Looks like the Holy Synod may actually address the matter of chanter ordinations, if I’m reading the following correctly:
From copticworld.org article regarding the May 2015 Holy Synod meeting: “Committee of Pastoral Care and Service: 1- Review the regulations of chanters and celibate consecration for a vote next November.”
“I am not a deacon!” That is what I asked a room full of “deacons” to say during a meeting that included the entire gamut of “deacons” from my parish, young and old alike.
“Repeat after me. I am not a deacon!” I exclaimed. Many participated, but there were a few who had an eyebrow raised while responding, and some who did not want to utter a word (and after the meeting, some expressed that they were actually quite offended).
I walked up to the young kids, pointed to one of them and asked, “I am not a deacon, but I am a ???”
Someone blurted out: “Chanter!”
“Yes, that’s right,” I said. Then I pointed to someone older, and asked, “I am not a deacon, but I am a ???”
Understanding better the point of my question, he excitedly responded, “Reader!”
Why all of this? Because the truth is, there is a systemic issue in the Coptic Church that has skewed the meaning of “deaconship,” and I earnestly pray for improvement. But first, we need to see the problem.
THE FIRST DEACONS’ QUALIFICATIONS AND THEIR PURPOSE—SERVING TABLES
We have lost sight of what the purpose of an actual “deacon” is. In the Coptic Church, we erroneously refer to chanters, readers, and subdeacons, all with the title “deacon,” yet none of them are. And unless you think that the words the bishop prays during the service to establish all of these ranks are in vain and useless, then we have completely lost sight of the actual role of each. But this is not just about roles.
This is about the basic purpose of a deacon as established by the apostles and the actual meaning of humble and obedient service. In Acts 6, the first bishops of the church were facing a problem. Too many people, and too much to do. One of the tasks the bishops were involved in was the daily distribution of goods and/or food to the people, including widows which were often left out. So they sought out men with the following qualifications to assist them in carrying out that service in the church:
- “men of good reputation”
- “full of the Holy Spirit”
- “full of … wisdom”
And the bishops said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables…. [rather], we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” while we hand off the service of serving tables to the deacons!
Serving tables. That was the deacon’s role. Notice, “prayer” was designated to the bishops. Serving the people’s needs, and serving widows, that was for the deacons. Where in any of this do we see the primary role of a deacon to be standing in front of a congregation, leading the worship service, singing hymns, reading scripture in liturgical assemblies? Obviously, over time, the needs of the Church changed from needing individuals to serve tables to other roles (less service-oriented I would say): chanters, readers, subdeacons.
But the transition was gradual. From serving tables, it seems the next major step in the evolution of a deacon’s role was to serve the Eucharist with the priest and/or bishop. Ignatius of Antioch teaches us that by his time deacons were “dispensers of the Mysteries of Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Trallians 2:1–3 [c. AD 110]). Hippolytus of Rome recites the words of ordination by a bishop, to include the deacon’s role to “offer in Your holy places the gifts which are offered to You by Your chosen high priests” (The Apostolic Tradition 9 [c. AD 215]). The Council of Nicea issued canon 18, which expressed the same role for deacons (c. AD 325).
Eventually, other needs presented themselves. Thus, the lesser roles of chanters, readers, and subdeacons were established. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, those roles are called “minor orders.” The rank of deacon, priest, and bishop, are referred to as “major orders.” Ignatius of Antioch was the first Church Father credited for clearly identifying the three major orders. And only for these major orders does Ignatius teach that “apart from these there is no Church” (Letter to the Trallians 3 [AD 110]). This is why they are called “major” orders, as opposed to the minor orders which are just that: minor.
THE PROBLEM TODAY: SEEKING THE TITLE, NOT THE SERVICE
What usually happens today is parents volunteer their (often unwilling) children to be appointed to the rank of chanter, and commonly with very little difficulty the priests and bishops comply with their request. It appears that many parents see this as as a mark of honor, or religious dignity, rather than a service; such a mindset unfortunately teaches kids to think of their role in a similar way, so I hope that parents will teach their children from a young age that this is a service and a responsibility, not an honor. St. Paul teaches us that even the appointment of “novice” bishops can lead to them “being puffed up with pride” unless they have learned adequate humility first (1 Timothy 3:6); how much more difficult is it for children to keep from being prideful if we do not do our part to always reinforce their role as true, humble servants.
