An Address given by H.E. Metropolitan Seraphim at the Oriental Orthodox Festival, Stevenage: Saturday, 28 April 2007
Until quite recently there was no universal consensus about how to designate the Oriental Orthodox family of churches. Catholic writers, like Adrian Fortescue, writing just before the First World War, called them “Lesser Eastern Churches”, whilst Père Janin numbered us with the Byzantine Orthodox as “Separated Eastern Churches” and Anglicans often referred to us as “Ancient Oriental” churches or as Non-, Anti- or Pre- Chalcedonian churches. Even today the division of the two families of Orthodox churches into “Eastern Orthodox” and “Oriental Orthodox”, whilst subtly different in English, makes no sense in French where the one word, orient, allows of no such distinction!
This sense of a common identity in modern times can really be dated from January 1965 when the Heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches met together in a week-long Conference in Addis Ababa at the end of which they signed an historic document outlining future co-operation. This was indeed the first formal meeting of the Heads of Churches since the Council of Ephesus in 431. The prime mover in calling this council was the late Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Sellassie I, whose commitment to the Orthodox Faith and devotion to the Church was profound and who was unanimously accorded the title of “Defender of the Faith” by the Conference. Tragically, less than a decade later, however, in 1974, a revolution toppled the monarchy and the following year, the imprisoned Emperor’s death was announced in circumstances widely regarded as having been hastened by his captors. Thirty-two years on and the hope of regular meetings of all the member churches has still not yet come to fruition; although since March 1998 what is known as the Conference of the Heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in the Middle East (namely the Coptic Pope, the Syrian Patriarch and the Armenian Catholicos of Cilicia) has met regularly. It is perhaps worthy of note that the present Syrian Patriarch, His Holiness Mor Ignatius Zakka I; Metropolitan Gregorios Saliba Shemoun of Mossul and two Armenian Archbishops: Mesrob Krikorian of Vienna and Arsen Berberian, are the only delegates from that conference still living
If the Council of Ephesus of 431 was the defining moment in our common tradition, then the Council of Chalcedon in 451 is the moment of the “parting of the ways” with the Orthodox of the Byzantine Empire and the Church of Rome. The Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch were key figures in both councils, so it is not surprising to find their successors to this day following faithfully in those traditions, but the Armenian Church played no part in the Council of Chalcedon. Nevertheless, through its fidelity to the Council of Ephesus and rejection of the Nestorian heresy, it made common cause with the non-Chalcedonian Copts & Syrians in adhering to the Christology of St. Cyril the Great.
Historically relations between the churches have been close. During the Christological controversy, which tore the Orthodox Church apart, one of our greatest fathers, St. Severus, Patriarch of Antioch (512-18), found honourable refuge among the Copts in Egypt. It is one of the oddest quirks of history that when our Patriarchs and bishops were driven from their sees by the Chalcedonian supporters under the Emperor Justinian, our tradition and witness was preserved through the godly intervention of the Empress Theodora (herself the daughter of a Syrian priest) who offered protection to them – some even residing secretly in the Imperial palace. Through the secret consecration of the Syrian monk, Yacoub Baradaeus, at the hands of either the exiled Patriarch Severus of Antioch or Pope Theodosius I of Alexandria, the episcopate was preserved in our family of churches, when it almost faced extinction in Syria and Egypt. Bishop Yacoub, disguised by his shabby attire made up of ragged, patched-up old saddle blankets (Baradaeus means literally “horse-blanket”) and humble manner, passed his ministry travelling on foot throughout the Middle East ordaining priests and bishops to minister to the Orthodox Copts and Syrians. Tradition credits him with ordaining some 102,000 priests and 89 bishops, including Patriarchs Sergius of Antioch (c. 542-562) and the Egyptian-born, Patriarch Paul the Black of Antioch (564-581).
