GK Chesterton once famously said that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; rather, it has been found difficult and not tried. We are all called to live the life of the Spirit, for through our baptism God’s Spirit has made his home in us, but it is not always easy to live up to that. All too often our interests seem unspiritual and we struggle to reflect the Light of Christ undimmed to those around us. Many might think it is not just difficult, but impossible! But this is exactly where the saints come in, why they are so important, for they show us that it is not impossible. With God’s help we can live as Christ lived. In the kaleidoscope of the lives of the saints we see that when Christianity is really tried it works. In those countless inspirational lives, in their wonderful vitality and variety we see many different aspects of Christ’s life and teaching, all reflected and “incarnated” in the lives of the saints. In them we see what it means to be fully human, to be fully centred on Christ.
I have an especial interest in the Coptic Orthodox Church, the national church of Egypt, and so I want to look at what we can learn from them about devotion to the Saints. The Coptic Church is a church very much in touch with its roots, a church which proudly boasts that it teaches “Christianity as it has always been taught.” On my many visits to Egypt and to the Coptic Church I have always felt in touch with the spirit of the early church in a way which is true nowhere else. In the various desert monasteries which I have visited and at which I have stayed you quickly realise that monasticism, which started in third century Egypt, is still alive and flourishing, and that there are still monks and hermits whose lives are strikingly similar to those of the early desert fathers. In the same way Coptic devotion to the saints puts in touch with traditional belief and practice.
The most popular saints are probably St George the Martyr (and various other armed warrior saints) and St Damiana, who with her forty virgin companions, was martyred in the year 304, but supreme among all the saints honoured by the Copts is Our Lady. Coptic theology and liturgy have deeply Marian characteristics, and hymns and poems praising the Blessed Virgin Mary are an essential part of Coptic worship. Devotion to Mary is all the stronger because of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt after Our Lord’s birth at Bethlehem. According to Coptic tradition they stayed in Egypt for three years, six months and ten days, and the tradition goes on to give a detailed itinerary for all that time. All the places they visited are now marked by churches, chapels, holy wells, sacred trees etc, and are places of regular pilgrimage.
I have myself visited the three sites associated with the Holy family in Cairo. One of them is at a place called Ma’adi, six miles South of Old Cairo, on the East bank of the river Nile. Some sources also claim it as the site of the finding of Moses in the bulrushes by Pharaoh’s daughter, but a site by the ancient Synagogue in Old Cairo also claims this distinction! At Ma’adi there is a large church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but beneath it is a subterranean chapel, at the old ground level and reached by a winding tunnel. This is said to be the room where the Holy Family stayed for two nights before embarking from that point on a boat which took them all the way to Upper Egypt.
The furthest South the Holy Family reached was Deir el-Muharraq, now a famous monastery and almost the exact geographical centre of the modern state of Egypt. The Copts see this as very significant : Mary and her divine son travel to the very centre of Egypt in order to bless it. In this way Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled: ”Blessed be Egypt my people.” The Copts see their native land as a blessed land, a Holy Land quite as much as Palestine, for it was these two lands alone in which the Incarnate Son of God chose to dwell. In fact Egypt was arguably the first country which became almost completely Christian, so that in the early Christian persecutions Egypt probably suffered far more than any other province of the Roman Empire. All this gives the Egyptian Christians a great awareness of Egypt as a Holy Land, and many look forward with confidence to the day when Egypt will once again be a completely Christian land. In one monastery I met a monk who assured me, on the basis of the apparition and message of a particular saint, that this would happen within thirty years! There is also a strain of Coptic nationalism among a small minority of Copts, who see themselves as the true ethnic Egyptians, successors of the Pharaohs, as opposed to the Moslems, who are descended from the seventh century Arab conquerors. The truth is, of course, that the Moslem population of Egypt is by now of mixed Egyptian and Arab descent, through fourteen centuries of intermarriage and the gradual conversion of many Christians to Islam.
