By Paul Hanna, Epsaltos at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
The quickest way to become frustrated with the Church is to judge it against our expectations. This judgement immediately brings to light the many flaws in our communities. It is a brief step from this to questioning the Holiness of the Church itself. Are we not the Holy Orthodox Church of God? If Christ is guiding His Church why do we have so many problems? One then can easily become fed-up with the entire system. It is my experience that this repeated comparison is often harmful except in the case where one can make an actual change.
Let us take a simple example:
“we ought not to celebrate the liturgy in an unknown language, so that it would not turn into an … outward rite performed without understanding.” Fr. Tadros Malaty, Christ in the Eucharist, p. 78
Fr. Tadros’ words ring true with many today. We have all felt the frustrations of a liturgy in a foreign language. In some parts of the English speaking West, liturgies are still celebrated in a foreign language. Should such practices be condemned? What ought we to do? Should we not attend such services in protest?There will always be imperfection within the walls of the church. This human organism, the bride of Christ will always be ready to crucify Him until we are all made into Saints. There will be stubbornness, closed-mindedness, gossip, and whatever other vices you care to think about. Whenever congregants fit into this category, they fall short of Christ’s commandment:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” John 13:34-35
Whenever we do not have love for one another, we fail to be of Christ even though we may be of the community. They are not the same thing. It is easy, again, to look at all this and think the Church has lost its way or that something desperately is wrong. There are two points here. The first is that despite issues, Christ dearly loves all people. We must remember this. The other point is in dispelling the myth of the perfect Church. The word Church, meaning ‘gathering’ in the Greek, referring both to the community of congregants and the spiritual body of Christ. But there is a difference. The physical attendance at Church is necessary but not sufficient. It is not enough to simply ‘go to church’. We must go to meet Christ in order to be His body. We do wrong to expect the entire community to reach Sainthood with ease.As Christ tells us:
“Where two or three meet in my name, there I am with them.” Matthew 18:20
So often we meet for any reason but for Christ. Are we then of Christ? Are we in the Church? Such questions can put us in a daze. For ourselves, we need to ensure we are attending with the correct spirit but the judgement of others rarely bears fruit. But it is comforting to know that the imperfection of the congregants within the Church (clergy included) is a nearly universal and timeless phenomenon. According to Dr. George Demacopoulos of Fordham Unversity there were complaints about the Church in every century, even from the Saints themselves.
“I know of no good to have come from even a single synod of bishops. Their only outcomes are arguments, ambitions and rivalries” ~ Gregory the Theologian, The autobiographical poems
Clearly Saint Gregory was unhappy with the state of things but he did not let it prevent his service. Rather he is known as one of the Church’s few theologians who explained the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. St. Gregory surely realised that the only change would come about if he and others like him were deeply present in the Church’s life. As the proverbial saying goes, we must ‘be the change we want to be’. This involves immense patience with others, understanding, and continual effort. We cannot ignore that which is happening around us but we must not let it make us overly critical.It is said that the Church is a hospital for sinners and while this is true, none of the aforementioned discussion is an excuse for laxity. It is truly the duty of the upcoming generation to address the issues that the congregation faces. Whether this be issues with understanding liturgical services, the congregation’s general attitude, the lack of evangelism and so on. But we must do so with the correct spirit, speaking the Truth in Love (Eph 4:15). We must hold a fundamental paradox within our hearts. We must have sincere and ferocious love for the Church and its people and so accept them. And yet, we must also strive for the standard Christ set for us as the Church. This paradox is one Christ perfectly held. He saw the potential, the ideal, the aim for humanity and yet He came down to our level and called us as we were. We can only imagine the disappointment God experienced when humanity refused the goodness He had to offer time and time again:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Matthew 23:37
Anyone who cares for the Church has experienced some fraction of this disappointment. It may spur us in one of two directions. It may be used by the devil to discourage us and push into non-action, even non-attendance. It may alternatively move us to action in hope of improving the state of things. We must have the correct attitude or we will never be able to help our communities. If we care for Christ, we must be prepared when responsibility turns to us to make changes. We must persist in the service, we must become familiar with the rites of our Church, we must know it from the inside. We must work tirelessly as those who came before us did. We must certainly begin with ourselves and not become discouraged. Finally, we must remember that above all, everyone in the community is deeply loved by God, no matter what their views or habits. May God guide our hearts always.