At the beginning of a New Year I have been reflecting on the events of the last 12 months, and especially on my continuing service within the Coptic Orthodox Church. I often prefer the term, Orthodox Church of Alexandria, as it expresses better the universal character of the Church. But when I think about why I am a Coptic Orthodox Christian I mean no more than to answer the question, why am I a member and a priest of this particular Orthodox community, and why do I have not the slightest thought or intention of ever being found serving anywhere else, outside the will of God.
I am well aware of many of the problems which the Coptic Orthodox Church faces. I do not have rose-tinted glasses. I am in contact with people around the world who often share with me the concerns that they have about the development of our Coptic Orthodox Church in the West, and some of the difficult circumstances which they experience themselves. But I am still committed to my membership and service in this Orthodox Community rather than another. I believe that the issues which our Church is facing and must face are not such that the Holy Spirit will abandon us. On the contrary, I am also well aware of some of the efforts being made around the world by bishops, priests and faithful Christians to resolve those issues.
With all of these things in mind, I am and will remain, God willing, a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church because:
#1. The Coptic Orthodox Church is an Apostolic Church. This ancient community has faced many periods of disturbance and upheaval. This present one, facing the spiritual and social challenge of modern Western society is no different. The essential teaching of the Church remains the same, since the Church is not subverted by particular errors and misunderstandings of any of her members. The Apostolicity of the Coptic Orthodox Church calls all of her members to a continuing renewal in the Apostolic Tradition which she preserves. If this one or that one is in error, I am confident that the Tradition is not.
#2. The Coptic Orthodox Church has Continuity. I know that here and there the Church is facing modern influences and is trying to work out how to respond, as are all Orthodox Churches. But beneath the transient challenges being faced at the moment there is a 2000 year old continuous history stretching back to the ministry of St Mark the Evangelist himself. I grew up in a community that started in 1828. It had no such continuity. But I know that just as the Holy Spirit has preserved the Church for these past 2000 years, so he will preserve this community, this Coptic Orthodox Church, into a continuing history of faithful experience.
#3. The Coptic Orthodox Church has Life. I do not mean that everywhere all Christians are as spiritual as they might be, or that there are not congregations where there are disputes and tensions between people. I know all of this. But despite the fact that there is evidence of spiritual sickness, there is also the great possibility of spiritual life. The Church is not defined by those who are most sick, but by the quality and character of the spiritual medicine which is preserved within her spiritual Tradition. In all ages there have been those who have the name of being Orthodox but who have lived lives that are not appropriate for a Christian, or taught a misrepresentation of the truth. But error does not subvert truth, since the truth always exists. And it is in this community of the Coptic Orthodox Church that I have found spiritual life. I will do all that I am able and all that God calls me to, in order to see the life given as a gift of grace in our Orthodox spiritual teachings transforms and transfigures all those gathered together in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Is there weakness and sin? The Church exists for such as these. I am one. But in the Church there is life and light.
#4. The Coptic Orthodox Church has Love. Do not doubt. I am well aware of those who have not experienced this love as they should. But I am also aware that in all Orthodox communities, made up of weak and sinful men and women, there is this same tension between what is and what should be. But I am speaking for myself. I have found love in this Coptic Orthodox Church. I have been embraced as a brother, even though I am from a different ethnic background to most, and do not speak Arabic, and am only beginning to become familiar with the rich treasures of the Coptic Rite. This love is not universal. I do not mean that I walk around in a daze of comforting feelings. But I have enough experience of diamond bright love from this one and that one, here and there, because we share a common faith and life, that I know that this Coptic Orthodox Church, for all her present trials, can be and become such a place of Love for all, as we allow the Holy Spirit to act within us. Such love I have received and continue to receive. I would not and could not leave those who are as dear to me as life.
#5. The Coptic Orthodox Church has a Future. I will speak plainly. It is not a future based on changing the Tradition to suit those who have not understood it. But in the 21 years I have been a member of this Coptic Orthodox Church I have been increasingly blessed to come to know more and more faithful Orthodox Christians who are committed to the patristic foundations of our Church, committed to mission, committed to being an outward looking but Traditional community in Western societies. I have been fortunate to address Coptic Orthodox missionary conferences in several places where hundreds of dedicated faithful men and women have made me feel proud, as far as that is appropriate, to be part of the Coptic Orthodox Church. I have been fortunate to come to know Coptic Orthodox men and women who have made it their responsibility to study the Fathers, and who have a clear understanding of our Orthodox doctrine. And I have been blessed indeed to hear men and women with whom I have a relationship of love preach in a manner that is entirely Orthodox and without any heterodoxy or confusion at all. There is a future, because the Church belongs to Christ, not to any one generation. And the gates of Hades have not prevailed and will not prevail while there are faithful Orthodox Christians remaining to urge a renewal of our Orthodox and Apostolic life in this present age.
How grateful I am to God that he has made me the least member of this ancient Orthodox community, this Coptic Orthodox Church, this Church of Alexandria. While I have life and breath I am not going anywhere, nor will I cease to play my part in humble service to our bishops, and to all who seek my unworthy prayers and correspondence.
There are many things to be concerned about. This is undoubtedly true and has always been true. The enemy does not bother to assault those who could not cause him harm. But now is the time for humble, persevering and enduring faithfulness, even in difficult circumstances, and constant prayer, for our Pope, the bishops, the priests and all those who gather together in this community. Where there is sin and weakness, we must pray for forgiveness, repentance, renewal and grace. God will not forget his own, even if we become negligent. In the midst of these very human circumstances I find myself planted, and I pray that here, in the Coptic Orthodox Church, I might bear fruit, as God wills, and for his glory.
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