His holiness Pope Tawadros II celebrated with us the 50th anniversary of the Coptic Church outside Egypt during his historical visit to Canada last year. His Holiness has called for a meeting in Egypt late in May to formulate a vision for the future of the Coptic church in the lands of immigration for the next fifty years. For reasons beyond my control I will not be able to attend this historical meeting, accordingly, I decided to publish my own vision for the church for those who are curious about the vision of a Copt who emigrated from Egypt in 1966 and during these years has experienced life as an immigrant single man, parent and grandparent and served in the immigrant church in various capacities as reader, subdeacon and priest.
In order to have a fuller picture of what I will propose the reader is encouraged to read my previous article: The Struggle for English in the Church Services. http://www.stmaryscopticorthodox.ca/index.php/english/abouna-s-blog/98-the-struggle-for-englis h-in-the-church-services
THE CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS:
For the past 50 years many attempts have been made to answer the question: How can we satisfy the new coming immigrants without losing the second and third generations? New comers are Arabic speakers and their culture is Egyptian while second and third generation Copts speak English and their culture is Canadian (or American, etc.) For the first 10 years very little was done due to the paranoia of the first settlers that any encroachment of English into our sacred Liturgy would be an abomination. The price we paid for this you can read in the article sited above.
Following this, timid attempts were made to put a little English here and there but these were only cosmetic and we kept losing some of our young people to other churches. Today there are a few models that have been tried to mitigate this problem.
Some churches have an early morning English Liturgy followed by another later Arabic Liturgy. In these churches there are also meetings in Arabic and other meetings in English (for example graduate meetings) The problem with this is that the church becomes divided on language lines to an elite congregation of English speakers who are mostly professionals and a second class congregation of Arabic speakers who are struggling to have decent jobs in their professions but are hampered because of their lack of efficiency in English.
Other churches who have the space, would hold an English “children Liturgy” in a chapel while the main church is reserved for the “real Liturgy” which is either Arabic or a mixture of Arabic and English. The problem of this model is that the parents “park” their children in the chapel and go to enjoy their “real Liturgy” in the Cathedral. The very important concept of the family worshipping together is lost and the linguistic and cultural divide between parents and children widens and leads ultimately to parent/child problems during the teen years. We are all familiar with children telling their parents “you don’t understand” or even calling them “ignorant Egyptians.” Another problem that is noticeable is that because of lack of parental supervision, kids sneak out and play in corridors and empty Sunday School classes and often miss attending either liturgy.
In a small town of Ontario called Kitchener, a stubborn priest started 20 years ago an all English Liturgy with an English sermon. It was difficult and those who wish to read the details are referred to the article cited above. But that approach suited this little town and could not be reproduced anywhere else for this reason: Kitchener is a small university town tucked away from the major urban centres of Toronto and Mississauga, with a stable population. The average number of new immigrant families averaged 3-5 ever year. These were easily assimilated without difficulty into the all English system. Had the rate of immigration been 3-5 families every week or even every month this system would have not been sustainable. For a church with a hundred families having 3-5 new families arriving from Egypt every month would mean that in two years the ratio of new families would be 50%.
Over the last two years the number of immigrants increased greatly and demands for Arabic services started to surface. Six months ago we were forced to start an Arabic Liturgy in the chapel downstairs in the same time as the English Liturgy in the main church. This led to resentment among our youth. One of them, a recent university graduate summarized their feelings: “We had a home, some guests came and we allowed them in, now they are taking over our home and kicking us out!” The idea of an English service and an Arabic service under the same roof, in my view, should not be part of the vision for our church for the next 50 years.
