Theme: The Oriental Churches
by Mr. Sam Williams
By. Fr. Samji George
by Dn. Ryan Tellalian
by Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff
More information on our Authors can be found here.
Theme: The Oriental Churches
by Mr. Sam Williams
By. Fr. Samji George
by Dn. Ryan Tellalian
by Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff
More information on our Authors can be found here.
In this issue of “Wonder” we address some of the so-called “Oriental” Orthodox Churches. For those of you that don’t know, the Oriental Orthodox, also called the “Non-Chalcedonian” Churches are those Eastern Churches who only hold to the decisions of the first three Ecumenical Councils. They rejected the deliberations of the Fourth Ecumenical Council held at Chalcedon in 451, and by so doing split with the other Christian Churches. The greater title “Oriental Orthodox” includes in its definition The Coptic Orthodox Church (Egypt), The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, The Eritrean Orthodox Church, The Syriac Orthodox Church, The Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church (In India), and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Despite having much in common with these Churches, in history, liturgy, and theology, We in the Eastern Orthodox Church still lack full communion with the Oriental Churches.
-The “Wonder” Team
By Mr. Sam Williams
Egyptians call their country Masr Um al-Dunia, “Egypt – the Mother of the World”. As any good mother, Egypt has had a profound impact on my life. She has shaped my perspective on the world and has given me a greater appreciation for God’s many blessings. I studied at the American University in Cairo for a semester in 2008 where I saw the struggles of ordinary Egyptians living in the midst of poverty and under the restrictions of an authoritarian regime. While these struggles are common to Egyptians, I saw particularly those of the Christian community. Being a minority in their country, they each carry their own crosses and hardships. The intense faith of Egyptian Christians impressed me for they have a boundless trust that Christ provides and that He is everything essential.
But who exactly were these Egyptians? In their ancient language they were known as Hakkaptah. The Greeks called the Egyptians Aigyptos as the Greeks became an integral part of the fabric of Egyptian history and culture. With the arrival of Islam and the Arabic language, the word Aigyptos changed to Qubti which is the source of the English words Copt and Coptic. Ethnically, Muslim and Christian Egyptians are the same people, but centuries of cultural separation has led to viewing the two groups as ethnically separate. For the sake of this discussion of Christianity in Egypt, I will use the term Copt to refer specifically to Christians.
One cannot begin to understand the complexities of the Coptic experience without first learning their long and often bloody history. From an early age Coptic Christians learn the stories of martyrs, ascetics, patriarchs and lay people who have lived their lives completely devoted to Christ. It seems only appropriate then to begin telling the story of the Copts with that of Christ.
After fleeing the Holy Land to escape King Herod, Jesus was taken by St Joseph and the Theotokos to Egypt where they lived for nearly four years. In these years, the young Christ lived amongst Egyptians from the north of Egypt, south to Upper Egypt. Many of the locations where the family stayed during this period were preserved and have been sites of pilgrimage for centuries. Subsequently, the early Christian Egyptians felt a sense of intimacy through their tie with the early years of their savior.
Christianity quickly spread to Egypt after the birth of the Church at the feast of Pentecost. There is no doubt that early evangelists went to Egypt in this time, but the Apostle Mark is seen as the founder of the Egyptian Church as he was the first bishop of Alexandria. The langue franc of the time was Greek, which over time developed alongside the native Egyptian languages to form what we know today as the Coptic language. Coptic, along with Greek, naturally became the liturgical languages of the Egyptian Church. Today, Coptic Orthodox liturgies in Egypt incorporate Arabic, Coptic and some Greek.
The Copts have always faced persecution. Coptic identity is characterized with this acceptance of the cross and the understanding that their church was built upon the blood of martyrs. Countless saints have died for their faith in Egypt. The rule of Diocletian marks a particularly high number of deaths and for this reason 248 AD notes the beginning of the Coptic calendar. This day, commemorated on September 11 each year, is known as the Feast of el Nayrouz or the Feast of the Martyrs. It wasn’t until after Christianity was legalized and then made the religion of the Roman Empire that Copts were able to worship out of hiding and without the risk of punishment. With this development, Copts took on a vital role in the course of Christian history.