Since that Arab conquest in 639 Egypt has been under Moslem rule, but Christians formed a majority of the population as late as the eleventh or twelfth centuries. From the very beginning of Moslem rule, however, Christians had a definitely second class status, were always discriminated against, and suffered intermittent but regular persecution, so much so that they now form only around fifteen percent of the population (estimates of the Christian percentage of the population range from ten to twenty percent, depending on which authority you follow). As a result of this long history of discrimination and persecution the Cult of the Martyrs has an important place in the life of the coptic church. Copts today still see themselves as the Suffering Church, the Martyr Church, and therefore the place where the Kingdom of heaven will be built on earth. It is interesting that Copts do not number the years by Anno Domini, from the birth of Our Lord, but from the great persecution of the Emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century; according to this computation we are now in the Era of the Martyrs. In recent years there have been many Marian apparitions, but whenever the Virgin Mary appears she never speaks. She only weeps, and looks down sadly but lovingly on her children. The Copts see themselves as being without a voice, suffering in silence, as Mary so often had to in the gospels.
One of the best-known appearances of Our Lady took place on numerous occasions during the months of April and May 1968 at Zeitoon, a suburb of Cairo. A shining full-size apparition of Our Lady, surrounded by a glorious halo of Light, appeared over the dome of the Church of Our Lady. Often the Apparition lasted several hours: crowds of people flocked there, and many miracles took place. In 2004 I went there myself, and spoke with an old man on the steps of the large new church which has been built opposite the original one. He had been there in 1968, and he assured me that the apparitions were real. The facial features of the virgin were quite clear, and profoundly moving: Our Lady gazing sadly but lovingly over her people.
I experienced another aspect of this sense the Copts have of being a Martyr Church in 2006, when I visited the Monastery of St Gabriel at Naqlun. This ancient monastery is just in the desert, about a quarter of a mile from the South-Western edge of the great oasis of the Fayoum ( it is about the size of a medium sized English county ) in the Western Desert. One of the monks was showing me around, and at the end of the tour we entered a modern chapel built onto the old church. Along the north and South walls of the nave were five large cylindrical boxes, like bolsters, covered with embroidered red cloth. This is the way in which the Copts keep holy relics, though the size of these bolsters can vary from large, the size of an entire body, to quite small.
The monk explained whose relics were in the five bolsters. In the summer of 1991 archaeological excavations were being carried out about one hundred and fifty yards from the monastery, and three caskets were discovered, each containing four mummies. The clothing suggested they were monks, and all bodies bore the marks of torture. Some seem to have been strangled, including one who must have been a boy of about fifteen years of age. Others bore wounds inflicted by an axe or knife. Carbon dating has suggested a date from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, a time when the Mameluke rulers of Egypt carried out many persecutions and massacres of Christians. The response of the Coptic Church has been to declare them martyrs and to canonise them. Throughout Egypt there is now a great devotion to the Twelve Martyrs of Naqlun, and though the bulk of their remains are kept at the monastery, small portions of the relics have been despatched to churches not only throughout Egypt, but also to the Coptic diaspora throughout the rest of the world.
In fact devotion to the saints is undergoing a great revival; numerous new saints have been canonised, and for some time the search has been on for the relics of saints whose burial sites were previously only vaguely known. Relics are honoured as important sources of supernatural grace and healing. The whole theology of relics is well summarised by the following passage taken from a book about St George the Roman written by the nuns of the Convent of St George in Old Cairo under the supervision of His Grace bishop Yohanna, General Bishop over the Churches of Old Cairo:
The spiritual significance of relics is that they can do miracles and heal people, just as a dead body was raised to life when it touched the relics of the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 13:21).The idea does not depend only on the bones, but on the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, who does not leave the body after death. The sanctification of the Holy Fathers by the Holy Spirit affects both body and soul. When the body is separated from the soul by death the effect of that sanctification departs from neither body nor soul. Therefore every relic has the power and strength of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the gifts God gave to his beloved church. This veneration of the blessed relics helps the church in her struggles and gives aid to the brethren in the trials of this life.
