By H.G. Bishop Angaelos – Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London.
If something is going to change in the Church, it will be changed through the prayers and decision of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III and the Holy Synod. This safeguard is a good thing; if we want to change things, they can be discussed and changed, but they must go through a stringent test and procedure, because these things are not just being changed for you today. They are being changed for the Church to come, so we take these matters very seriously.
Today in the Coptic Orthodox Church, we have over 90 bishops, forming many Synod subcommittees, discussing everything from ecumenical relations, to Christian education, rituals, theology, and many other topics. Within these subcommittees, measures are discussed and changes are proposed through amendments. If the amendment is accepted, it becomes part of the Church. Thus, we do have vehicles for moving ahead. Why should changing something in the Church be easier than changing your national constitution? Constitutional amendment requirements are very stringent, because they change who you are and how your citizenship is defined. Likewise, changing the Church changes who you are. Our Church is so rich; we want to be careful with this and proceed carefully.
If you look at the Church in the Middle Ages when it fragmented, you have extreme teachings: the Catholics taught infallibility of the Pope, filioque, Immaculate Conception – these all became extreme ideas. The Protestants came to protest against these extremes, and went all the way to the other side. Thus, the Catholics believe in Papal infallibility; the Protestants on the other side say no priesthood. Catholics had indulgence for salvation on one side; the Protestants said they did not need that because they were all “saved”. The Catholics said St, Mary was conceived without sin through Immaculate Conception; the Protestants came around and said she was just a vessel, gave birth, and her virginity was useless after that. There was the extreme position, and reaction to the extreme position.
If you look at the Orthodox Church, it has always been moderate among these extremes. The Catholics believe in Papal infallibility; the Protestants reject priesthood; but the Orthodox say our priesthood is from Christ, handed down to the Apostles, and no one is infallible. We are human beings; we recognize that, so we have safeguards in place. Moderate. Again, on one side, Catholics say indulgences; on the other side, Protestants say everyone is “saved”; the Orthodox say we have the foundation of salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross, but we have to work at it to make it part of our own, to partake in the salvation. Again, one side believes in Immaculate Conception, the other side believes St. Mary was merely a vessel and had no use after that; as Orthodox, we believe the Savior had to come from a lineage of humanity, bearing that human sin. Therefore, St. Mary was a human – a holy human, prepared to bear God, the Theotokos. She remained an ever-virgin and our faithful intercessor. You see, the Orthodox view is a moderate view that has not changed, through the first, ninth, and twenty-first centuries. We should be proud that we do not change at the whim of individuals, but the mechanism is there if anything needs to be changed.
Some people think of Orthodoxy as “boring”, because it does not change its teachings frequently… Some people think of Orthodoxy as “radical.” They say we are “radical” because we don’t change, while the world changes on a whim. We dare to be different from the world, to maintain that which has given us its character since the beginning. Well, if that is “radical,” then perhaps we are. We are “radical” in delivering the message. Some churches debate whether to use languages other than the national language of the church; last year, I prayed a liturgy in Europe where nine different languages were used! We deliver the message as we need to deliver it and as it becomes effective, so that it may become active in your life in order for you to benefit. We do, however, need to give you the sense of the authenticity of the Church, which is why we preserve the teachings of the Church.
We have the obligation to preserve and deliver what the truth is; you have the obligation to try to understand it, don’t just shut it out. You must give it serious thought, and try to have it make sense. We give you the message, which is the message of Scripture. We have been granted so much by the Church, with all of this teaching, the safeguards, and forward thinking.
I want to throw one challenge to you: we all make fun of being Egyptian – timing, organization, food, and so on. But we should give credit where it is due and not have stereotypical responses. What makes you different from the Jewish community, the Greek community, the Chinese community where you live? They have pride in who they are, while we – sorry to say – are always apologetic. We are Christian, which is a blessing and grace in itself. We are part of the Orthodox Church, whose teachings are affirmed in the one Church. We are part of the Coptic Church, which lived through 2000 years of persecution, and is still blossoming, flourishing and alive despite the persecutions. We should be proud of this identity that the Church has given us. Not a worldly, arrogant pride, but the holy pride in the Church. You are Coptic Orthodox, be thankful for your faith. Live it and be proud of it; people have lost their lives – millions of people have died so that you can share in that same faith.
That’s my church – that’s your church. That’s what we should be proud of. Do not be arrogant – we are not better than anyone else. But we are blessed. Work with your talents, do not bury them. Be thankful for belonging to the Church and to each other – look at the Copts in your lives; the servants, the priests. They are dedicated to your service. We should lose the cynicism and look at the positive. Our Church was established by Christ Himself, brought to us by St. Mark, protected by the Fathers, strengthened by the saints and martyrs, living until today as true as possible to the original message, and delivered in a way we can comprehend it.
Be thankful for this church of which you are part. Live it and be proud of it – not a worldly, arrogant pride, but be proud that you are the children of God. Live the lives of those who protect the Church in faith, in strength, and in every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Glory be to God and His Church forever, Amen.