A Local Church
The 1994 Protocol specifically defined the British Orthodox Church as a “local church.” In Orthodox ecclesiology each community of churches under its local bishop constitutes the fullness of the church universal and each local bishop is united by a common faith and order under the primacy of an historic and canonical church. From the earliest times the ancient see of Alexandria comprised not only the great metropolis with the Libyan Pentapolis (the five cities of north Africa) but “all the preaching of St. Mark”, which historically referred to Nubia, Ethiopia and the Sudan but is understood as canonically extending over the whole of Africa. As the Coptic diaspora grew during the second half of the twentieth century, Orthodox churches were established and later Coptic dioceses were erected to minister to these. At the time of the enthronement in 2012 of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, this fact was reflected by the addition to the papal title of “the lands of immigration.”
The erection of the British Orthodox Church brought the territories of this historic Christian territory within the Patriarchate of Alexandria, but as a distinct local church in parallel to the local Coptic diocesan structure. Although the churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea are now autocephalous patriarchates, their distinctive historical and cultural heritage was always recognised and cherished by the Mother See of Alexandria.
Historic faith & Order
The Protocol also emphasised that the British Orthodox Church held to “the historic faith and order of the Apostolic Church”. Teaching the faith of the early church, which has been faithfully passed from generation to generation without diminution, enables the church to offer sound teaching in an age of uncertainty and relativism. By witnessing to the vibrancy of a living tradition grounded in the Holy Bible and the writings of the church fathers, we are able to speak to contemporary society with clarity and authority.
Restoration of Orthodoxy
The mission of the British Orthodox Church is defined as being “committed to the restoration of Orthodoxy among the indigenous population.” Although a missionary church, charged with bringing Orthodoxy to the local people, this does not involve the introduction of an exotic and alien culture, but the restoration of the Orthodox traditions and spirituality which had previously existed when Britain was part of the universal church. In caring for the spiritual well-being of those who return to their Orthodox roots, it is important to determine how people in any age or place may best serve and worship God. But this should not be taken as permitting dilution or change to the essential teachings of the Orthodox Church. What are particular cultural customs of the Mother Church may not be so well suited to local conditions. This, increasingly, may be an issue which the whole Church of the diaspora has to face. Similarly, what is good for one age or place, may under different conditions constitute a hindrance. In the Orthodox Church canonical tradition respects local customs which are derived from a common faith and tradition; and the local Church, having evolved within the context of local Christian culture, is able to express the Orthodox faith with sensitivity to its particular heritage.
Saints and Martyrs
An important feature of the mission of the British Orthodox Church in the restoration of Orthodoxy among the indigenous population is that of increasing awareness of Britain’s early saints and martyrs, including our proto-martyr Saint Alban (martyred in the Diocletian persecution). We witness to these ancient Orthodox saints and martyrs by including their names in the dedication of our Churches, including their icons alongside Coptic icons on the walls of our Church buildings, remembering them on their saints’ days, publishing articles about them and by going on pilgrimage to their relics and the holy sites associated with them.
Witnessing to a Secular Society
A second key aspect of the church’s mission is “to provide a powerful witness to the Orthodox Faith and Tradition in an increasingly secular society.” As in most Western European countries, church attendance has declined steadily over the past half century and many people now have no religious affiliation. Yet, surprisingly, the 2011 census showed that six out of every ten people in England and Wales identify themselves as Christians. Experience shows that there is a hunger for spirituality, which is satisfied by the authentic witness of the Orthodox Church. Throughout the generations this continues to speak with authority to many people confronted with the moral and ethical challenges of a secular society. Preaching in London in 1994 on Christian Spirituality in a Changing World, the late Pope Shenouda reminded us that we should not allow ourselves to be conformed to the world, but rather, as Christians, we are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds to become ministers of righteousness.
We desire to support and encourage those wishing to know more about the Apostolic Tradition and the Orthodox way of life. Experience has taught us that a negative attitude towards a former church, or simply being against changes and departures from the Apostolic Tradition, are not sufficient reasons for becoming Orthodox. Only a compelling conviction in the truth of the Orthodox witness and a belief that God is calling you to a lifetime of commitment to the Orthodox Church, will ensure you have the right foundation to persevere. If your call isn’t from God, you will not stay; but if it is, you will not want to leave.
Those desirous of entering the Orthodox Church are first admitted to the Catechumenate, during which they undergo instruction and spiritual counsel. There is no proscribed period for a catechumen before reception and each person progresses to baptism and chrismation when both they and their spiritual director believe they are ready to do so.