With Christianity in a privileged position for the first time in history, many sought avenues for practicing their faith in a more radical and authentic manner. In the early fourth century AD, an Egyptian named Anthony began to raise awareness of the blessings of solitary living. Through St Anthony’s influence, monasticism developed and spread throughout Christendom. At the same time, the young St Athanasius was writing On the Incarnation in Alexandria which explains the Church’s understanding of Christ as both God and man. He proved to be of paramount importance at the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD, which defeated the Egyptian bishop Arius who taught that Christ was created.
In 451 AD, the churches met at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon where they discussed the divine and human natures of Christ. The Byzantine-influenced coastal areas took the position of the Council of Chalcedon while the majority of the Egyptian church did not, arguing that Christ has one nature being divine and human without separation or confusion. The unified Egyptian Church divided itself and thus began a new era and form of persecution, Christian pitted against Christian.
In this habitat of brewing animosity and heavy Byzantine taxes on non-Chalcedonian churches emerged the Muslim ruler Amr Ibn Alaas in 640 AD. He canceled such taxes with the understanding that the non-Chalcedonians would pay tribute to him. Islam quickly spread through Egypt until becoming the majority religion of the country. By the Tenth century, with the rise of the Fatimids, the now minority Christian community experienced a new wave of persecution. The Shi’a Fatimids imposed harsh regulations on Christians such as requiring them to wear all black and a five pound wooden cross. Many were fired from government positions and even the Coptic bishop, Pope Zakaria, was imprisoned.
January 25, 2011 will be a day that every Egyptian remembers. It was the start of eighteen days of public protest against a thirty year regime. This public outcry consumed the country, uniting old and young, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian. People with little to give shared food, water, song and hope. Christians formed human shields for their Muslim compatriots to pray, protecting them from anti-democracy extremists. It was a time for unity, a time to forget the inequality which has plagued Egypt for centuries.
In the last year, there have been a number of attacks on the Christian community in Egypt. On Christmas day 2010, six worshipers and a Muslim security guard were killed in a church shooting in Upper Egypt. On New Years day 2011, there was a bombing at a church in Alexandria, killing 23 people. Most recently, a church was burned by Muslims out of anger over a relationship between a Muslim and a Christian. On March 8, street clashes broke out when Coptic Christians protested the arson of the church the previous week. These clashes left 13 dead and more than 100 wounded.
Zealously optimistic in outlook, I have faith that the Egyptian people will obtain the peace they seek, the justice they deserve and the democracy for which they have fought. I see the peaceful protests that brought the end of the Mubarak regime this year as proof of the presence of a truly democratic, peace seeking base in the Egyptian populace. The manner in which Christians united with Muslims speaks to the reality of the Egyptian worldview. This is the Egypt I know, the Egypt I love.
The persecution of Christians is a reality with which we will always live. But we are also called to learn from history, to perceive where our forefathers could have done better and bring this ideal to fruition. The Coptic Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church are in schism. This schism led to the spread of Islam in Egypt due to instability and persecution of Christians by Christians. Today, Christians are persecuted by the state which favors Islam. Persecution can bring people together, for it forces them to reevaluate their priorities and focus more firmly on God. In the Divine Liturgy, we make present the Kingdom of God. It is our duty to bring the whole world back to God and to offer the world back to Him. We must pray too, for the unity of all in Christ and that we may grow in Him and be perfected in our suffering. This unity is possible with God, by prayer and only through Christ. By faith, Christ says, we can move mountains, Insha’Allah, “if God wills”.
By Fr. Samji George
In AD 52 the Apostle St. Thomas landed on the coast of Cranganore (presently north of Kochi, in the state of Kerala, India). He preached the good news to both the Jewish settlers and the local people. He established churches in seven places namely Maliankara( the name Malankara is derived from Maliankara), Palayur, Paravur, Gokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal and Kollam. He also appointed leaders to these churches from leading families who he converted to the Christian faith. He then moved to the eastern parts of South India and later on to Malacca and China. He returned to India, and according to tradition was martyred and buried at Mylapore (near Chennai) in AD 72.