Although formal gatherings of these non-Chalcedonian Orthodox were not to occur again during the ensuing millennia and a half, there were constant contacts and significant fraternal co-operation. Ethiopia preserves the tradition of the arrival in 479 of the “Nine Saints” or Righteous Ones who were probably Syriac Christians fleeing from persecution in the Byzantine Empire. They continued the spread of Christianity into the Ethiopian countryside and established churches or monasteries named after them, such as Abba Liqanos and Abba Pantelewon. .Armenians, driven from their ancient homelands by the Turks carried their Christian Faith with them wherever they settled. An Armenian kingdom was established in Cilicia but Northern Syria was settled too with Armenian quarters in Antioch, Aleppo, Aintab and Jerusalem. At Rumkale (Hromgla or KalaRhomate) on the river Euphrates, near Urfa in Turkey, during the twelfth century, both the Armenian Catholicos and the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch sought refuge.
Throughout the Fatimid period, the Armenian community in Egypt was widespread and many Armenian churches were built in the Nile valley. In 1076 Catholicos Gregory II Vkayaser (1066-1105) visited Egypt and was given the Church of the Holy Virgin in Harat Zuwaila. At this period the Armenians had some 35 churches and monasteries in Egypt. The Wadi Na’trun in Egypt had Armenian and Ethiopian monasteries as well as the Monastery of St. John Kame, still known as Deir al-Surian from its occupation by Syrian monks from 9th-17th century. The 4th century Syrian monastery of Mor Augin (near Nusaybin, the ancient Nisibis, in modern Turkey) preserves the tradition of its founder coming from Egypt with seventy disciples whilst the monastery of Mor Gabriel in Tur Abdin contains the “Dome of the Egyptians” a charnel house containing the bones of some 800 “godly men” who originated from Egypt. Until the middle of the 19th century the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople served as head of a distinctive Oriental Orthodox millet (or nation), representing the Copts and Syrians within the Ottoman Empire.
The dependence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria (it did not receive its own Patriarch until 1959) often meant that the Christian Emperors of Ethiopia could protect the Coptic Christians under Islamic rule. During the persecution of Al-Hakim many Christians fled to the kingdoms of Ethiopia and Nubia and the Patriarch was forced to abandon the regular correspondence with these kingdoms, although if it suited the Egyptian Caliphs to make contact with them, the Coptic Pope was often used as the intermediary or even the ambassador. A threat by the Ethiopian Emperor Amda Seyon I to come to the defence of the Copts during the papacy of Pope Benjamin II (1327-1339) and demanding that they should be treated with respect and honour, coupled with the threat to destroy mosques in Ethiopia and even change the course of the Nile, brought a period of respite when churches could be restored.
All these ancient churches not only hold to the Apostolic Faith but also have apostolic or post-apostolic origins. Antioch on the Orontes, the biblical town where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts XI: 26), traces its bishops and patriarchs to the Apostle Peter, who established his seat here before moving to Rome; Alexandria owes its Christian foundation to St. Mark the Evangelist who was martyred there in about A.D. 67. Christian India traces its origins to St. Thomas the Apostle; whilst Armenia was visited by the Apostles Saints Judas Thaddaeus and Bartholomew and was to become the first Christian nation in 301. If Ethiopia is the latest addition through the consecration of its first hierarch by St. Athanasius the Apostolic in A.D. 340, we must not forget the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch at the hands of the Apostle Philip.
The Oriental Orthodox churches all possess a rich monastic tradition; indeed they are the places in which monasticism first took root. St. Anthony (270-356), the father of monasticism and St. Paul, the first hermit came from the Egyptian desert but at almost the same moment we find the monastic tradition in Syria and Palestine. Contemporary with St. Anthony and one of his novices is St. Hilarion of Gaza, the father of West Syrian monasticism. In the middle of the fourth century, Aphraat speaks of monks in East Syria. At the same time we hear of them in Armenia, Pontus, and Cappadocia. Epiphanius, for instance, who in 367 became Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, had been for thirty years a monk in Palestine. At the time of St. Basil (330-379), therefore, there were already monks all over the East. As soon as he was baptized (357) he determined to be a monk himself; he spent two years travelling “to Alexandria, through Egypt, in Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia” (Ep.223), studying the life of the monks. Then in 358 he formed the community at Annesos in Pontus that was to be the basis for Eastern Orthodox monasticism.
