remember his kindness with deep, deep gratitude. This was the true spirit of Christian love in action.

And this is a very important piece in the story of our Church; one that should be preserved for all future generations. In a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years, almost everything about the founding of the Church in Australia may well have been forgotten. But hopefully, the crypt will remain as a monument, not only to Fr Mina, but to all of those who served with him and gave so much of themselves in order to lay the foundations for the beautiful service and community we enjoy today.

Having the crypt makes no judgement of Fr Mina’s character, good or bad. Like any pioneer, Fr Mina lived through ‘interesting times’. He did all he could to guide the infant Church through periods of division, conflict and tribulation as well as periods of great grace and fruitfulness. This is to be expected. The role of the clergy in a diasporic Church was unclear at the beginning, for no one had done this sort of thing in our Church for at least 15 centuries! So Fr Mina and the early congregation were forced to work it out for themselves, far from the Mother Church in Egypt, and it is not to be wondered that there were often conflicting opinions.

One approach to our history is to gloss over these problems, to ignore them and hope they go away. I suppose they are seen as a sort of ‘dirty laundry’ that should not be aired in public. But perhaps it is possible for a mature community to take a different approach, one that is more in keeping with the honesty and humility enjoined upon us by the Gospels. Just because a Church community experiences a testing time, this doesn’t mean that the community is a failure. What matters is what is how they react to these difficult times – do they respond in a manner that is consistent with the message of Christ?

Our Church in Sydney has been through some very difficult times over the years. In fact, most would agree that we are going through one right now. But that is not what matters. It is our reaction to these testing times that matters. There are a variety of possible responses, and none of them are new. All possible attitudes have been tried before at some time in our long history as a Coptic Church. Troubles have been occurring both from within the Church and from without for nearly two millennia. Some would say this is the sign that the devil is not happy with us (thank God), and thus he does not cease to attack us with every weapon available to him!

With apologies to Henry Ford, it actually makes a great deal of sense to look back and see how people handled problems in the past; to learn from their successes and their failures.

Approaches that have failed include the following:

1. Taking sides or forming parties
2. Legalism, insisting upon the letter of the law and neglecting its spirit
3. Any type of self-seeking, trying to use the problems to gain personal advantage such as power or popularity or fame
4. Allowing anger and emotion to rule one’s thoughts and actions
5. Loyalty to any human person above loyalty to God
6. Gossip mongering

Approaches that have succeeded include the following:

1. Sincere, personal repentance
2. Patience and confidence in the power of God over all human weaknesses
3. Prayer in faith
4. Making the effort to build bridges and seek reconciliation between people
5. Honesty, integrity and transparency (these require a liberal dose of courage). No hidden agendas, no sneaky tactics
6. Willingness to genuinely listen to others, to see their point of view, rather than sticking doggedly to one’s own point of view, whatever the evidence
7. Dedication to Truth, to justice, and to mercy
8. Focusing on the basics of Christian life

This last strategy is to me the most important. At the end of the day, Church is NOT about politics and personalities. It is not about buildings and structures and finances. Church is the place where we all come to meet with God and find our peace with Him. Hopefully, it also the place where we learn to love one another from a sincere heart, for “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now” (1 John 2:9).

Church goes on. Individual personalities come and go. Even if they flare brilliantly for a time, then they pass into obscurity; this is the fate we all shall experience. All that is asked of us is that we do our best; that we trade faithfully with the talents the Master has given us; and that we do all that is within our power and our understanding to follow in His footsteps.

That is why it is important to have Fr Mina in the crypt in Church. He was a fixed point of faith, worship and Orthodoxy in a churning primal sea of change for the Church in Australia. May God grant us all even a tenth of his diligence and his integrity. An ounce of his common sense wouldn’t go astray either!

Fr Ant
* http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/182100.html

Trundling Past 40

On the 24th January, 1969, a number of historical events occurred…

Richard Nixon was President of the United States and the war in Vietnam was dragging on…

Martial law was declared in Madrid, Spain, the University of Madrid was closed down and 300 students were arrested under the regime of General Franco…

TV’s favorite shows (in black and white) were Gomer Pile, Star Trek and High Chaparral…

The race between Russia and America to be the first to land on the moon was hotting up…

Time Magazine reported on how much the life of a negro in America had improved: only 27% of negros were below the poverty line!