Though there is no written evidence of the evangelization of India by the Apostle St. Thomas, the living Christian tradition found in India agrees to this fact. This living tradition is affirmed by scholars and historians. The tomb of St. Thomas has been a pilgrim center for the faithful, from the early centuries. The 3rd century Syrian writing ‘Acta Thoma’(Acts of the Apostle Judas Thomas) says that the Apostle Thomas worked in India and was killed on the top of a hill in the kingdom of Mazdai. From here parts of the bones of the Apostle was taken to Edessa by a Syrian merchant named Khabin. In the 4th century, St. Ephrem the Syrian testifies to this fact and composed hymns on the mission of St. Thomas in India, his martyrdom and removal of his bones to Edessa. Accounts of early church historians and travelers prove the existence of a Christian community in the southern part of India.
Indian Church in the Medieval Ages
Scholars are of the unanimous opinion that the Malankara Church had relations with the East Syrian Church from the 3rd century. The persecution in the Persian Church led to immigration from Persia to the church in Malankara in the 4th century. One such major immigration recorded is that of 72 families under the leadership of a certain Thoma of Cana. Various other sources including the excavation of Persian crosses prove that the Church in India had East Syrian relations. The Portuguese who came to India in the year 1498 made efforts to Latinize the Christian community here. The Portuguese colonialists were successful in curbing all East Syrian relations of the Malankara Church. The Synod of Diamper in 1599 under the leadership of Bishop Alexios Menezis put the last nail in the East Syrian relations. He burned all available liturgy in East Syrian and prevented any Prelates from Persia entering the Malankara Church.
But the Malankara Church rejected the Latin yoke and chose to be an independent Church, through an oath called the ‘Coonan Cross Oath’ in 1653. Soon they ordained their first indigenous Bishop, Marthoma I. At the request of the Malankara Church, a bishop named Gregorios from Antioch came to Malankara in 1665. This established the relationship with the West Syrian Patriarchate. The faith of the Church was established on the three ecumenical councils, of Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus. Through interactions with the West Syrian Bishops and clergy in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Malankara Church embraced the West Syrian liturgy and traditions.
In the 20th century
Western colonialism and internal strife interrupted the development of the Church in Malankara. However, with the help of the West Syrian Prelate, a Catholicate was established in the Malankara Church in the year 1912. This helped the Church to be an autonomous and autocephalous Church like any other Orthodox Church. The Malankara Orthodox Church is one of the founding members of the World Council of Churches (WCC). It has produced theologians like Metropolitan Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios who was the President of the WCC and the Principal of the Orthodox Theological Seminary at Kottayam, Kerala. The contributions of Fr. Dr. V.C. Samuel have been instrumental in bridging the gap between the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox. The dialogue between these traditions has resulted in an agreement that they hold the same Christological position and have agreed to have shared the same faith.
The Indian Orthodox Church Today
H. H. Baselios Marthoma Paulose II is the present Catholicos of the Malankara Church, with head quarters at Kottayam, Kerala. There are 33 Metropolitans, 30 dioceses and 2 million faithful spread round the world. We have seminaries at Kottayam and Nagpur to train the Clergy. There are mission training centers as well as programs for the laity of the Church. We look forward to meet the challenges of the 21st century and to be witnesses of Christ our Lord.
by Deacon Ryan Ezras Tellalian
We base a lot of our experiences in this world on physical stuff—things that we can touch, see, taste, smell, and hear. The more senses a thing can excite, the more real it seems to be. Because of this we also tend to attempt to attribute as many senses to a thing as possible in order to provide a more comprehensive experience of its existence. Think about it: if you were to hear a noise in the opposite corner of the room or smell something outside, do you not turn your eyes to determine its source?
For many, the feeling of awe inspired by God’s creation in its most beautiful and magnificent forms—cosmic or microscopic, complex or simple—is what convinces them of His existence. (Think Romans 1:20) Often these experiences can touch our souls rather deeply, yet our modus operandi all too often causes us to return to our “normal” state soon thereafter. No matter what it is to which we aspire in terms of asceticism and mortification, regardless of how separated from the world we might wish to become, the world remains important to us. And it should be.
One of the most powerful meditations can be that which focuses on the incarnation of Christ, God living with us, as one of us. Christ, by uniting Himself with our nature, showed us not only the example of how we out to live spiritually, but through his actions also how we ought to behave. As our ultimate vocation, just we are created in the image of God, we are to grow in His likeness both internally and externally.
