Monday, February 25, 2013

Canterbury to Alexandria - a new Deacon

Ordained Deacon

The Church has been in the news a great deal over the last month or so as speculation mounts regarding the future for Anglicans under new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. And then, as Lent was about to begin, there was the unexpected announcement of Pope Benedict’s retirement. And, of course, media interest in the fall-out following revelations of church related sexual sexual abuse (across the traditions) continues.

All of this goes on with scant attention to the growth being experienced by the Coptic Church. We tend to hear of our Coptic brothers and sisters only in the context of their persecution in Egypt, apart from the burst of publicity when Pope Shenouda died. In fact, they are permeating the world with their ancient-yet-modern living of the Faith. This is partly due to the diaspora of Egyptian Christians over the last forty years (I met my first Copts in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney in the mid 1970s); but it is also due to their evangelistic spirit which has given rise to a considerable movement of western people to their Church.

Jarrod Ryder was one of the young people who became part of All Saints’ Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, during my time as parish priest, and we have stayed in touch since those days. Following theological study, he embarked on a long spiritual journey which took him into the Coptic Church. Jarrod was recently ordained a Deacon, and named after Severus, a 5th/ 6th century  Patriarch. The ordination was done by Bishop Daniel of St Anthony's Monastery in Sydney, and took place on the site of a new monastery being built at Beudesert, just south of Brisbane. 

I asked Deacon Severus to write a reflection for this blog. This is what he has given me:

How can one put into words the immense journey of entering a Church with such venerable history and wonderful traditions as the Coptic Orthodox Church?  I’m afraid I cannot do it justice in blogging format, but then this is the essence of Orthodox Christianity.  It is absolutely, 100% an experience, from start to finish, where our minds, hearts and senses are lifted to contemplate the most Holy and Life Giving Trinity!  Ortho – Correct, true, straight and doxy from the Greek doxa meaning worship!  Correct worship! Therefore it can only be experienced truly in reality as it is a way of life, not merely a set of beliefs which is often misconstrued by those outside who only consider one part of it, being the creedal canonical elements.

In the divine liturgies of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the heart mind and senses are drawn to God, where one hears ancient, oriental chanting, incense abounds in copious clouds and you can tell roughly where the priest is up to from the carpark by the incense! When entering the Church one sees an array of icons, a large altar, an iconostasis, women on one side covering their hair with scarves, men on the other side praying as in the famous orans icon with shoes removed, and of course an army of chanters and deacons and a priest sporting a full beard completing various liturgical acts.  It is a very natural experience, completely unorganised in one sense unlike the well practised Roman liturgies with their precision, and yet it all seems to work very well with deep reverence.

You cannot but help to notice the age of the traditions and their apostolicity.  For example, the incense used in the church comes from a very precise formula prescribed in the books of Moses commended by the apostles.  Indeed, the notion of not wearing shoes dates back to the command of God to Moses before the burning bush, because nothing should come between us and the holy ground we walk upon, and let there be no doubt that the ground we walk on in the Orthodox sanctuary is holy!  In fact, considering incense, I read an article once speculating that frankincense is being depleted at a rapid rate and could run out.  When I mentioned it to a Coptic Father, his reply was, ‘Then Christ will return’!  Indeed, it is considered that the Divine Liturgy sustains creation in its relationship to God, until the final judgement.

The Divine Liturgy in use in the Coptic Church comes from St Mark, and we use editions by St Basil, St Gregory Nazianzus and St Cyril.  Actually, since the fourth century, there are really no changes and for a convert with a trained eye I really felt as though I was back in the fourth century! One venerable Metropolitan was with one of the monastic fathers in a busy airport, sporting his black robes and pectoral cross and Episcopal staff, and naturally everyone was staring at him.  He remarked to the monk, ‘Do you know why everyone is staring at us?’ To which he answered rhetorically, ‘It is because we are straight out of the fourth century.’ Indeed, nothing has really changed since then!  Apart from some wonderful Eucharistic fraction prayers, one post Chalcedon confessing the Oriental Orthodox Christology of my namesake St Severus of Antioch, it is in a sense an archaeological wonder!  

