Link below to AOCA slides no longer working. Here is a working link to the PDF (click here)
Here is the latest on this endeavor, and it appears that the most substantive change will be language, while all other cultural aspects will remain mostly intact. Was hoping for more, particularly when it comes to the manner of singing hymns. Nonetheless, may God bless the bishop and all the servants in this attempt to reach more people.
H.G. Bishop Youssef has announced his intention to establish mission churches in his diocese, and the latest I have heard is that His Grace has settled on the name, “American Orthodox Church of Alexandria” [although I have also heard the title “American Coptic Orthodox Church” as well]. The plan is to start by setting up 8 mission churches and assign priests for all 8 in 2015. The overall goal is to diminish Coptic/Egyptian/Arabic cultural distractions and to supplant that with cultural supplements that are amenable to the American population. (For more on this from H.G. Bishop Youssef, see this mostly English language clip [with English subtitles when needed] of His Grace speaking about his intentions in November 2014 in Titusville, FL; click here if you want a direct link). Many people love the idea, yet most of us are concerned about its execution for various reasons. The name itself tells us a lot about how people feel regarding this news. Reaction to the name usually falls into two groups:
- Coptic Modernists. Why keep the name Alexandria in the title if the intention is to keep Coptic/Egyptian/Arabic culture out of the new mission churches?
- Coptic Traditionalists. Why are they taking away the name Coptic? Even if you take away culture, why would you remove yourself from being associated with the Coptic church? And are you really going to erase everything “Coptic” from the church?
Both camps often have very strong, opposing (and on rare occasions hostile) feelings about the other. Here are some things to consider about the currently proposed name of the new mission churches that will comprise the American Orthodox Church of Alexandria:
Unlike other countries where its population is predominated by a particular ethnic group, the United States is an “immigration country” filled with a population of diverse and mixed ethnic ancestry, beliefs, and traditions. Most of our unity resides in achieving one overarching goal: the pursuit of happiness. Aside from that, what makes up American “culture” with which we can supplement our new Orthodox mission churches? It will be hard to find anything that applies to everyone completely, but there are some major threads of unity that one may attribute to Americans as being part of our culture. The English language is one piece of it, but there’s a lot more. For example, Americans typically don’t wear galabeyas (long tunics found in Arabic culture, which the priests wear as well), but rather are accustomed to pants, shirts, etc. Our radios blast certain common styles of music. Americans play guitars, drums, and pianos/keyboards, not Ouds (Middle Eastern lutes) and tablas (Middle Eastern drums). It’s easiest though to be fixated on the English language, but if we are to really make the American mission churches truly American, why not look at the rest of the Coptic Church’s cultural elements and assess what we want to import and what we want to leave behind?
- Hymns: Let’s pretend we keep all the words of the liturgy and most of the hymn texts intact; why not change all of their tunes? Shouldn’t the priest hymn his prayers differently? How so? Would it be the way Catholic priests hymn their prayers? Or the way the Eastern Orthodox priests chant?
- Instruments: While most Orthodox, particularly the Eastern Orthodox, are adamantly opposed to the inclusion of instruments (and the Coptic Church’s use of cymbals and triangle would be a big no-no among many other Orthodox jurisdictions), will we allow a guitar, drums, violins, flutes, an orchestra, an organ, or what? And if we do it, I hope that we don’t have these people facing the congregation, so would they face the east, or be hidden somewhere, or positioned on the side of the church?
- Dress: Will priests wear pants and shirts like the Catholics? What about church vestments? Will they change? How about the dress code for the laity? Will it be less strict or more strict or just leave it up to them?
- Beards: Will priests have beards? Probably yes, but how long? The new modern “short” cut, or the traditional Old Testament prophet look?
- Coptic art: You know, the icons are adopted from ancient Egyptian cultural practices; do we modify this? Do we have more European-looking icons? Will we make the images look realistic or will we follow the iconography rules of the Coptic church?
- Architecture, interior design, and church items: Truth is, much of our architecture, interior design, and even the items we use in church have a cultural component. The iconostasis, is it going to be designed according to a more American style? Do we want all that wood inlay design with Coptic crosses, or would we want something more aligned with modern American design? What about the crosses we use in church, or the images on the curtains, or even the shape of the church building itself?
This is the part of the title that everyone agrees about, at least in name, although I have my concerns about how much this will be kept intact in substance. We might not all agree about how much culture to strip away and add to the new mission churches, but we all want the Orthodox faith (and that can be a problematic definition on its own) to remain strong and steadfast. My concern is if we adopt too many things from “American” non-Orthodox churches (because of a desire to make our new mission church feel right at home) that we may unwittingly also dilute authentic Orthodoxy and the depth one can find in its rich history. As H.G. Bishop Youssef said in the above-linked video:
“We cannot make American [Orthodox] spirituality by taking this from Evangelical and Protestant churches and call this American [Orthodox] spirituality. That is very dangerous and very risky. American [Orthodox] spirituality is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Church of the people who live here in America.”