And while Armenian Orthodox theology is grounded in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, there is a particular focus on His incarnation. God spoke to humanity in various ways prior to the incarnation, but then spoke to us by His Son (Hebrews 1:1). Ours is not some abstract faith in something, some deity or power, that cannot be seen, but in a God who made Himself known to us as one of us in a very real way.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:1)
St. John the Evangelist was also close enough to hear the heartbeat of Christ (John 13:23). And in the Divine Liturgy we taste Christ as we receive Him into our bodies and hearts in a special way.
A noteworthy point of incarnational theology is that matter matters—what we do physically matters, not only what we do with our own bodies to ourselves, but to and for others. “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (James 1:26). Again James empasizes works to show ones faith, “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” (2:15) Love, because of the incarnation, is no longer a thing for us to have or feel, but a person—namely, Jesus Christ—for us to emulate. Only by emulating the works of Christ through our own human acts of mercy and healing can we truly call ourselves Christian.
Another plug for the Armenian Church: our sacramental theology is also unique. The Armenian word for sacrament, as in many other languages, literally means “mystery.” We tend to be comparatively comfortable with the concept of mystery, not feeling the necessity of exhaustively explaining every single element of our faith. And, generally speaking, our focus in the sacraments is on grace that is already present in our lives. It takes the notion of life as a sacrament to another level by positing that the sacraments are what we do as a response to what God has already done and is doing and will do for us, as indeed all our actions ought to be.
Armenians express their response to God rather well in their word for worship, yerkirpakutiun, which literally translated means “kissing the ground.” This is also the word used for “Let us bow down before God,” which would obviously be a full prostration (1 Samuel 24:8). Fr. Robert Taft comments, “A second characteristic of Armenian liturgy [. . .] is the extraordinary beauty and primitiveness of prayers that ask for nothing but the privilege of glorifying God.”1
The Armenian Church also has been rather receptive to outside influences. We tended to adopt prayers, hymns, and rituals from the Byzantine and Latin churches, yet simultaneously adapting or “Armenianizing” them, maintaining the integrity of our own liturgical theology. Taft again comments, “Khosrov Andzewats‘i’s [a commentator on the Divine Liturgy] own receptivity often led him to be considered a Chalcedonian, as were numerous Armenian ecclesiastics, including [St.] Nersēs Lambronats‘i in the centuries after that dolorous misunderstanding. In view of the savage ethnic and religious tribalism now rending certain parts of the world, this could provide a lesson for us all.”2
Let us be found constantly in wonder of the mystery of grace in our lives, and let induce a disposition of openness to what others have to offer. And may our response to Christ’s incarnation always be in an incarnational way: worshiping Him, loving Him by loving others.
1 “The Armenian Liturgy: Its Origins and Characteristics,” in: Th. F. Mathes, R. S. Wieck (eds.), Treasures in Heaven. Armenian art, religion, and society (Washington 1998), p. 23.
2 Ibid., p. 24.
By Dr. Peter C Bouteneff
We are all used to the questions we get when we tell people we are “Orthodox Christian.” They say, “Do you mean Greek Orthodox? Russian Orthodox?” We continue to get that question of which ethnicity to apply when we are talking about ourselves as “Orthodox.” Apart from trying to explain that Orthodoxy inhabits but also transcends these boundaries, I’m here to tell you that we are faced with an additional challenge, one that is rife with possibility: to see “Orthodoxy” as something wider than we thought, wider than the local churches we now number as “Orthodox” or “Eastern Orthodox.”
I am speaking of a family of ancient churches that also self-identify as “Orthodox:” Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Indian churches. There are other names by which they are known, such as “Non-Chalcedonian,” because they all have in history rejected the Council of Chalcedon. That council, taking place in AD 451, is known in the Orthodox Church as the Fourth Ecumenical Council, a great and landmark event that established the Church’s teaching about Jesus Christ — the one unique person who is at the same time completely divine and completely human.
Now fast-forward to the second half of the 20th century, which saw a momentous opportunity for the Church: the Orthodox churches and the “non-Chalcedonian” churches found themselves under the same roof, meeting under the auspices of the newly-formed World Council of Churches. Fifteen hundred years after the event that divided these two church families, they saw each other face-to-face, and immediately inaugurated a process of dialogue. First through four “unofficial” meetings (from 1964-1971), and then through several meetings officially instituted by the churches themselves, some of the greatest theologians, canonists, and historians from both families met to discuss what it was that was keeping them apart, and what could be done to bring them back together.