Understandably (and you really can’t blame the kids for this), many of the kids that are appointed at this young age do not participate hardly at all in chanting. At such a young age, it is therefore not surprising and totally expected to see the kids with
- closed mouths,
- extremely bored,
- looking at their watches every few minutes,
- asking when liturgy is going to be finished,
- saying they are standing there only because their parents want them to be, etc.
Is this what we want? Are we going about this in the best way? (And this is not limited to just kids, but adult chanters too often stand but do not chant, or barely participate in chanting.)
And then, when I saw a recent special on the national U.S. television broadcast called “60 minutes” about the Coptic Church, which included a very brief depiction of what appeared to be young chanters across the globe in Egypt not chanting, but just lying over and sleeping on the pews and not participating in the service (pictured above), I was reminded of my disappointment at the dilapidated condition of worship roles in the Coptic Church. [Note, the kids pictured above look like angels and their parents are probably angels too, so be sure that no offense was intended, and for that reason I blurred out their faces to obscure them. 60 Minutes displayed the image above in their video clip, presumably with permission of the parents].
“Put me in the altar!”
The altar, the source of the Mysteries to be distributed, is the domain of the priest, bishop, and deacons. We don’t have many deacons in the Coptic Church today so the Church has customarily allowed other minor orders to assist the priest and/or bishop in the altar. The role of altar servants today is not so much to worship, but rather proclaim directives for the congregation (look towards the east, pay attention [a.k.a. “let us attend”], stand with the fear of God and listen to the Holy Gospel, pay attention in the wisdom of God and recite the creed, pray for this or that reason, etc.).
Sadly, kids and parents get upset when their child hasn’t “served in the altar for a long time.” What message do we send to these kids when we support that mindset? It is almost as if serving in the altar is like performing in a play. “Give me/my son a lead role!”
Fortunately, the kids in my parish have proven quite impressive in their willingness to change their mindset. They used to come to me and ask to serve in the altar, and although I would usually accommodate them, I would also teach them: “You shouldn’t ask to serve in the altar. You are like a soldier, or like an angel. When you are needed, you will be called upon to serve.” And now, hardly a single kid ever asks to serve, but genuinely await their turn in obedience to the service. The message I want us all to send to the kids is simple: If your role is to serve, your goal is not WHO serves but simply that the service is COMPLETED. That means if you are NEVER asked to serve in the altar, your thought should not be, “How come I haven’t been put in the altar!” but rather should be, “If I’m needed I’m ready to serve in whatever manner is sought of me.”
Serving in the altar is problematic for young kids for another reason. We cannot expect them to understand what they are declaring to the people, which is their primary role these days. Many of them can’t even read, or read well, yet we call upon them to stand in the altar to tell the people, “Worship God in fear and trembling” and “In the wisdom of God let us attend [i.e., pay attention].” Couldn’t (and/or shouldn’t) such solemn statements come from someone older, with more understanding of what they are asking the congregation to do (and even then, many of the older servants don’t even understand)? Thankfully, I’ve heard unconfirmed murmurings regarding only permitting readers and above to serve in the altar, which would be a helpful step in the right direction.
“I want to be a reader!”
Another troubling matter which evinces an improper understanding of true service is when many of these same chanters, who have been reinforced over time to think that their role provides them a means of displaying themselves in front of the congregation for their own glory, go and seek higher ranks. “When are you going to make me a reader?” “I want to be ordained a subdeacon.” Oh how many times I have heard these sorts of questions asked. Such questions are absolutely in contradiction with the spirit of service and the manner that the apostles tell us deacons should be chosen: they told the “brethren” to “seek out from among you [deacons]” (Acts 6:3). Thus, it is not something an individual should aspire to become, but rather a service that is to be given. Even Christ Himself did not seek High Priesthood, but it came to Him, as St. Paul says: “For every high priest [in the Old Testament] taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God … So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He [i.e., the Father, who chose Him]” (Hebrews 5:1, 5).
WHAT ARE WE TO DO?