We may say we want to keep the “Orthodox faith” when in fact what we are doing is giving people an “Orthodox lite” version of the faith… Christianity, but not as hard as traditionalist Orthodox Christians practice it. I hope that to never be the case. For a great article by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick (from the Eastern Orthodox Church) on this subject, see the following: “Is Orthodoxy ‘Christianity, only tougher?'”
“OF ALEXANDRIA” [and/or “COPTIC,” if that’s what is decided to be placed in the title]
This is the part of the title that is quite problematic for many Coptic modernists, and it saddens me for that to be the case. In my humble opinion, this title is NOT cultural, but rather jurisdictional. It is not a mark of ethnic limitation, but a title of ecclesiastical PRIVILEGE. Or, at least, that’s how we should view it. If I were to guess, I would think that many of those who have issues with this word likely have little knowledge of the history and significance of the Church of Alexandria in the scheme of Christianity. I won’t belabor you with a thorough history, but here is why this part of the title is the most meaningful to me. When Christianity started, there were certain main cities where a bishop was presiding over, and which cities became the main centers of the majority of all Christians in the world.
In the beginning of Christendom, those centers were Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and then later Constantinople. These cities were headed by a bishop, but eventually their territory expanded and other bishops were ordained to serve in that territory, and all of those bishops reported to one father and archbishop. So, for example, the bishops in cities throughout Egypt began to report to the archbishop of Alexandria, who was called Papa (father), or Patriarch, and from there the term “patriarchate” was established, which referred the territory or jurisdiction that the archbishop of the main city was covering. By the time of the Council of Nicea, you’ll see Canon 6 refer to this sort of arrangement:
“Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges.”
It is a historical fact that the Christian world viewed Alexandria and Rome as having primacy among all patriarchates. Often you’ll find that Rome was given primacy, and Alexandria followed right afterward. When Constantinople came to become more significant, those three patriarchates yielded the most collective influence over all Christendom than the rest of the patriarchates. By referring to the American Orthodox mission churches as being “of Alexandria,” they are retaining the privilege of ascribing to the historical significance of the Alexandrian patriarchate. This title also serves to define the ecclesiastical “chain of command” as going from their priest, to their diocesan bishop, to the Pope of the Church of Alexandria. Look at some of the beauty of the contributions and history of the Church of Alexandria:
- The Patriarch of Alexandria lead all of the first three seminal councils of the church.
- The deacon and later Pope of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, kept the entire world from referring to Christ as being lesser than the Father and being simply the first of many creations by God. He defied Arius and freed us from such heretical thought.
- The whole world decided the date of Easter (the Feast of Resurrection) based on the advice given by the Pope of Alexandria in the first few centuries of the Church. And thus, because the Egyptians were so good at understanding the calendar, the Church of Rome and ALL Christendom relied on the Pope of Alexandria to send a homily and letter each year to all the patriarchates (including Rome) to provide a spiritual message related to the feast of Resurrection, and to inform everyone when the date of Resurrection was to be celebrated.
- Great lent as we know it today was due to the suggestion and direction of Pope Demetrius of Alexandria. Before his contributions, all we had was basically holy week.
- Monasticism credits its roots in the spirituality and example set by an Egyptian known as St. Anthony the Great. Other monks also helped pave the way for all monks and nuns today, including the Egyptian saints Macarius the Great and Pachomius. Many famous saints and theologians were influenced heavily by the Egyptian desert and its spiritual prowess, including St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great.
- The martyrs offered by the Church of Alexandria were an exceedingly great number and exuded tremendous faith and witness for Christ, as attested to by the early Christians Bishop Eusebius and Scholar Tertullian,
- Often, whenever a problem came up, the Church of Alexandria would step in to help manage the situation. Such was the case when Christians who offered something to idols were being told by some priests that they must be re-baptized instead of just repent. The Pope of Alexandria stepped in and convinced Rome and all others that this was erroneous.
- The Catechetical school of Alexandria influenced or yielded some of the most prized theologians and saints of our Orthodox history, including Origen, St. Gregory the Miracle-Worker, St. Basil the Great, St. Didymus the Blind, St. Dionysius the Great, and St. Jerome.
In the end, I’m fine if you want to turn away from Coptic culture and make the church American, and obviously agree with everyone in retaining the faith of the Orthodox Church; however, like all the saints and all of Christendom who often turned to Alexandria for sustenance throughout Christianity, our mission Churches should learn why it is only to their benefit to embrace the privilege of being of Alexandria.