On that same day, a more joyous event occurred that affected the lives of tens of thousands of Copts who had, or were, to migrate to Australia:

The Nematalla family, headed by the recently ordained Hegumen Fr Mina, pulled in to Melbourne on an ocean liner on their way to their destination in Sydney and stepped on Australian soil for the first time. Shortly thereafter, using korban bread baked on the ship as it drew into port, the very first Coptic Orthodox liturgy was prayed in Australia. These events were to be repeated two days later in Sydney Harbour, where this time, Fr Mina and his family had come to stay.

And thus, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Australia was born.

A few days ago we commemorated the 40th anniversary of this landmark event. Anniversaries are a time for celebration of achievments, and it is not uncommon on occasions such as this to list facts like the number of Churches opened and marriages conducted. But I think it should also be a time for self-reflection.

A Church is not really about the number of buildings built or acreage owned. It is not about successful services established, nor even about converts won or congregations grown. Christ never seems to have been interested in that sort of thing, and His Apostles, if their writings are anything to go by, did not measure their mission in these terms. That’s not to say that these things are not important – they are, in that they are the scaffold we use to build the true structure of the Church. But no one builds a building and then lives on the scaffold!

The true Church building exists is the hearts and lives of its members. Every good deed, every honest word, every act of compassion, every willing self-sacrifice, every sincere repentance and every genuine prayer is a brick in the Church of Christ. God does not need physical temples in which to dwell – He wants our hearts for His abode.

So how would the balance sheet of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Sydney over the past 40 years fare on these criteria? They are not tangible, and therefore not measurable, but they are the only true indicators of success for a Church. There are Churches that are mere shells – beautiful exteriors encasing spiritual emptiness. We pray for our Church never to become one of those.

Well, you are part of your Church, and thus partially responsible for its performance: so what would your report card look like?

Fr Ant

Episcopi Vagantes

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.

Insidious Institutionalism

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.

Fr Ant

The Sculptor of Stone

“God is able to make children of Abraham out of these stones”
Matthew 3:9

Like a master stonemason, God carves saints out of many different kinds of stone. Just as the beautiful pearly lustre of white marble differs fromt he sullen, brooding roughness of a dark granite, the Master Craftsman uses the natural properties of each type to bring out their beauty and achieve the desired effect.

Stones are hard, and so are some people’s hearts. That God is capable of producing hearts of soft flesh from these stones is nothing short of a miracle. Consider these three hard-hearted stones He had to work with:

St Moses the Black

The giant of slave could not be tamed. That he would escape to live a lawless life was inevitable, for his spirit was as fierce and fiery as his face. Everyone who met him feared him – and he knew it. He did deprive himself of anything he desired, much to the loss and suffering of many others, for he did not attain them as other people do, through hard work and effort. No, a man like him simply took what he wanted, whether food or riches or women, and woe to the man or woman who tried to stand in his way!

Yet there was one desire he could not satisfy so easily. Homes and shops and travelling caravans he could loot with ease, but the sun was out of his reach. The sun – the greatest thing in all the universe, the giver of life to the world – surely the sun was the god of the universe? Yet he could not be sure. He could not find an answer. His uneducated and violently physcial mind could find no way to answer this question.
Having no other way, he would cry out with his voice in supplication to the sun, yet the sun never answered him, never seemed even to look towards him, there, the little speck on the ground.

And when finally he recieved a response to his cries, it was one he had never suspected; “Go to the monastery, and there you will find the God your heart desires.” The mighty man of action, seeking help from those softly spoken cowards who hide behind their thick walls in the desert? But his desire to find the real God was greater than his pride, and amazingly, that violent and selfish heart humbled itself to submit to gentle spiritual moulding at the hands of the abbot Daniel. The years to come would show that of all the monks of the desert, there was none so compassionate, none so gentle, none so unselfish and humble as the former superthief, Moses the Black.

St Mary the Egyptian

It has always been true that a beautiful woman, if she lacked an overactive conscience, could use her beauty to attain riches, power, and influence. The deader the conscience, the greater the gain.

