The Coptic Church is beautiful in its organization, structure, tradition, depth, and spirituality. But no group of fallible individuals will forever be without fault. Christianity is perfect; its followers are not, and that is okay, because the Christian life is a life of constantly striving towards perfection—towards Christ. So who are we to cast stones at others as if we are not ourselves full of faults? And be aware that sometimes we unfairly cast a negative light on individuals due to our own weaknesses more than theirs. Nonetheless, out of love for our Church, its priests, and its people, necessity bears upon us to cast a light upon matters that need attention. Thus, although we are all subject to weakness, it becomes particularly troublesome (and therefore important to point out) when the Church’s appointed/chosen leaders forget that they are servants at the feet of whom they serve rather than authority figures looking below at their subjects.
Sadly, many have forgotten St. Peter’s exhortation directed to them to be “eager to serve” rather than using their position in the manner of “lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Peter 5:3).
To the priests among you … be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Peter 5:1–4)
We have seen a derogation of this commandment exhibited by the leaders of other Christian denominations, such as the catholic bishops who live in lavish mansions, and in a Protestant church in Atlanta where “Bishop” Eddie Long was crowned as a king.
Such displays are in direct contrast with the example set by Christ, the true priest-servant (cf. Hebrews 5:4–5; Philippians 2:5–11), and also our greatest leaders, such as the current Coptic Patriarch, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, who upon receiving his appointment exuded tremendous humility, as did the interim Coptic Patriarch (Abba Pachomius) who exemplified the words of St. John the Baptist: “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). You really must watch the following video (which includes English subtitles) to see the genuine humility of the leaders of the Coptic Church (if the embedded video below doesn’t work, click here):
Bishops are our overseers
In Christianity, Bishops are the overseers of the church (which is what the word bishop literally means in Greek—epi [over] skopos [seer]). They are the “presidents” of the church, as the early Church writings say. Every other person that serves in the Church, from the laity to the priests, is to ensure that they are aligned with the bishop’s oversight. Note that in each parish one should find the bishop’s seat/throne at the front of the church, upon which no one but the bishop sits; this serves as a continual reminder regarding who oversees the church and to whom we all owe absolute obedience and reverence (and note: if you don’t have a diocese, your bishop is the pope). Often it is doing things our own way which leads to problems, forgetting that we are stewards of our bishops and spiritual fathers.
Unfortunately there are some churches that are not part of a diocese and do not have adequate oversight by a bishop, and therefore some of these church’s priests begin to feel a sense of authority and take certain things into their own hands. They forget that they are not only servants to their flock, but are also servants to their bishop (the pope), and the church is not theirs. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that every church that is not under a diocese has significant problems in relations to the priests, or that priests that are under a diocese make all the right decisions all the time. Nonetheless, it is much more helpful to have a bishop overseeing churches more directly.
See what the very early Church says on this matter, from the wisdom of Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (died AD 107):
“Some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Magnesians; Ch 4)
“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. […] Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic [i.e., Universal] Church…. Whatsoever [the bishop] shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Smyrnaeans; Ch 8)
“Let all things therefore be done by you with good order in Christ. Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Smyrnaeans; Ch 9)
“It is becoming, therefore, that you also should be obedient to your bishop, and contradict him in nothing; for it is a fearful thing to contradict any such person. For no one does [by such conduct] deceive him that is visible, but does [in reality] seek to mock Him that is invisible, who, however, cannot be mocked by any one. And every such act has respect not to man, but to God.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Magnesians; Ch 3)
“Wherefore it is fitting that you also should run together in accordance with the will of the bishop who by God’s appointment rules over you. Which thing you indeed of yourselves do, being instructed by the Spirit. For your justly-renowned presbytery, being worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Thus, being joined together in concord and harmonious love, of which Jesus Christ is the Captain and Guardian, do you, man by man, become but one choir; so that, agreeing together in concord, and obtaining a perfect unity with God, you may indeed be one in harmonious feeling with God the Father, and His beloved Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Ephesians; Ch 4)
How do we get relief?
Applying the instructions set by Christ for handling other similar matters (in Matthew 18:15–17), here is what I would suggest, escalating to each option only if you have not found a solution:
- Love the person who is disappointing you. Do not make them an enemy in your heart. Do not gossip about them. Do not sin.
- With love in your heart, talk to the priest.
- If that doesn’t work, bring one or two people who have some clout with the priest and see if you can approach the priest in that way.
- Speak to your bishop (or a bishop, if you are not part of a diocese).
In the end, if nothing changes, what do you do? The most important thing you can do is not lose heart, as your salvation is not dependent on a priest, but rather on your partaking of the mysteries and abiding by God’s commandments. Thus, when you come to church, you are there to receive the means of wiping away your sins; don’t add to yourself more sins by your inability to forgive the priest. Remember that God’s greatest commandment, after loving Him, is to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). Widen your heart to love and pray for the priest, the congregation, and proceed to take communion with a heart that is clean of hatred. It’s a serious problem if we cannot love within the church itself.
Rest assured—the Mysteries are safe
As I conclude, I want to note that in spite of an errant priest (whether you erroneously think they are because of your own misunderstanding or misinterpretation, or because they are errant in fact), since the Church is the source of the remission of sins through the body and blood of the Lamb, there is therefore no excuse to neglect your salvation because of your own disappointment in a priest, making a bad situation eternally worse. A remarkable story in the Coptic Synaxarion (a collection of writings commemorating significant church-related events and people) tells us of how the Mysteries are still legitimately present even if offered at the hands of a sinful priest:
[St. John, Archpriest of Schetis/Shiheet] once saw one of the priests, who was of bad reputation, coming to the church and the evil spirits surrounding him. When the priest arrived at the door of the church, the angel of the Lord came out from the sanctuary (Hekal) with a fiery sword in his hand and dismissed the unclean spirits. The priest entered the church and put on the service clothes and administered the liturgy and gave the Holy Communion to the people. After he was finished, he took off the service clothes and went out of the church, and the evil spirits returned to him. This was what St. John said to his brethren the monks, to make them aware that there was no difference between a sinful and an unsinful priest in ministering the church sacraments. For it is for the sake of the people that the bread and the wine are changed to the Body and the Blood of Christ. (Coptic Synaxarion, Kiahk 30)
Fr. Daniel Fanous, in his recent inauguration as a priest in a Coptic church in Sydney, Australia, gave an amazing sermon about how he sees his role as being the calling of a slave. Click here for a link to the sermon.