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Sunday, November 9, A.D. 2008
A Visit with the Copts

Until today, I had never before been to a non-Chalcedonian or an Oriental Orthodox liturgy.

In Saint Petersburg, Aaron and I visited an Armenian church, but we did not attend a service. There, I was fascinated by the photographs in the church’s narthex of the Armenian patriarch and Moscow’s Alexy together at various meetings. I suppose that it helps the Armenians in the middle of Russia’s old imperial capital to show the locals that their patriarch is friendly to their kind; the Russians have not been well disposed to the Caucasus in recent years.

Well, I have delayed attending an Oriental liturgy because the Non-Chalcedonian and the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches have not been in communion for fifteen centuries. Though I suspect that the rupture was due to politics and semantics rather than heterodoxy, it is not really up to me to decide—and that whole “no prayer with heretics” bit makes a lot of sense to me.

Nonetheless, I just cannot see the fruits of “monophysite” heresy. I think that the one and perhaps the only promising aspect of ecumenism is the relationship between the two families of Orthodox Churches because they appear to have the same theological phronema. That the Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians, Syrians, and Indians have been separated from us for so long, that they have benefited from only the first three Ecumenical Councils, that they have been relatively isolated from the theological developments of the imperial East and West for most of Christian history, and yet they still appear the same as the Orthodox Church is powerful evidence that the schism has been one of ecclesial politics rather than heresy. Now, that does not mean that there are not troubling signs among the Orientals, but those troubling signs are endemic to sinful and foolish men. A cursory look at the Orthodox Churches reveals much that is less than ideal. However, the apostolic tradition remains strong in the non-Chalcedonian communion.

With this in mind, and knowing how damned I am anyway, in general, I decided to attend a Coptic divine liturgy.

From what Andrew has said about the Copts in Ohio and from what I have seen online, the Copts in America are quite interesting. They have absorbed the Protestant knack for ministering in the contemporary age—having active parishes with various ministries, outreaches, charitable activities, evangelization initiatives, and even parochial schools. Perhaps, their community has built up so much fervor and energy over the centuries of dhimmitude and persecution in Egypt that, once free here in America, they have exploded in their zeal. Saint Mark’s Coptic Church seems very much like this sort of active Coptic parish, and as they did not appear to be an ethnic enclave, I decided to visit them.

Saint Mark’s has two liturgies each Sunday—a trilingual liturgy in English, Coptic, and Arabic at 6:30 AM and a bilingual liturgy in English and Coptic at 9:30 AM. Yes, the liturgies do last just short of three hours. I went to the earlier trilingual liturgy. The parish complex was larger than I expected; I found a social hall, a gymnasium, classrooms, offices, a school, and, of course, the temple. When I went into the nave, I noticed that there were three altars, and the 6:30 liturgy was being held at the left altar. The nave was white and had an expansive dome in the middle. There were icons on all the walls but not many; the parish probably was still quite young. I did not much care for the iconographic styles—there were icons in the traditional Coptic style and others in what I would call the “Mormon” style. The Coptic style features exaggeratedly rounded heads; Andrew once sacrilegiously called one Coptic icon, “The Transfiguration of Charlie Brown.” I can take the traditional style; all icons are highly stylized, and traditional Coptic icons do have a certain beauty and sanctity to them. However, the “Mormon” style was disconcerting. I call it the Mormon style because it reminds me of Mormon religious art—imagine the Westernized Russian icons of the nineteenth century robbed of artistic quality and thoroughly smeared with contemporary Protestant sentimentality.

I walked over to the right of the left altar, thinking that is where I should stand, when an Egyptian fellow named Mina came over and invited me to stand by him over on the far left so that he could help me follow the service books. The liturgy was that of Saint Basil’s, which we use during Great Lent, but with the language issues and the different liturgical customs, I was happy to have assistance. I noticed soon after that the Copts’ arrangement is the reverse of ours—the men stand on the left and the women stand on the right. It was a good thing that Mina rescued me from that faux pas.