There seems to be two prevailing views:
(1) Keep appointing chanters at a young age, in spite of their inability and unwillingness to actually perform their duty.
(2) Appoint chanters only after they have shown a willingness and ability to chant, and also exhibited an understanding of the meaning of service.
Irrespective of which view you ascribe to, H.G. BISHOP YOUSSEF WARNS parents and those appointed to the minor orders as follows:
TO MINOR ORDERS:
“I want to relay some advice to the many deacons [primarily referring to the minor orders] who have been ordained but do not use this service. Deaconship is a gift from God and if you are ordained a deacon, then you are required to use this gift. Because, in the last day, you will give an account of your stewardship (“There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’”—Luke 16:1-2; see also 1 Cor. 9:17, Col. 1:25). Many people are ordained deacons while they are young and as they grow older, more and more stop serving as deacons. I want to tell you that you will give an account before God on the last day. That is why if you are called to deaconship, then you must use it…. Otherwise, what will you say before God?” (Commentary on Romans 12:7)
“I want to advise you on another matter tangential to this point: do not push your children to be ordained. Maybe they are not ready. Some parents just want their children to be ordained so that they can declare (in their hearts and outwardly) that their son is an ordained deacon. And then if your sons do not serve as deacons although they have been ordained, you know what you have done for them? You pushed them into something for which they will be accountable and responsible before God even if they were not ready for that responsibility. That is why parents must think soberly before making the decision of ordaining their children as deacons; on the flip side, if children are ordained, then parents need to encourage them to use this gift wisely and faithfully.” (Commentary on Romans 12:7)
OBEDIENCE AND SERVICE TO THE BISHOP – FOUNDATIONAL ROLE OF THE SERVANTS
The pinnacle responsibility of every single minor and major order servant is to humbly and obediently serve the bishop’s every need exactly as they wish (and that means also serving the priests appointed by those bishops). The bishop is the church overseer (the literal meaning of the word bishop in its original Greek—ἐπίσκοπος, episkopos [epi means over, skopos means seer]). He oversees everything, but can’t be everywhere, so he needs priests and all the other orders of the church to help him. To serve in a manner contrary to the bishop’s desires is contrary to the role of church orders. Look at what the bishops of the council of Nicea said regarding this:
“Let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishops and the inferiors of the presbyters” (Canon 18 [A.D. 325]).
Ignatius of Antioch tells us:
“Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery.”
What then do BISHOPS in the Coptic Church specifically assign the minor orders to do when they appoint them? Let us turn to the words of the appointment service rite itself:
CHANTER/CANTOR (A.K.A. ψάλτης, psaltis in Greek)
Their role is to chant. Not to serve in the altar, not to read the readings of the church, not to make their parents proud by standing up on the “stage” in front of the “audience” and “performing.”
The bishop prays over the individual to be appointed a chanter as follows:
“O God our Lord, who raised Heman and Asaph to chant in Your holy places [1 Chronicles 15], and granted David the prophet to chant with psaltry and harp and the ten lyre … We ask You O Lord, to give your grace to Your servants so that they may do the work of the chanter in Your Holy Church, and that they man sing unto You: hymns, chants, and spiritual songs from their hearts to the Lord….
“Grant them the ability to chant unto You with understanding, so they may chant from the depth of their hearts in the spirit of prayer and worship. Grant that they may serve You with all their hearts, by filling their mouths with praise and singing Your hymns. Accept their chants as a sweet savor before You….
“Remove from them the spirit of pride, showiness, and boasting. Make them good servants.”
READER (A.K.A. αναγνώστης, anagnostis in Greek]
The reader was meant primarily to have the capability and responsibility of reading the Scriptures both in and particularly out of church, preaching the word and teaching others from these Scriptures. They were also the first rank allowed to “touch the vessels” (which can be understood to include the role of washing the vessels on the altar used in the service of the Eucharist; unfortunately, that is not what happens in the Coptic Church today, as chanters are commonly the ones performing this function).