Monastic spirituality has always been at the core of the Orthodox tradition and, although often weakened in the history of our churches, the flame has kept burning to serve as the point from which the spiritual life of the Church has been resuscitated and re-energised. The vast monastic settlements of the Wadi Na’trun in Egypt or Tur Abdin in Syria may have been reduced to a frail remnant of their former glories, but the light has never been extinguished and, in God’s good time, the breath of the Holy Spirit blows upon the flickering embers until they burst forth into renewed life and energy. New monasteries and growing vocations are everywhere as a sign of spiritual vitality.
In the Western Churches the monasteries are in a serious state of decline and many have, indeed, closed, whereas throughout our Oriental Orthodox tradition they are not only growing but are attracting men and women graduates with a serious commitment to the religious life. Once again they are becoming centres of study and creativity as well as powerhouses of prayer. The traditional place of monastic life at the heart of Orthodox spirituality draws crowds of faithful, young and old, so that at times there is concern for the necessary solitude of the monks and nuns. In the Syriac churches the monasteries are still providing high standards of education for the young and fertile soil for fostering vocations to the priesthood.
Monasteries are very numerous in Ethiopia and Eritrea, there being more than 800. Often perched on precipitous plateaux and accessible only by rope ladders or primitive basket-lifts, they have preserved the faith and traditional monastic life. Empires have come and gone, invaders and explorers have passed by (sometimes leaving their graffiti) but the life of prayer and asceticism is unchanged. By contrast, Armenia is on the verge of renewal, having lost her monasteries during the Soviet era or through genocidal deportations. The monastic brotherhoods of Jerusalem, Etchmiadzin, Cilicia and Constantinople have been the thread of continuity through which this cherished tradition has survived and from which the bishops have been chosen; but everywhere in the ancient Armenian homelands the remains of ancient monasteries – often on the summits of the highest hills – reminds us of Armenia’s monastic witness. In India the monasteries have drawn on the twin traditions of Syriac monasticism and local tradition, with the foundation of Christian ashrams and sisterhoods with active ministry among the sick and elderly and in the forefront of Christian education.
The Coptic Church pioneered theological learning through the celebrated Catechetical School of Alexandria, headed by such notables as Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Didymus the Blind (309-395), St. Athanasius the Apostolic (259-373) and St. Cyril the Great (379-444), whose contribution was significant through the early Ecumenical Councils. One cannot underestimate the role of the church in education. Between the fourth and the end of the thirteenth centuries many monasteries of the Syriac Church served as great centres of learning, where not only theology, but also philosophy and other sciences were taught to the highest levels. In Armenia St. Mesrob and St. Sahak, known as the Great Translators, devised an alphabet solely for the purpose of translating the Sacred Scriptures into the local tongue, linking language and nationhood to the dissemination and preservation of the Christian faith. At Gladzor in the thirteenth century an Armenian University flourished under Nerses Mshetzi with at least nine professors and fifteen lecturers, numbering such distinguished alumni that it was hailed as the ‘glorious second Athens’, ‘the seat and school of our holy doctors’ and ‘the capital of wisdom’. Yet in Egypt something very different happened. After the Muslim conquest in the seventh century and the gradual introduction of Arabic, the Church was faced with the choice of whether to cling to worship in its ancient Coptic language or translate the sacred texts into Arabic, the language of the oppressor. It chose the latter with the result that Coptic eventually died as a living language, yet the Faith survived!