The initial service involved switching between a couple of liturgical books; I assume that we had a shortened version of matins followed by the hours. A deacon brought the priest a basket of large rounded loaves; they resembled our prosphora but they did not have any seals on them. The priest inspected the loaves and chose one. He took it, and, in front of the congregation, he rubbed it completely with water. Later, Mina told me that the priest chooses the best loaf for the Eucharist, and the water ritual symbolizes baptism. In the Russian Church, the preparations for the Eucharist occur within the altar; so, I do not know if a similar practice exists with us.

The liturgy rapidly changed languages; the priest, deacons, and people alternated, stanza by stanza, it seemed, English, Coptic, and Arabic. From the service book, I thought that Coptic looked like Greek but with some strange letters. I could not follow the Arabic at all, except for the occasional Allah and quds. The tones used were somewhat familiar to me, as I have been to an Arabic Orthodox parish before. Everyone belted out his apportioned parts. I have never witnessed such enthusiastic liturgical worship before. During parts of the liturgy, a deacon would strike together cymbals in a very Dionysian, hypnotic fashion; it reminded me exactly of the quality of Russian bells. As a side note, I have long thought that the Orthodox Church typifies the recommendations for music in Plato’s Laws and in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy.

Here is an example of the cymbals that I found on YouTube:

Note how Coptic priests wear hats that look like Western bishops’ mitres.

Here is a video of Russian bells:

I’ll note random things that I found different and interesting at the liturgy . . . Saint Mark’s has a projector screen high above the altar so that people without service books can follow the liturgy in all three languages. I found this a bit unsettlingly similar to Protestant mega-churches, but I suppose that it makes sense. The sermon was much longer, too, than what I typically hear in a Russian liturgy, though Andrew tells me that the Arabs usually emphasize homiletics. In addition to the sermon, there was a reading of the day’s saints along with short hagiographies. There was also a reading of the Acts in addition to the epistle and gospel readings. There were no little or great entrances during the liturgy, but there was a procession around the nave following a cross, in the Roman fashion, at the end of the liturgy. When people went for communion, I noticed that they were barefoot. I knew that Christians in the Middle East removed their shoes, but I did not realize it at Saint Mark’s until communion. The men went to commune through a side door in the left altar, while the women went through a side door into the right altar. I was a bit shocked to see women in the altar; I wonder if they are allowed in the central altar. The women also were given small napkins with which they wiped their face. They placed them on a plate that a deacon was holding as they exited the altar. I could not see if the men had such napkins; perhaps, the deacons wipe their faces as in the Russian Church. The women also wore head coverings with crosses on them.

After the liturgy, the priest sprinkled everyone with holy water. I only see this on certain days in the Russian Church, but perhaps it is a weekly practice in certain parishes. When everyone went into the narthex, the priest was standing there with one of the earlier rejected loaves in his hand. As people came up to greet him, he would give them a piece of the bread—obviously antidoron. I never saw a deacon or acolyte supply him with another of the rejected loaves, but I assume that is what happens when he runs out of bread.

In the narthex, my Coptic guide Mina exchanged contact information with me and invited me to a variety of parish functions. He was worried that the service had been too long for me, but I explained that we also have lengthy liturgies from time to time. He showed me an announcement sheet for a meeting next week that dealt with the acquisition of land from an Islamic Society. Evidently, the Mohammedan organization does not want to sell the land to the Copts for their market price, and Saint Mark’s parishioners are intent on buying. I found that charming—the Copts are growing and buying neighboring land from an Mohammedan organization in America, but the Mohammedans do not wish to sell to the infidels—just as Mohammedan cab drivers refuse to take people to church services. I asked Mina how the Copts and Mohammedans get along here in America. He replied that they got along fine; “What can they do to us here?” A safe answer, for now . . .

Well, I wish the Copts well. They have been oppressed in dhimmitude for over a thousand years. May they succeed in the homeland and elsewhere in spreading the gospel of Christ, and may our Churches overcome their historical tangles and make one of Christendom’s oldest scandals no more than a memory and a lesson.

Posted by Joseph on Sunday, November 9, Anno Domini 2008
Religion | EcumenismNon-ChalcedonianismComments
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