So, none of these models was really a real solution and that led to a reaction in the opposite direction; the appearance of the so called “Missionary church” When the first such church started in Toronto, one of my converts from Protestantism asked me if he could go and try to help the new “Missionary church” and I gave him leave. After a month he came back telling me; “I took you a year of catechising me before baptising me, but there people are baptised after a catechism of two weeks!” He then added, “These guys that are baptised know very little about Christianity, let alone Orthodoxy” They are show off statistics. These churches attracted more disgruntled young men and women from near by churches than new converts. People who wanted to escape the “Egyptianity” of traditional churches found a more favourable cultural atmosphere in these churches.
The criticism of these churches is their lack of orthodoxy and any one familiar with the internet will find many threads that debate this. There are even dedicated blogs that attack the lack of orthodoxy of these churches penned by true converts who were well catechized before being baptised. Not all of these churches are like that, there are a few that are reasonable.
These churches will continue and there is a need for them. I referred one or two people to these churches. People that were still babes in need for milk rather than grown up food that I offered in my church were more comfortable there than at my church and I preferred this to them not going to church at all.
Finally came the bold move by His Grace bishop Serapion and His Grace bishop Yousef, the concept of the “American Orthodox church” This is certainly a step in the right direction and yet some of our young people consider these “too little, too late”.
THE EXPERIENCE OF OTHER ORTHODOX CHURCHES:
Most of the other Orthodox churches are in the same boat. For example, most of the Serbian, Russian, Romanian and Ukranian churches are still using the old language in their worship with disastrous results. While serving in Mississauga, a Serbian Orthodox priest used to bring his children to attend my Liturgy which had a generous part in English. And here in Kitchener, a Romanian Orthodox priest sent his wife and seven children to attend liturgy and Sunday School with us because they were all in English. He wanted to join our church but we are still too timid to accept non Egyptians into the ranks of the clergy. The Greek Orthodox are divided, some still use Greek and have lost their newer generations.
The Greek Orthodox priest in Mississauga once visited me while I served in this city and told me: “I don’t even remember when I last did a wedding for one of our youth because I am forbidden to do them in English!” I told him “I don’t remember the last time I did a wedding in Arabic because I always do them in English!”
The one exception to these churches is the Antiochian Orthodox church which has early on, espoused an aggressive English only liturgical tradition that not only kept their young people in the church but has earned them hundreds of converts from other churches, including many of our Coptic youths. It is estimated that half their clergy in North America are either American or Canadian converts! I personally know Copts who are now serving as Antiochian Orthodox priests. Their courage and vision and openness to accept converts in the ranks of their clergy should be an inspiration to us for the next fifty years.
So, where do we go from here? I will try to summarize my own thoughts in the following paragraphs: A
VISION FOR THE NEXT FIFTY YEARS:
I believe that the ultimate goal for each city or town that has sufficient Copts is to have one or more of the following two types of churches:
- A church for new immigrants whose language is mainly Arabic and whose culture is mainly Egyptian. This church should be a transitional church for a maximum of 3 years after which the parents and their children will have no other choice but to move up to the second category of church. To achieve this I suggest that Sunday school classes are made available for KG, Gr 1,2 only. Services in these churches should be a mixture of Arabic and English so that parents and their children are prepared to moving up to type 2 churches.
- A church for people from the second, third and upward generations whose language is mainly English and their culture is mainly Canadian (or American etc.) This will also serve first and second generation immigrants graduating from type 1 churches. Obviously these churches should have full grades of Sunday School, youth services etc. Obviously all services will be in English in these churches.
In planning these churches in any city or town, the distance from type 1 to type 2 churches in the same city should be short enough that parents do not need to change residence to move up. They should also be far enough from each other as to discourage parents from “parking” their kids in type 2 church and going to type 1 church for the reasons listed above.
I hope some of my suggestions will resonate with some of those who have been chosen to attend the meeting with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II. My best wishes and my prayers accompany all of them wishing them all a prosperous, safe and successful trip to Egypt and back. Please keep me in your prayers.
Father Athanasius Iskander
Phamenoth18, 1731 AM
March 27, 2015 AD
34th anniversary of my ordination as a priest