Unity in diversity
The churches of the Oriental Orthodox family enjoy a theological unity and therefore are in full sacramental communion with each other, but they are strikingly diverse in their liturgical worship and have each adapted to the societies in which they have their respective histories. The most strikingly divergent is probably the Armenian Church which during the Crusades was influenced by mediaeval Western liturgies and now combines with incredible harmony and beauty some of the best liturgical traditions of both. When Catholics sometimes bemoan their rather minimalist modern worship, I remind them that, by contrast, the Armenian Church embellished their ancient rites with many of the things they have since set aside. The Ethiopians and Eritreans have brought the spirit of authentic African Christianity to their worship with their distinctive chants, liturgical dance and the use of drums and sistra. The fourteen anaphoras, which they have preserved and still use to this day, represent an incredibly rich liturgical practice. Equally the Syriac tradition has contributed richly through its linguistic heritage with a great store of poetry and hymns expressing spiritual pearls in each generation from the incomparable St. Ephrem, through several generations of gifted writings, such as Jacob of Edessa, Bar Sobto, Bar Qiqi, Bar Sabuni, Bar Andrew and Bar Hebraeus.
The Ethiopian, Coptic and Indian churches have been full members of the World Council of Churches since its inauguration in Amsterdam in 1948. The Syrian church joined at the New Delhi assembly (1961), and the central committee in Paris admitted the Armenian Church in 1962. As recently as 2003 the newly independent Eritrean Orthodox Church became a member in its own right. Through their ecumenical witness the Oriental Orthodox Churches have played an increasingly significant world role. Its official dialogues with the Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Catholics, World Alliance of Reformed Churches have produced some significant theological agreements and theologians such as Father V.C. Samuel, Paul Varghese (Mor Paulos Gregorios) and others have earned widespread respect for their ministry in this important area. The Armenian Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia had a distinguished tenure as Moderator of the WCC Central Committee from 1991-2006. Currently Abune Paulos, the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch is serving as one of the WCC Presidents. The Coptic, Armenian and Syriac Churches are all actively involved in the Middle Eastern Council of Churches whilst the Copts and Ethiopians are also members of the All-African Conference of Churches.
The Supreme Head of the Syrian Orthodox Church’s official title is “Patriarch of Antioch and all the East”, a reminder that his predecessors had jurisdiction over the second Imperial diocese, “the East”, comprising Syria, Palestinea, the frontier region on either side of the Euphrates, Mesopotamia, Roman Armenia and Cilicia-Isauria.
Orthodoxy – both Byzantine and Oriental – tends to be organised as national churches and it is important for us to recall that Armenia was the first state in the entire world to become Christian. In spite of having lost its nationhood for centuries, it has faithfully, and at great sacrifice, clung to its Christian heritage. Caught in the crossroads of history, annexed by great empires, oppressed by Islam and Atheism, deported to far countries, almost extinguished by genocide – its sufferings comparable to that of the Jews - it has doggedly clung to its Christian roots. Like the Jews, the Armenian diaspora (around 5-7 million) now outnumbers the three million living in the modern Republic of Armenia making it supra-national. The same is also true of the Syrian Orthodox, where its ancient homelands are now covered by modern Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
If the spread of the faith in early centuries was the result of deliberate evangelism; its extension in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been the direct result of wars, plagues, famine, persecution and revolution. Out of the enormous personal tragedies of millions of Christians, God has brought the blessing of Orthodoxy to the remotest corners of the world. I will give you just one recent example from my own experience. When I first visited the depopulated Syrian Orthodox villages in south-eastern Turkey it was my joy to meet Habib, the only Christian mukhtar or mayor in the whole of Turkey, an impressive, dignified young man who had received a fine education in the nearby monastery of Mor Gabriel – where that continuous Christian witness had been kept alive for generations by sometimes only a handful of dedicated monks. Whilst touring the impressive remains of the many ancient churches we came upon the recent grave of Habib’s father-in-law and the former mukhtar, who had been one of the many innocent victims of the intercommunal strife during the Kurdish rising. A couple of years after this, I was in Stockholm chatting to a devout and enthusiastic young Syrian Orthodox. As our conversation developed I discovered that he was the son of the murdered mukhtar and that Habib was married to his elder sister. Although he was now an active member of the thriving Syriac community in Sweden with a future thousands of miles from his ancestral homelands, he was still close to his roots and had planted his ancient faith in new soil.
