Land of Immigration Seminar: A Vision for the Future

An historic 4-day meeting to primarily “define a clear vision about the service of the [Coptic Orthodox] Church”[1] in the Americas and Australia was hosted at the St. Paul Monastery Retreat Center, Red Sea, Egypt under the leadership of H.H. Pope Tawadros II from May 20 through 23, 2015. Representation at the seminar included bishops from North America, South America, Australia, England, and a few from Egypt.  In addition there was representation of two priests, along with a male, female and youth representative from each of 10 different regions[2] – with additional groups represented, including the St. Cyril of Alexandria Orthodox Christian Society, on whose behalf I was in attendance.  The aim of the attendees was to initiate a dialogue about the future of the Church. This seminar would subsequently be used in developing “the needed strategies and policies to achieve the defined vision.”[3]

Overview

The idea of the seminar originated following the September 2014 visit of H.H. Pope Tawadros II to Canada, after which he determined a need for establishing a common vision for the global Coptic Church. The starting place would be to develop a strategy for the English-speaking world before moving on to other cultures. At the start of the seminar, Pope Tawadros provided a brief historical survey of the contemporary Coptic Church, starting in the 1950’s under the leadership of Pope Kyrillos and Pope Shenouda, during which a large number of churches began to be established outside of Egypt.[4]  His Holiness stated a current need of putting “together a well organized structure in the Church…[which] is not a 1 or 2 year project but will take many years.” Thus it was acknowledged as we move towards the future, the spiritual, social, theological and educational needs of the Church need to be addressed in a manner that is indicative of being “living, not frozen.”  Throughout the course of the weekend seminar, ten (10) lecture sessions were offered on various subject matters, including:[5]

  • The Challenges of Service in the Land of Immigration:
    • Enculturation
    • Church Calendar
  • Evangelism in North America
  • Relationship between the Church in Egypt and Abroad
  • Relationships with Different Denominations and the Society
  • Theological Education
  • Communicating our Message, Mission and Identity
  • Priesthood: Scope of Service, Clothing, Challenges, etc.

Although several groups were more effective than others in communicating the intended goal of their lectures, there was generally a positive and beneficial nature for the majority of the presentations. Furthermore the dialogue in the workshop style meetings – taking place following each of the first seven lectures – produced a significant list of recommendations for next steps in each respective area.

My Personal Takeaway

If I had to sum up the seminar in my own words I would say that it was a call for:

Growth towards a common vision as the Body of Christ, that seeks to leverage the unique gifts of the various members of the Church, by prayerfully and humbly pursuing a spirit of transparency, unity, and diversity.

Having entered into a new era within human history, contemporary challenges facing that the Church and the World must be addressed through the lens of an Orthodox worldview, while tapping into our uniquely Coptic experience. I believe the key to doing so lies in our Christian commitment to: (1) Transparency, (2) Unity, and (3) Diversity.

Transparency

Establishing a culture of transparency within the Church is essential in building trust amongst the various members. His Holiness modeled such an environment at the seminar by inviting the participants to the table to engage in an open dialogue. “We can discuss anything[6] but the important thing is that we move as One Body!”[7] Although there was not significant discussion on any of the following subjects, there was at least an acknowledgment of the need for engaging in dialogue and a commitment to research a variety of topics, including baptismal rites for infant boys and girls, communing while menstruating, homosexual marriage, amongst other subjects.

Unity

Paramount for the Coptic Orthodox Church, in an increasingly individualistic society – and within a global Christian environment that has a rapidly growing number of Church denominations – is a commitment to Church Unity. During the lecture entitled The Challenges of Service in the Land of Immigration, led by His Grace Bishop Mina, a survey was presented on the topic of switching feast dates, with specific emphasis on Christmas. Although there was clear division on whether or not a switch from January 7th to December 25th should occur, there appeared to be a clear consensus that Copts outside of Egypt are unwilling to celebrate the date of feasts on a different date than Egypt.[8] In addition to the discussion on feast dates was a statement made by H.H. Pope Tawadros that we must maintain the words “Coptic Orthodox Church” in the nomenclature of all churches. Although church calendar and church name are not in and of themselves indicative of Church unity, the discussion around these two subjects captured a general spirit representative amongst the attendees to maintain unity.

Diversity

The Coptic Church in North America stands at a pivotal crossroad. How we deal with the diverse groups of peoples inside, and outside, of our churches will impact the course of the Church for decades and centuries to come. The two areas of diversity that require attention are: (1) Diversity of Gifts, and (2) Cultural Diversity.

  • Diversity of Gifts: As we went through various lectures at the seminar, I continued to realize that different people have different gifts. With a myriad of gifted people representing distinct aspects of Church life, including theological education, hymnology, pastoral ministry, administration, youth service, couples counseling, monasticism, hospitality, writing, and teaching,[9] each member of the body should be encouraged to use their gift for the edification of the Body of Christ. Although each person may be concerned with the various aspects of ministry in the Church, it is also essential to embrace our own gift, while at the same time encouraging the work of others.
  • Cultural Diversity: Over the past fifty (50) years, the cultural landscape of the Coptic Church has become increasingly diverse. In many parishes, there is an increasingly diverse representation of ethnicities and cultures. Additionally, as one speaker suggested, “The Church in North America is actually not growing. We are only moving people from Egypt to America and then transferring them from church to church. We are actually losing people because we have not been a church that is focusing of evangelism.”[10] Another speaker from the presentation on The Coptic Orthodox Church & Evangelism under the auspice of His Grace Bishop David, suggested that the Church develop a strategy that incorporates four ministry type parishes.  Each ministry type would accent service geared to serve populations that are “Immigrant Focused, Bilingual, All-English, and Pure Evangelism,” without becoming exclusive to a specific culture or ethnicity.[11]

Conclusion

There is a hunger for Orthodox Christianity right here in North America. I am hopeful that as the Coptic Orthodox Church continues to grow under the leadership of H.H. Pope Tawadros II towards a common vision as the Body of Christ, we will find ourselves growing in spiritual depth and shining with the Light of Christ to a World that is desperately in need. During a season when the Church is in need of the collaborative model of leadership of Pope Tawadros II, it is time to leverage the unique gifts of the various members of the Church, by prayerfully and humbly pursuing a spirit of transparency, unity, and diversity.

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Footnotes:

[1] http://www.landofimmigration.org/content/overview

[2] http://www.landofimmigration.org/content/attendees

[3] http://www.landofimmigration.org/content/overview

[4] 24 Bishops out of 117 are outside of Egypt

[5] The full list of sessions are listed at http://www.landofimmigration.org/content/sessions

[6] Emphasis added.

[7] His Holiness Pope Tawadros, Land of Immigration Seminar, Opening Session, May 21, 2015.

[8] Just as a note, no decision or recommendation has been made on this subject. It was emphasized that prior to any possible date change a large-scale survey would be conducted.

[9] This is in no way an exhaustive list, which is quite encouraging

[10] THE COPTIC ORTHODOX CHURCH & EVANGELISM, Session 3, Father Girgis Tadros.

[11] THE COPTIC ORTHODOX CHURCH & EVANGELISM, Session 3, Father Pishoy Salama.

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