By that measure, Mary of Egypt was very beautiful, very successful, and had very little conscience. Why would God care about this heart hardened to the hardness of diamonds by continual sin? Perhaps it is because He saw also the potential beauty of this diamond in the rough. Not the beauty she daily abused to achieve her selfish ends, but the beauty of a simple and upright spirit that had fallen into a coma underneath the mound of filth and sin that had become her life. How to dig it out and revive it?

She seeks clients and customers – let her follow the crowds, then. But these crowds are leading her, unknowingly, to Jerusalem. She sees the crowds milling to enter through a great door – let the natural curiosity that first led her to sin lead her now to the turning point of her life. She seeks to enter through the door, but is prevented by some unseen force while others pass through easily. Why can she not pass? What is this place? Why is she alone barred from its pleasures?

She discovers the truth: it is the Church, the place she had long ago abandoned, perhaps after a brief friendship with it in the innocence of childhood. And now, suddenly, her eyes are opened. She sees herself as she has never seen herself before. Not as the wily, worldly-wise manipulator of men and events, but as the evil temptress, the selfish fool, the lost little girl who sold everything that mattered for a few worthless coins … suddenly she sees herself through the eyes of God.

NO, NO!!! Is this what I have become, so rejected by God that He will not even allow me to enter His House while all these people go in and rejoice to dwell with Him? Tears … despair … pain … and then, decision. If He will but give me a sign that He accepts me, I will give Him all that I have, everything. She takes the step one more time, and this time, she too passes, passes through the door with tears, now of joy, not sorrow.

And many more steps does she take, far, far away from the cities of men, out into the desert, where the sun burns her soft skin and bleaches her long hair, where cold and hunger and loneliness make her resemble a skeleton more than a siren. She loses everything, but finds the Lord of Everything, and with Him lives in a peace and joy she had never dreamed of before. A simple door achieves what thousands of words of criticism and blame could never have achieved. The Master Sculptor plies His craft again.

St Augustine

Having a loving and pious mother and a father who did every thing possible to give him a good start in the world did little to soften the heart of young Augustine. As a young teenager he would fight with his desires. But he had already chosen which side he wanted to win: “Give me purity,” he would pray, “but do not give it to me yet!”
He proceeded to live a life of liberty and sin as only a young, talented and wealthy bachelor can. What did he lack in life? His career proceeded successfully, he had more than enough female company to suit his needs, friends to share his life with … and yet …

In the midst of this heart hardened towards the True God by being engorged with the world, there was a small, niggling unrest. As a young boy, he had read the Roman philosopher Virgil and been inspired to seek Truth above all else. But this life he lived did nothing to satisfy this hunger for Truth. Moved by this restless hunger, he explored every philosophy and religion he could find. Soon a pattern developed. He would run to a new movement with enthusiasm and hope. He would ask his questions of the leaders of that movement with anticipation. He would be disappointed by their answers, and leave them heart-broken, saddened that his hope of finding Truth had again been forlorn.

Yet every disappointment was a stroke of the chisel struck by the Master Sculptor. After twenty years of disappointment, his much battered and crumbling heart finally found what it longed for; in the sermons of St Ambrose of Milan, Augustine finally found a Truth he could depend upon, could build his whole life around.
He would convert to Christianity and become one of the most learned, saintly and eloquent teachers of the Gospel in history. His worldly ambitions turned to heavenly ones, and instead winning debates and court cases, he turned to winning souls for Christ.

Three very different hearts. The first hard through ignorance. The second, hardened by continual sin. The third, hardened through pride and self. Yet all of them softened and moulded lovingly by the hand of the Master Sculptor, who fashioned them indeed into true sons and daughters of Abraham the righteous.

Fr Ant

What Might Have Been…

For all sad words of tongue and pen;
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been’.

Thus wrote John Greenleaf Whittier, to which Bret Harte replied:

If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, ‘It might have been’,
More sad are these we daily see;
‘It is but hadn’t ought to be!’

It is interesting to contemplate on what might have been. Often a person will day-dream of opportunities lost and paradise averted. Much useful time can frittered away in this manner, and there are cases of whole lives destroyed because of an obsession with ‘what might have been’.

We would be better served contemplating not on the good things we might have had, but on the bad things that might have come upon us. As the famous 19th century poet said upon seeing someone in a terrible state, “But for the grace of God, there goes Robert Barrett Browning.”