“We ask and desire, our Master Lord God the Pantocrator, to accept Your servant ( … ) reader in Your church. Grant him Your truth and reverence in his worship of You. Make him worthy to touch the vessels …
“O God who is generous and great in Your gifts, who granted Your church the various ranks for Holy service, and Your servant whom You have called to be a reader, graciously fill him with every wisdom and understanding to read your divine saying. Protect him from error in his worship. Perfect him in Your talents….
“Shine now on Your servant ( … ) who stands before You to be taught from Your holy sayings, the Old and New Testaments, preaching Your commands to Your people and teaching Your pure words …
“Grant him a humble heart so that he may read and learn in order to edify his listeners….
“As you did with Ezra, … grant him wisdom and the spirit of prophecy to read Your holy words to Your people in an unblemished fashion.”
The bishop then directs his remarks directly to the reader and says:
“My son … you ought to learn every chapter in the Holy Books … which have been entrusted to you so that you will preach them to the people. This is a great act. You have to be as an illuminated light on a tower house so that you may fill and satisfy your congregation with your readings.
“When the people see your good growth and progress, they may recommend you for the higher rank …”
SUBDEACON (A.K.A. υποδιάκονος, ypodiakonos in Greek)
Many people think this is just a “step below” a “full deacon” (as is often the term used) and thus signifies a higher degree of authority and honor and deference deserved during worship service, almost akin to that of a deacon. Wrong! If anything, this is the most humbling of all the services as it relates to one particular function: standing at the doors of the church and making sure heretics and animals do not enter the church, and also ensuring the catechumens and anyone who cannot partake of the Mysteries to leave when they are commanded so (which is a liturgical practice that is no longer followed in the Coptic Church; in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the announcement for catechumens to depart is still made, but depending on the jurisdiction and locale, the extent to which this is followed varies). They were also to turn the lights on in the church (or light the lamps, etc.), and perform any other service designated to them by the deacon or the priest. See what the bishop says:
“We ask You now our King to shine your light on Your servant ( … ) who was presented to become subdeacon by those who attested him. Fill him with Your Holy Spirit to stand at the sanctuary door and light the house of Your prayers.”
Then the deacon (or head deacon of the deacons—the archdeacon) of the church is supposed to command the subdeacon as follows:
“Whatever is commanded of you do. Be a follower and a helper to the deacon. Assist the priest and the deacon in the service. Watch the doors of the Church, which is the house of God. Do not permit any cattle or dogs or heretics to enter. During the holy service when the deacon says, ‘No catechumens are to stand in the church nor a non-partaker to receive the Holy Mysteries,’ be sure to guard the church safely for you have been entrusted to touch the holy vessels that are used in the holy service.” [Note: while this is no longer said in the Coptic Church, it is interesting to note that whenever there is a major feast service in the Cathedral in Cairo where many non-Christian attendees from the government are present, all of those attendees usually leave at about the same time this liturgical pronouncement used to be made.]
I pray that if you are
- Parents, you teach your kids these things and hold off on asking that they participate as a chanter until they have displayed an understanding, aptitude, and willingness to actually serve as intended; they should also exhibit a humble attitude regarding their responsibility to serve.
- Chanters, please chant, with understanding.
- Readers, please make sure you read the Bible, and preach the word particularly outside of the church, or at the least in Sunday School and among your friends, and live the Scriptures. At minimum, when called upon to read a passage during the liturgy, read it beforehand and ensure you not only know how to pronounce all the words, but also that you understand what it is you are saying; this way you will not just be delivering a bunch of words but rather enunciating in a manner that reflects the actual meaning of what you are reading.
- Subdeacons, while technically the exact duties of the subdeacon are generally no longer applicable, focus on the principle of service behind this role and think of ways to truly serve the priest and deacon: for example, make sure to seek out for yourself the humblest of tasks, such as taking care of the books, or cleaning the church, or anything else that the church needs; also, make sure you are there early to turn the lights on, and prepare whatever other things are needed for the liturgy (the water and wine, turning on the presentation devices that are used these days, etc.).
I also ask that everyone please speak to your bishops, seeking that they improve the condition of the minor and major orders of the Coptic Church. And at the very least, teach and apply as much of the above in your own local parish, so we do not practice our rites ignorantly and in vain, but that all things are done in order and with reason.
Eusebius, Church History.
Text of the Ordination Rite in the Coptic Church.