Here I must pause to ask you some questions: Are you aware of this process? If you know about it, have you been hearing of it as something positive? Or have you been hearing about it as something dangerous, that would compromise the purity of Orthodoxy?
As is often the case on the internet and the “culture of complaint” which dominates it, what one is probably most likely to hear, if anything, is the negative reactions to these impulses towards unity. And this is a sad thing. Naturally we revere our faith and the saints who proclaimed it over the ages, and we have an appropriate caution towards compromises and false unions. But if Orthodoxy really is the true faith as we say it is, then shouldn’t our first reaction towards dialogue and possible reconciliation be one of welcome, of a healthy joy-filled curiosity? Those of us who are theologically inclined do well to study the dialogues carefully, to be challenged by them and also to challenge them back. That study ought, among other things, be trustful of the first-class theologians who have been delegated by their churches to bring the dialogue forward.
Those theologians have made some groundbreaking discoveries. Through an exploration of the terms used by the different churches, in different time periods and in different languages, they have come to the conclusion that the vast and complex disagreements over the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon were substantially a question of language and terminology. The official dialogue statements came to the following conclusion, which is no less than stunning:
…we have now clearly understood that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they have used Christological terms in different ways.
This is a remarkable statement of unity, yet an enormous set of obstacles remains. Because over the centuries, the apparent theological disagreements, as well as many political, ethnic, and other non-theological factors, served to perpetuate and deepen division to the point where that division became completely enshrined in the histories and identities of our churches. We have some different liturgies, we venerate some different saints, we understand and identify ourselves in distinction from each other. It is almost as if the theological agreements, which seemed so insurmountable and unbelievably complex, have come far more easily than the political, emotional, and ethnic ones.
That’s where this process now lies: having made this breakthrough theological agreement, having put forward several pastoral agreements about how to handle marriages and baptisms across the two church families, both church families are currently digesting the conclusions and assessing what they may mean for a future reconciliation. In many cases the churches are finding it hard to fathom the possibilities. Habits of division formed over fifteen hundred years die hard.
Part of the shock of the theological agreement is that it leaves us looking back at history with questions such as: “Does this mean that the Church Fathers were wrong when they saw the non-Chalcedonians as heretics? Does this mean that we know better than the Church Fathers?” Good questions, but they have answers. No, we don’t know better than the Fathers. But the intervening centuries have given us a lot of information that they simply didn’t have. And it would be irresponsible of us to ignore that information. Tradition is alive. The Fathers themselves don’t want us simply to parrot their formulas, they want us to take it all further, to account for what we have come to know, what we have been shown in by the Holy Spirit through history over the passage of the centuries. In this way we remain faithful to them. Could it even be, then, that the Fathers rejoice at the possibilities that are before us?
One thing is sure: no reunion of our church families will happen until there is a genuine thirst for it. Naturally we shouldn’t rush ahead, or stifle all the caution. But let us not kill the possibility of union simply out of habit, out of irrational fear. Let us cultivate the knowledge of one another’s traditions, welcoming what we recognize in each other as Orthodox, as apostolic, as true, as mutually “ours,” and let us welcome with joy the possibility of a larger Orthodox witness in the world.
The full texts of the dialogue statements are available on the website orthodoxunity.org
Sam Williams studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He spent the Spring of 2008 and the Summer of 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. Currently, he is a first year student at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts working on a Master of Divinity.
Fr. Samji George is an Indian Orthodox priest and monk. He is a management graduate who joined the Mount Horeb monastic community in South Kerala a south west state of India in 1998. Fr. Samji later graduated from the Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam, India and is presently pursuing a theological program at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, .
Dn. Ryan Ezras Tellalian was born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley of California. After completing his BA in Psychology at CSU, Fresno, he backpacked through Western Europe before attending St. Vladimir’s and St. Nersess Seminaries (M.Div. ’09). He is currently serving at St. Leon Armenian Church as a pastoral intern while conducting research with Fr. John Cecero, a Jesuit-Psychologist at Fordham University in the Bronx. He also maintains a blog about Armenian Christianity called “Banakan”.
Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff is Associate Professor in Systematic Theology at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a D.Phil in Theology from Oxford University. Check out his podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, “Sweeter than Honey”, and his book of the same name.