The late Armenian Catholicos Karekin Sarkissian, wrote of our churches, “After a very long period of isolation and stagnation, they are now recovering that dynamism which was an inherent part of their witness in the early centuries of the Christian Era which played such a normative role in the whole history of the Christian East, and, indeed, for the Church as a whole.”
It is a fact of history that all our churches have suffered centuries of persecution – at times even coming close to genocidal extinction – but we rejoice in the example of our forefathers whose sacrifices preserved the integrity of the faith to our own generation. Our churches are founded on the blood of the martyrs: the Apostles Peter, Thomas, Thaddaeus and Bartholomew; St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Peter “the Seal of the Martyrs” and each generation has borne witness before pagan Roman and Persian Emperors, Islamic oppressors, Catholic proselytisers and Atheistic Communists. Even in ancient Britain, which St. Athanasius hailed as having kept faithfully the Nicene Faith, we had our martyrs in the persecutions of Decian and Diocletian, notably our Protomartyr St. Alban and the Roman legionaries, Julius and Aaron at Caerleon in south Wales (near to our modern Coptic Church in Risca). Such was the number of the Egyptian martyrs that to this day the Coptic Church still uses a calendar based on the Era of the Martyrs, dating from the accession of the Emperor Diocletian in 284.
Sadly the forces of darkness still assault us and the blood of the martyrs continues to be shed. In recent times the Ethiopian Patriarch Tewoflos and others were murdered during the rule of the Dergue 1974-1991; Catholicos Khoren I of Etchmiadzin was murdered under Stalin in 1938 and many lives were lost when the Christian population of Nagarno-Karabakh (Artsakh) valiantly fought for their survival against Azeri domination during 1988-1994. On the eve of the Millennium Coptic Christians of El-Khosheh were brutally butchered and last October the priest Father Boulos Iskander Behnam of St. Ephrem’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Mosul was brutally murdered by Islamic fanatics.
The Next Generation
The Sunday School movement in Egypt owes it foundation to the twenty-four year old Archdeacon Habib Guirguis in 1900 and was to grow into a vibrant and extensive movement of youth working from the grass roots of the church. Encouraged and supported by the hierarchy, it became a vehicle for the renewal of monastic life and many senior Coptic hierarchs today, including His Holiness Pope Shenouda were part of it. Indeed, Pope Shenouda is frequently quoted as saying that a Church without Youth is a church without a future and the erection in 1980 of a Bishopric for Youth under the charismatic figure of Bishop Moussa shows the prominence given to Youth Ministry. Through the influence of the Coptic Church the Sunday School movement t spread to Ethiopia in the form of the Learn & Teach (Temro Mastemari) association and the lively association of students called Mahebere Kidusan (“In the Name of the Saints”), whose spiritual father was Archbishop Abuna Gorgorios of Shoa, who taught “ Young people must serve the Church with all their capacities … Young people are the backbone of the church.”
The Syrian Orthodox Church also has an active youth organisation, reflected by a variety of lively diocesan groups, often with their own web-sites. I was delighted to visit the Swedish branch when I was there earlier this month and to find an office staffed by enthusiastic and lively volunteers, proud to show me their library, publications and other resources. The Malankara (Indian) Orthodox Church also has several lively spiritual organisations ministering to Youth: the Orthodox Syrian Sunday School Association of the East founded as far back as 1933; the Mar Gregorios Orthodox Christian Student Movement of India and the Orthodox Christian Youth Movement of the East, as well as several others co-ordinated at both diocesan and parochial level and reaching youth at schools, colleges and universities. The Armenian Church Youth Organisation of America, currently serving thousands of young men and women, celebrated its sixtieth anniversary last year.
