Pope Shenouda III in Stevenage, 30 March 2008 - Printable Version
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Pope Shenouda III in Stevenage, 30 March 2008 - John Charmley - 30-03-2008
Just back from Stevenage where His Holiness Pope Shenouda III consecrated the new Cathedral of St. George, I wanted to share some reflections with those who were there - and those who could not be there.
Having been there at the opening of the Cathedral back in September 2006, before I was received into the BOC, I can remember having been disappointed that health considerations had prevented His Holiness form being there; so I was determined to finish the story, so to say, by being there today - even if it meant a 6 a.m. start from Norfolk; still, as there was no Liturgy, at least I could have breakfast.
The journey was as smooth as any I have ever had, and I arrived at Stevenage about 7.45, just ahead of the Babingley contingent; indeed, just in time to see Chris skilfully navigate the mud patch that passed for a car park; but with typical Coptic helpfulness, just as the car got stuck, three large chaps marched up and gave things (and Chris) a helping hand. That was characteristic of the day.
Atypically for a Coptic service, there were already plenty of people in the Cathedral - which is a beautiful building (see pictures here, which includes the ceremony <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href="http://www.copticcentre.com/">http://www.copticcentre.com/</a><!-- m -->). The stewards, who had already been there for some time, were unfailingly cheerful and helpful. Archbishop Angaelos paid them a handsome tribute in his address - and it was well-deserved; as was the one His Holiness paid to the Bishop.
As the Cathedral filled up there was almost a party atmosphere. In came the distinguished guests, but they found themselves caught up in this festive atmosphere. As always in Coptic services, there were plenty of children milling about, the little girls looking the very picture of angelic perfection, and the little boys all looking like miniature versions of their fathers; how right His Holiness was to comment that a Church without youth is a Church without a future. On the evidence of today, the future is bright.
Naturally the service started after the designated hour; but it would have been disappointing had it been any other way. As His Holiness entered you would have thought that a pop star had landed - the cameras flashed, the videos beeped, the official TV flashed into life; for a moment, as all the cameras and mobile phones were raised aloft, one had this perfect mingling of the ancient and the modern. The age-old Coptic chant, the intricately carved woodwork, the familiar liturgies - alongside the light and airy contemporary architecture, the big TV screens and all the paraphernalia of modern communications; someone had asked for people not to get out of their seats to take photos - he soon knew how King Canute had felt as the tide swept in.
Our own Abba Seraphim led the readings, and it was good to hear his sonorous tones floating out into the calming Church. His Holiness, looking the very picture of the ancient of days, stood, radiating a charisma which cannot be described - but which was felt by all present. At times he sounded tired, but as the service proceeded, his strength grew; and although every eye was on him, he concentrated on his task of consecrating the beautiful Church which so symbolises the growth of the Coptic Church under his inspired leadership.
Throughout, bishop Angaelos, his 'spiritual son' as His Holiness called him, made sure that the Pope was comfortable; his calm, quiet care for the Pope was, itself, a thing of Christian beauty. One highlight, as you can see from the footage at <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href="http://www.copticcentre.com/">http://www.copticcentre.com/</a><!-- m --> was when the bishop blessed the iconostasis - standing high above us on a moving extendable platform. As people came and went, taking photos the whole time, His Holiness rose above it all in a different way; exuding a serenity which was almost tangible.
The great and the good gave their addresses in a wonderful display of Christian solidarity; there were messages from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster, as well as from our own Oriental Orthodox family, where the Armenians, Ethiopians and Syrians were all well-represented. Bishop Angaelos gave a perfectly pitched address, which prepared the way for the Pope himself.
As he turned to undertake his pastoral role, His Holiness dropped any tiredness and appeared to grow, physically. His voice, which had been a little quavery, took on a firm timbre, and he spoke with humour, humility and Christian wisdom. As is his wont, he wanted to meet those responsible for the Sunday School and youth work, and he quizzed them about their work and their charges, reminding all parents there of the supreme importance of their role in their children's future, and it was up to them to shape the children; he added for good measure that if a child did not come to Sunday School, the Sunday School teacher should make sure he went to the child.
His Holiness departed in the sort of scrum usually seen at media events; but he walked with great calm through it all, giving his blessings to all.
Trevor, Abba Seraphim's driver and general factotum, and myself found a swift exit and took it, soon finding ourselves subject to the generous hospitality laid on by the Copts, where we could mingle with our friends and make new ones. That festive feeling was now given free rein - but it was given added impetus by the man in whose presence we had been for the past three hours.
Do look at the footage on the website.