This principle applies on a larger scale as well. Consider for example, what the Christian Church today mught have been like had Arius and his heresy won the day back in the 4th century AD. Imagine us belonging today to the Coptic Arian Church, instead of the Coptic Orthodox Church. What might have happened?

To begin with, I don’t believe we would have had a Church by the 21st century. Arius, you will recall, denied the divinity of Christ, claiming Him to have been a mere man who was simply imbued with a larger dose than usual of the power of God. Thus, the One who died on the Cross was not God, but a man like us. What difference does it make?

Quite a lot! This mystery of God made man is one of the main engines that drives the faith of the Christian. That the Creator of all the cosmos should so humble Himself as to take vulnerable flesh is astonishing; astounding; mind-blowing! It sets Christianity apart from all mere ‘philosophies’ which tend to be theoretical and academic in nature, for this is a reality, Truth embodied and enacted. It sets Christianity apart from other religions, for none has the granduer and vision of this mystery.

What increases the distance between Christianity and other beliefs is the central role of love. For the Incarnation of Christ was not a party trick, it was no sign intended merely to astound and entertain, it was an act of unimaginable love. If love gives, then the Incarnation was the giving to end all givings. One cannot imagine any expression of love greater than this one. Yet, all of that falls by the wayside if Christ is not God.

It’s like the engine falling out of the car. Sure, sheer momentum will keep it rolling for some time, but sooner or later it must come to a stop, with no hope of moving again, until an engine is restored. The Christian faith, I think, would have dwindled gradually until it petered out altogether.

Can you imagine the glee of the Muslim who finds an ally in the Arian, for both belief systems deny the divinity of Christ and proclaim Him only to be a particularly good man. Can you imagine how easy it would have been for Arians to slip smoothly into Islam, with its denial of a Holy Trinity? An Arian Christianity would have been one without its main motivation to resist the innovations of Islam, and who knows what the history of the world might have been?

And if the Church had survived till now, can you imagine an Arian Church trying desperately to face the challenges of 21st century Western society, standing upon this weakened and empty base? Instead of a living, risen Saviour, a Saviour who united us with God and who dwells in us daily, we would have only a ‘very good man’ for our inspiriation. We would not have seen the face of God made flesh. We could not say that God had dwelt among us, so that by His sacrifice on the Cross, and His daily sacrifice on the altar, He dwells not only among us, but inside us, in our very bones and muscles.

The Christian Church had a very close shave back then, in the 4th century. There was a time when Pope Athanasius was warned that he stood alone against this whole world, to which he offered his own famous reply:

“One with God is the majority.”

We owe him a deep, deep debt of gratitude.

Fr Ant

Looking Forward to the Past

I’d like to turn now from the future to the past. How do we deal with our history as a Church and as a community?

Here’s a quick quiz:

1. Who was the Pope before Pope Kyrollos VI? What was his name and when was his patriarchate?

2. In what ways was his election to be Pope unusual?

3. Why doesn’t he appear very much in our histories, Sunday School Curricula, Youth Group Programmes etc?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, read on. You will find them in the text that follows (and there will be a compulsory one hour test next Tuesday 😉 ).

We all know quite a bit about our current Pope, Pope Shenouda III who was yanked out of his desert cave and made Bishop for Education (a general bishop without a diocese) against his will, and later elected as Pope against his will. He has guided the Coptic Church through what many consider to be a modern Golden Age of revival, depth and strength (1971 – present). His achievements are all the more amazing, given the history I want to discuss today.

We also all know about the late Pope Kyrollos VI, the solitary living in an abandoned windmill and jarred out of this meditative life to lead the Church from 1959-1971. It surprised me to hear from older members of our Church that during his lifetime and service as Pope, Pope Kyrollos was not a very popular man in some circles of the Church. He wouldn’t play politics. When major crises faced the Church, he would quietly withdraw to his monastery to pray and seek God’s guidance. “Where is our Pope?” people would demand. “Why does he run away every time there is trouble?” I couldn’t imagine thinking that way about someone so obviously saintly as Pope Kyrollos VI, yet people in those days did think that way. Which tells you a lot about the people in those days:

Before Pope Kyrollos VI, there was a three year period in which the Church could not come to a decision as to who should become the new Pope. And the reason they could not decide was that the papacy of the previous Pope had been an unmitigated disaster. Pope Yusab II (1946-1956) had been Metropolitan of Girga before becoming Pope. A vocal section of the Church opposed his consecration because there is an ancient law in our Church that says that no bishop with a diocese may be ordained as Pope. Amazingly, Anba Yusab and his followers actually campaigned to have him elected! He was actually ambitious for the papacy. That in itself should have rung the alarm bells!