It should also be mentioned that in common with the rest of the Orthodox world the Copts give great honour to Icons, and as in so many areas of contemporary Coptic life, there is an important revival of icon painting. As with us in the West, the saints are seen not only as inspiring examples to be followed, but also as powerful intercessors. We can and should ask for their prayers. In any Coptic church you can see people praying before the red cylindrical bolsters containing the relics, embracing them, and leaving behind slips of paper on which they have written prayer requests. If the saints are those who most clearly reflect the Light of Christ, then honouring a favourite saint or saints, studying their lives and message, can help us to know Christ better. The first Bishop of Alexandria was St Mark the Evangelist, whose bodily remains were kept in a church in Alexandria until they were stolen by Venetian sailors in the ninth century. There was immense rejoicing in 1967 when some of those relics were returned by Pope Paul VI to Pope Cyril VI, the predecessor of the present Pope, Shenouda III, who is the 117th successor of St Mark.
If only we had the same love for our English saints, all those wonderful Anglo-Saxon saints from the springtime of Christianity in our land, when England was truly an Island of Saints! Of course there is also a vast number of saints from succeeding centuries, St Anselm, St Thomas a Becket, St Thomas More, St John Fisher and Blessed King Charles the Martyr, to name but a few .It is all these saints who have helped make England what it is today, moulded its history, culture and faith. Only if, like the Copts, we are aware of the glory of our Christian past can we have a true vision for our Christian future.
Canon Christopher Cook SSC
Vicar of the Parish of St Agnes & St Pancras Toxteth Park, Liverpool.
It can be annoying when advocates of innovation in the Church of England accuse us of being inward-looking, narrow and exclusive. In my time at St Agnes’s since leaving the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department in 2004 I have most definitely found that not to be the case. Through our PEV, Bishop Martyn, we have good links with other parishes across the North of England, and through SSC, the Society of Mary etc we have a close working relationship with many other parishes not only in our own diocese of Liverpool, but also in the dioceses of Manchester, Blackburn and Chester. Another very important and developing link we have is with the Ethiopian community in Merseyside. Although the number of Moslems in Ethiopia is growing, Ethiopia has always been a Christian country, and right up until the shocking deposition and murder of the late Emperor Haile Selasse the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was the established state church. It still remains the most important and influential institution in the land. Ethiopia was evangelised from Egypt, and like the Coptic Church the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is pre-Chalcedonian, which means that like the other “Oriental Churches” they did not accept the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon concerning the two natures of Christ. During the last few decades there has been a series of conversations with both Rome and the Orthodox, which established that there was no essential doctrinal difference. I have never visited Ethiopia, but have some first hand knowledge of the Coptic Church in Egypt; the strength of their faith, their resilience and courage in the face of an increasingly assertive Moslem majority certainly evokes my admiration. In Egypt, as also in Ethiopia, religious faith is the very air one breathes, and contact with the indigenous church in either land seems to bring you into contact with what it must have been like in the early Church.
Every Sunday afternoon the Ethiopian community in Liverpool and the Wirral comes to worship in St Agnes’s, and to share a meal together in the church hall afterwards. A recent development is that there is now a new Ethiopian chapel in St Agnes’s. The South-East transept was being used only as a storage area, but it has now been cleared and a new chapel created. Pride of place goes to a large Ethiopian Icon of St George. We are used to having St George as Patron Saint of England, but perhaps we are not so aware exactly how popular St George is in the East, and how widespread his cult is. He is in fact the Patron Saint of Ethiopia, and the 1896 victory won by Ethiopian arms over an invading army intent on reducing the country to colonial status is ascribed to the intercession of St George. In fact the battle of Adwa took place on St George’s day, and early in the morning the Emperor Menelik II, the Empress Taitu and the entire army rose to pray to St George for victory. This great victory is celebrated by all Ethiopians to this day.