The Challenge today
I have briefly outlined aspects of our common heritage and shared witness in order to highlight reasons why such a diverse group of people can nevertheless come together with a strong sense of organic unity; but we are not here merely for self-congratulation or to live in the past. The present society in which we live is full of challenges to each one of us and as Christians we not only have to play a responsible part but as Oriental Orthodox Christians we have a very specific contribution to make.
The Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Mgr. Vincent Nichols, recently stated that secular democracy today is engaged in an intense, aggressive reshaping of society’s moral landscape and that what is lawful according to the government is not necessarily moral. Agreeing with this, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor also observed, “The moral shape of a country is shaped by its people, by its leaders, but also by its religious leaders, and by the ethos.” Only last week the Archbishop of Canterbury accused today's politicians of lacking clear moral leadership. His comments came in a speech in which he bemoaned the lack of a moral basis to modern politics and expressed concerns about the “draining away of any residual notion that the state itself has or should have a moral foundation.”
Although there are differences between the churches, we have a shared concern about many issues and it is not sufficient that we let the Catholic and Reformed Churches speak out on these, when they are our concerns too. Indeed, the larger and longer established Christian communities here welcome and encourage our participation and input. The Council of Oriental Orthodox Churches in the UK has existed for a number of years but, having recently been restructured, it now is a truly representative body of all the constituent churches. Conscious of its historic roots it has recently spoken out on current problems faced by Christians in Iraq, Egypt and Jerusalem but also increasingly addresses local issues, plays its part in Churches Together (where last year His Grace Bishop Nathan became the first Oriental Orthodox co-President) and through Regional Forums with the Catholic and Anglican Churches is participating in a wider role under the current presidency of His Grace Bishop Angaelos, who is also a Scholar Consultant to the Christian-Muslim Dialogue.
Many of our communities in the United Kingdom have undergone significant development in just the last few years. We warmly welcome the establishment of a Patriarchal Vicariate of the Syrian Orthodox Church here and believe it marks a “coming of age” of the Syriac faithful who have nurtured their community through its early years; we delight in once again having an Archbishop for the Ethiopian Orthodox after the long gap since the death of the memorable Archbishop Joannes; the Orthodox Christians of South India of both jurisdictions have decentralised into numerous local communities to meet the pastoral needs of the faithful; the Coptic Orthodox Church now has a monastery in Yorkshire where the ancient life of the Egyptian deserts can be see again on British soil, whilst the Centre here at Stevenage provides a significant witness to our Oriental Orthodox tradition and, through the openness of Bishop Angaelos, provides a home for us all.
Sharing our witness in the wider social and religious context, however, flows out of a close sense of our own unity and I feel sure that I’m not the only person present today who hopes that joint meetings of our churches, at every level, will became the pattern for the future. Each of us has a contribution to make. We British Orthodox, as the youngest members of our family of churches, have been working in the field of publishing and education, making scarce historic translations of key Oriental Orthodox texts available through the “Oriental Orthodox library”; and also through our web-sites and the Glastonbury Review publicizing news of all our churches as well as documents relating to key ecumenical dialogue and reviews of the increasing number of books being published on our churches. At the end of last year we launched the British Orthodox Fellowship to provide support and information to the increasing number of British people who want to learn more about the Orthodox Faith and numbers are growing.
I will conclude with some further words of the late Catholicos Karekin,
“The Church is the witness to the truth that the new has its roots in the old and the old has no sense unless it is renewed. The Christian faith is old and new at the same time and renewing at all times. It transcends the limitations of time and space. Yet it is expressed by being constantly renewed for the life of men in time and space. Here lies the dilemma. Here is also the great challenge for the constant renewal of man.
Will the Oriental Orthodox Churches through their present-day witness be the meeting place between the old and the new? Will they be a bridge or a refuge, neither conservative nor progressive, neither stationery nor revolutionary? Will they be the Church, the life of truth in man that is constantly renewed in God for His glory and in service to His Kingdom?
This is their calling that is being faced as a challenge in the complexities of the modern world. To avoid the challenge means to increase its demands. To take it in courage and humility, in boldness and penitence is to change it into witness to Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.”