It didn’t take long after his enthronment as Pope for things to start going wrong. The chief problem of his papacy was his valet, or disciple, an extremely unscrupulous man who always carried a loaded gun with him, as well as a pack of cigarettes. This man seems to have had incredible influence over the Pope, and he knew how to use it! He became rich by selling ordinations to the bishopric and the priesthood. He threw his weight around and ordered people about according to his own wishes. The kindest analyses of Pope Yusab’s papacy describe his main failing as being his inability to control or to dismiss this dishonest man.

Things got so bad that at one stage, the Pope had to flee Egypt because his life was threatened. A group of over-zealous Coptic youth even went to the extent of kidnapping the Pope and threatening him with harm if he did not resign immediately. When the whole Church finally put an ultimatum to Pope Yusab to reform or to suffer exile, he chose the latter, and spent the remaining years of his life and papacy exiled in a monastery in Upper Egypt. He was relieved of all his papal responsibilities and a committee of three senior bishops was appointed to govern the Church in his absence. He died in exile in 1956.

You will now understand why the appointment of a new Coptic Pope took so long. Having been through this disasterous period, no one wanted to rush in and make a wrong decision! After three years of careful consideration, discussion and prayer, a man who was the diametric opposite of Anba Yusab was elected to take over, Pope Kyrollos VI: not a bishop, but a humble monk; not ambitious for the post, but terrified by its heavy responsibility before God. Pope Kyrollos proceeded to doggedly rebuild the spirituality of the Coptic Church, to return its focus to its ancient roots in the Bible, Church Tradition and the desert Fathers. By God’s grace, his successor is an educator in an age of information. Pope Shenouda has successfully steered the Church towards faith based on understanding and has fused the mind and the spirit together in a unified whole to worship God in a holistic way.

But what of poor Anba Yusab? Why is he forgotten? Most likely, Coptic historians do not like to mention him because it is seen as bringing our skeletons out of the closet. They do not wish to air our dirty laundry in public, which is why most objective information about Anba Yusab can only be found in history books written by non-Copts. I don’t think this is healthy.

I believe that we can learn just as much from the mistakes of the past as we can from the successes. I think the Bible backs up this point of view. Take any hero of the Bible. Take Moses or David or St Peter. In the Bible you will find a balanced portrayal that reveals strengths and weaknesses, victories and failures, sins and virtues. The Bible gives us a real picture of these giants of God and of the true historical events of the people of God. Why do we fear to do the same in our own times? Would it not benefit us?

From learning about the period of Anba Yusab II I have learned many valuable lessons. I have learned that God does not leave His people alone, even in the darkest times. In the midst of all this hulabaloo going on with the Pope, St Mary appeared to a Primary School class in a Coptic school, and the miracle encouraged all those who heard about it. Throughout those years the Sunday School Movement was growing and becoming more and more effective. Dedicated servants refused to be discouraged by the goings on at higher levels and turned instead to their own personal relationship with God and to spreading the Gospel of Christ to as many simple hearts as they could find. These were the years when the young Nazir Gayed (later to become Pope Shenouda III) was at his peak of service and eventually entered the monastery, as did a number of his luminous contemporaries who were to play such a prominent role in the revival that was to come later.

The Church is too big to be spoiled by any one individual, no matter how elevated his position may be. When it seemed that the Church had fallen into the hands of one who was going to destroy it from the inside, there were many faithful Copts who kept their eyes focussed on what the Church is really all about. They were not fooled or sidetracked by all the games being played. They understood that the real work of the Church is not in the politics and the wranglings of humans. It is in the work of the Holy Spirit in individual hearts.

Problems, within or without the Church, should never be allowed to discourage us from personally following God faithfully and striving to do His will. Those who do so remain firmly embedded in the real Church, in the company of God and following in His footsteps. Those who get caught up in the politics soon lose their place in the true Church, for they cannot find Christ in politics. May our Lord preserve always the purity of the mission of His Church…

Fr Ant