Our new Icon of St George is traditional in style and was created by an Ethiopian icon-writer resident in Italy, with encouragement and funding from “Liverpool Community Spirit”, which runs community support programmes for ethnic and religious minorities in the Toxteth and Aigburth areas of Liverpool. On the occasion of the opening by HRH the Prince of Wales of the newly restored St George’s Hall in Liverpool City Centre in the summer of 2007, the magnificent icon was on display, and the Prince showed much interest in it. Shown with the Prince in the photograph are members both of the Ethiopian Community and of Liverpool Community Spirit. Following Ethiopian custom the icon stood veiled in St Agnes’s for the space of forty days before being solemnly blessed. On 7th October 2007 it was anointed and blessed in the course of the Parish Mass, and in the afternoon an Ethiopian Orthodox priest travelled from London to bless the icon using Ethiopian rites. A wonderful party, with much delicious Ethiopian food, was held in the church hall afterwards. Since then there has been added to the chapel an icon of St Tekle Haimanot, one of the most popular of Ethiopia’s indigenous saints, who lived in the 13th century and founded the great monastery of Debre Libanos, the “Westminster Abbey” of Ethiopia.
Such ecumenical links remind us that it is Forward in Faith which is more in tune with mainstream Christianity than anyone else in the Church of England; like the rest of Orthodoxy the Copts and Ethiopians would have little time for the doctrinal and liturgical innovations we know only too well! Let us not forget to seek the prayers of the saints in all our efforts to maintain catholic faith and order in our church. Let us seek the aid of our patron saint, using the words of the Ethiopian Hymn of St George:
Liberator of captives,
And defender of the poor,
Physician of the sick,
And champion of kings,
And great martyr Saint George,
Christ our God
That our souls be saved.
Canon Christopher Cook SSC
Vicar of the Parish of St Agnes & St Pancras Toxteth Park, Liverpool.
Canon Cook's Speech to the Toxteth and Wavertree Deanery Synod on Monday 20th June 2011 he Toxteth & Wavertree Deanery Synod on 20th June 2011
We have heard how the draft legislation on women in the Episcopate is good, but my task this evening is to tell you that it is not good enough. You will hear some say that it is an act of justice that women, who are able to become priests, should also be able to become bishops. I agree, but the problem with this draft legislation is that in correcting one injustice it creates another one.
I will try and explain. There is no doubt that a large majority of our Church has happily accepted women priests and look forward to women bishops, but there is a significant minority who are unhappy or unsure. About 1000 parishes have passed one or more resolutions under the current legislation; that’s roughly one in ten parishes. And the Ch of England agrees that all these people remain loyal Anglicans. As recently as 2006 the GS affirmed the resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference which says we are still in a process of open reception with the ordination of women. This means that in some sense the whole question remains unresolved, until the universal church has come to a common mind. The Resolution then called on provinces to make proper provision, including appropriate episcopal ministry.
The draft legislation is wrong because it abandons this principle of Open Reception, and makes it virtually impossible for anyone unsure about women’s ordination to remain a loyal anglican. The draft legislation is therefore unfair. It also breaks promises made only a short time ago. When the 1992 Measure was passed, enabling women to be ordained, the GS, Parliament and the whole Church were assured that its provisions, Resolutions A,B and C, and the system of Flying Bishops, would be lasting, and available as long as they were needed by anyone. Under the present proposals all this will be abolished, to be replaced by a Code of Practice which will not have the force of law, and which as yet does not exist; it has not yet been written! None of this is fair or just.
A further reason the draft measure is unsatisfactory is because episcopal care for thoser who cannot accept the ministry of a woman bishop will be wholly by delegation from the diocesan bishop, even when the diocesan is a woman. This is clearly illogical, for it of necessity involves accepting the authority of the diocesan bishop who is delegating, even when a woman. The bishops we need to lead us need to have the tools of the trade. To be leaders in mission, teachers and pastors they need to have real authority in their own right. Under this measure they would not have the „appropriate episcopal ministry“ of the Lambeth Resolution, which General Synod affirmed in 2006. That cannot be fair!
There is a third reason the draft Measure is deeply flawed. It is sexist, rather than theological! The measure ignores our theological reasons for being unable to accept the ordination of women. It allows a parish to request a male priest or male bishop, but it says nothing about a male priest who has been ordained by a female bishop. What we need is not just a priest who happens to be male, but rather a priest who is ordained in the apostolic tradition which the Church of England has received and handed on down the ages, and which it shares with all the other worlwide churches which have an ordained ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.