Yet you would be mistaken to consider it a museum.  Despite some of the pharaohonic tunes that have been Christianised (making its school of music one of the oldest, and with no notation as everything is learnt painstakingly by ear), despite its venerable patristic history, and despite its theology which we haven’t even mentioned yet, it is a true and living Church with the fresh action of the Holy Spirit breathing life into each generation who receives and passes on the traditions.  In this sense it is truly blessed.

In our era, a number of modern saints including the late Pope Kyrillos the VI, have revealed the way of monasticism in its true anchoritic form, and in their extreme humility have witnessed the outpouring of God’s grace on the entire Church.  The modern Coptic Orthodox Church claims a number of miracles, and this is due to the significance of its monasticism, which has experienced a huge revival in our era.  Monasteries are often full, they turn away prospective postulants, who often submit themselves to extreme acts of devotion to be accepted, and this wonderful spirituality flows through the Church.

Let there be no doubt then that Christendom itself is indebted to the early Coptic Popes and theologians for defending the true faith at pivotal moments of history.  The theological method of Alexandria inspired the greatest theologians, east and west, St Athanasius, St Cyril, the typology of Origen and St Diddymus the blind (inventor of Braille), which we see repeated and encouraged in the great Cappadocian fathers, and one of the most formidable exegetes of Rome, St Gregory the Great. 

Clearly, Christian monasticism finds its origins in the desert fathers of the Thebiad, St Anthony the Great, a whole plethora of mystics and the father of communal monasticism St Bakhomious.  In those early years flocks of wandering theologians and mystics travelled through Alexandria and the deserts, including St Jerome, and St Celestine an early Roman Pontiff (which is commemorated in the Coptic Synaxarium).

Perhaps now, you may begin to see how utterly impossible it would be for me to tap into an emotional, experiential reflection on such a journey, because it is in fact too deep.  In itself, this remains a mystery!  I will not discuss the reasons why I chose to leave my ethnic Church (Anglican) because although it was extremely difficult, I wanted to taste and feel my faith without concern for unbelieving and compromising leaders.  I remain indebted to the author and moderator of this blog, for planting good and true theological seeds in a young enthusiastic boy which have found their home in the Church of Alexandria.  His introduction to typology was enough for me to yearn for apostolicity, and my entrance into the Coptic Church is evidence of its Catholicity, its universal nature, unyielding, uncompromising, ever faithful despite the evils of persecution it now faces in its homeland. 

I was recently ordained to the deaconate as Severus, after the Bulgarian convert and Patriarch of the Syriac Church who was a major player in the late 5th early 6th century, and I certainly need his prayers in promoting a Church truly evangelical and truly Orthodox as a way of Christian life and alternative to ever increasing secular Australian society due to the multitude of my weaknesses.  We have a service to feed the poor and homeless in Brisbane, which St John Chrysostom considers a greater work than raising the dead, and I hope with the prayers of the saints the readers will ask Christ to increase it and bless it according to his abundant mercy.


Anonymous said...

wow! It's great to see a fellow sailor upon the sea of life make such wonderful moderations and decisions to find identity amongst so many identities within the Christian Faith.
So I pray for you a blessings as the personal God of all has truly entered your heart with relentlessness and will guide your journey home...+++

~Radi~ said...

Beautiful article, as a Western Coptic convert I really enjoyed reading it, and I related to many things in it.
Just one small correction St. Severus isn't Bulgarian, he was born in Sozopolis yes, but there are two cities called Sozopolis, one is a city in Bulgaria on the Black sea cost, and another is city of Sozopolis in Pisidia which is a region in ancient Asia Minor present day Turkey. He was born in the second.
Peace and God bless you, keep up the good work in this blog

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