So this measure squeezes out a theological conviction which has always been respected in the Church of England up to now. It enforces conformity on what is still meant to be an open question. And it only offers us 2nd class bishops, who will have delegated 2nd hand authority. In 1993 the General Synod said that those who cannot in conscience accept women’s ordination „will continue to hold a legitimate and recognised place within the Church of England.“ Without bishops with the necessary tools for the job, without their own authority, the draft measure cannot give us that legitimate and recognised place we were promised.
There have been various suggestions as to how the church can both move ahead with the consecration of women bishops and make proper arrangements for those conscientiously opposed. Even at this stage it is possible. At the heart of all these proposals is the provision of bishops with authority of their own, and an assured sacramental ministry as the church of England has always understood it up to now. At the General Synod of July 2010 the two Archbishops moved an amendment which could provide a way forward. Although it received a majority of votes overall in the Synod, when a vote by houses was called for, it was narrowly defeated in the House of Clergy. But it did show that a majority of General Synod in July 2010 believed the draft Measure to be unsatisfactory. Under the Archbishops‘ proposals we would have bishops with authority conferred directly by the measure, and that authority would be co-ordinate with that of the diocesan bishop. This need not undermine the integrity of a diocese any more than now, and it would go a long way towards giving us the legitimate and recognised place maintained by General Synod , and the appropriate episcopal ministry required by the Lambeth Conference and affirmed by the General Synod in 2006.
It is not too late to ensure that the Church of England remains a broad church, inclusive, and tolerant of theological beliefs which were commonplace until a short time ago, and which are still held by the majority of Christians throughout the world. It is possible for the House of bishops to amend the Measure and restore the Archbishops‘ proposals to the Measure before it returns to General Synod in 2012.
The Measure as it stands is both unfair and unjust. It could well gradually force Anglo-catholics out of the church they love. And so I shall be proposing a Following Motion calling on the House of Bishops to amend the draft Measure in just that way, giving us the bishops with the necessary authority to lead us and enable us to thrive, rather than just to survive. That is what justice requires; it is what fairness demands. A vote for this Following Motion is a vote for the unity of the Church of England.
Your Grace, yesterday in Synod there was much talk about the Coptic Church and the recent election of the new Pope, Tawadros II. In fact I visit Egypt frequently, and have a great interest in the Copts. Over the last twenty or thirty years the Coptic Church has experienced a great revival; the churches are full and countless monasteries have been founded or refounded. And all this has been despite ongoing anti-Christian discrimination and sporadic localised attacks on Christians and their churches.
The Churches in Eastern Europe too, despite generations of persecution, have now experienced an amazing resurgence of spiritual life. They and the Copts have achieved this largely by remaining true to their traditional self-understanding, and to orthodox belief and worship.
By comparison, we and our sister churches in Western Europe, despite a few areas of growth, are largely static or in decline. So, MISSION is crucial. But the experience of the Eastern Churches tells us that mission becomes much more of an uphill task if we marginalise the traditional understanding of the Church and its ministry. And yet that is exactly what this Measure does. This Measure will make more difficult that central task we have as a Synod, the mission to bring Christ to a society so much in need of him. For this Measure marginalises traditionalists and makes the Church more monochrome, narrower and less effective.
The supporters of this Measure say it’s a good compromise, but how can that be when the traditional catholics and conservative evangelicals, for whom the Measure is meant to provide, are adamant that it does not give adequate provision. At best it is only terminal care, not the honoured and lasting place we were promised in 1992/3, when we were told the Act of Synod would be in place as long as it was required.
For the sake of our mission to the whole nation, we traditionalists need the space to survive and flourish, the space this flawed and unfair Measure does not give. For the sake of mission and growth we need to maintain the rich diversity of our Church, so that each tradition can contribute to the fruitfulness of church life.
Yes, we are a minority, but a sizeable one, for whom proper structural provision should be made, in the Measure. The Measure before us is not fit for purpose; it is unfair, it is a bad Measure. It is bad for mission, bad for the Church, and bad for women bishops themselves, as it will only lead to further campaigning and disagreements. I urge Synod to vote against this Measure.
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