After several days of torrential rain, the morning of 12 July proved to be a perfect day for the British Orthodox Church to hold its special Thanksgiving Service for the twentieth Anniversary of the union of with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. The Thanksgiving Service was held in the bright and airy church of Saint George-in-the-East at Shadwell, on the eastern borders of the City of London. His Grace Bishop Kyrillos, Bishop of Milan and Patriarchal Exarch of all Europe, accompanied by Their Graces Bishops Louka of Geneva and Pavlos of Greece had been delegated by His Holiness Pope Tawadros II to convey his hearty congratulations for this celebration. In his message His Holiness spoke of his knowledge of Abba Seraphim’s ministry and pastoral work, preaching and praying and also his admirable lectures about Orthodoxy and the deep faith of the Coptic Orthodox Church, in which he explained the history and dogma and how the Copts had kept the faith pure and clear. He also spoke of the strong links made by Abba Seraphim with the mother church in Egypt.
In welcoming the bishops and the message from the Pope, Abba Seraphim noted that the psalmist tells us how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity and it was right that they should mark with thanksgiving two decades of unity with the mother church. “The British Orthodox Church came into being almost a century and a half ago, but in the intervening years we lost contact with our Oriental Orthodox roots until, through the vision and generosity of Pope Shenouda we were brought back into the fullness of church unity. We owe him so much and for us British Orthodox he will always be a profoundly loved and venerated figure.”
He went on to say, “The British Orthodox Church, in fulfilment of the church’s catholicity, exists to preach that apostolic tradition of the gospel to the British people. It is not part of a diaspora ministry from a mother church elsewhere, but the implanted seed from those ancient Christian churches which have faithfully preserved their heritage through centuries of persecution and hardship. In seeking the continuity of faith from the apostolic age, many people find the faith and spirituality of the Orthodox Church fills their emptiness and satisfies their yearning. Someone once observed that if the British Orthodox Church did not exist it would be necessary to invent her. Of course, there are British clergy and faithful in other parts of the Orthodox Church so we do not assert that we alone have this vocation to mission, but for us it is our primary purpose.”
In outlining some of the work done over the past twenty years, he said, “Our relations with other churches inspired by the same apostolic spirit, means that we can share partnership in our witness to our increasingly secular society, as well as profound love and respect between brethren. Over the past few years – when the situation of Christians in the Middle East has become so dire – both the spiritual and practical support of others has been quite humbling. To know that fellow Christians really do care and desire to stand alongside their beleaguered brethren in solidarity shows a powerful unity of love. For me it is best characterised by the abduction in May 2013 of the two Orthodox Metropolitans of Aleppo: Mar Yohanna Ibraham of the Syrian Orthodox Church and Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. No news of their fate has been forthcoming but we continue to pray for them every day. They had always worked closely together in trying to help all communities suffering in the breakdown of society in Syria. Significantly it was whilst on a mission to negotiate the release of two priests held as hostages, one an Armenian Catholic and the other a Greek Orthodox, that they were taken.”
“In fulfilment of our responsibilities, the British Orthodox Church has played an active role in the Council of Oriental Orthodox Churches in the UK and endeavoured to work alongside them in a shared witness to our faith. Over the past two decades we have also assumed a particularly active ministry with regard to those outside this country who have come, through conversion or persecution, as asylum seekers and it rejoices my heart to know that there are some here today whom we have been privileged to serve in this manner. The British Orthodox were not the only beneficiaries of Pope Shenouda’s benevolent outreach and in 1994 the ancient Christian community in the newly independent Eritrea was granted the status of an autokephalous patriarchate. From that time the British Orthodox always felt a particular affinity to their Eritrean brethren and when the shadow of authoritarian and oppressive government was cast over the church in Eritrea we have been a consistent voice for justice. Nor have we forgotten the imprisoned Patriarch of Eritrea, Abune Antonios, who was ordained to the episcopate in 1994 at the same liturgy when I was made a Metropolitan by Pope Shenouda. Last month I was privileged to attend the meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to remind the world of the suffering Christians of Eritrea.”
“Over the past couple of years, despite our limited resources, we have been able to establish new missions of the British Orthodox Church in places where local people have asked for our ministry and we have discovered openings up and down the country which challenge us for a response. Some of those who have answered the call and committed themselves to the Orthodox faith are with us here today as the fruits of that seed which was planted by Pope Shenouda two decades ago. In fulfilment of that commission we are planning a more active outreach in response to such requests, whilst placing our trust in God to continue His blessing on all that we do in His name. At the conclusion of this service the bells of St. George-in-the-East will ring out in celebration, proclaiming our joy and thanksgiving. The poet Longfellow said that “Bells are the voice of the church; they have tones that touch and search the hearts of young and old.” On this day they also proclaim our commitment to share our precious Orthodox faith with those who have none, so that through our ministry God may touch and search their hearts also.”
“Anniversaries look back to events which we commemorate but they also should enable us to reflect on the path before us or they are merely opportunities for nostalgia. Today’s gospel records the mission of the 70 and we should take our inspiration for the future from the Lord’s words to them, ‘The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray you therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.’ “
In an address to the congregation, Bishop Kyrillos said that he was delighted by the generous invitation to share this joyful occasion of the twentieth Anniversary of the unity of the British in Coptic Orthodox Church into one church, a church that we love dearly, and that lives in us every day. He went on to speak of the spiritual; foundation of the Church, “The church, which our beloved Lord Jesus Christ has bought with his precious blood, is our dearest mother, and when we were baptised we came forth from her womb as heavenly children and as earthly angels. Our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, bought the church with His precious blood, so that all the children of His church are very precious to him. And her beloved bridegroom, our Lord Jesus Christ, wipes away the tears of sadness from her children’s eyes. It is not enough just to enter the church, we must let the church penetrated into us. We remember the Virgin St Mary when she was young, she entered the temple and in the end, she was transformed into the Temple of God. The children of the church are always joyful because they feel the church is their mother, and that our beloved Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church is their father. Any person who keeps God in his heart but has no parents cannot be considered as an orphan, but the ones who have parents and live far away from God indeed orphans. Our loving Heavenly Father said, ‘Even if your mother and forsake you, I will take care of you … I have carved you on the palms of my hand.’ (Psalm XXVII:10 & Isaiah XL: 16). The Church is our mother and has many names. She is called: the Bride of Christ, the House of God, the House of Angels, the Mother of Martyrs, the Bride of the Rock. She Is the Ship of Salvation and the Dwelling Place of God amongst His people.
We are filled by her teaching, and comforted within her loving and tender embrace. For this reason, every day new children are welcomed into her embrace and into her heart. The Church is our mother, educates, teaches and guides us in the way of salvation, and with open arms she accepts all people who come to her as Jesus said, “And the one who comes to me, I will by no means cast out.” (John VI: 37). We must always remember and keep in our heart what our mother the Church gives us through her teachings and love. Through the water and spirit of baptism we are born into the church, and through her teachings, we are filled and grow. Our mother the Church carries the holy sacraments, in which the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit are hidden and made visible in her good children. When we marry, the sacrament of marriage is officiated by the hand of the priest in the Church. And then when we finish our days on earth, the church becomes our path to obtain victory in heaven. And through repentance, we received the forgiveness of our sins and absolution from the priests whop are appointed as stewards of Christ’s holy mysteries. With his blessed hand, Our Lord Jesus Christ founded His church forever, therefore no one can attack her. He promised us saying, “No weapon formed against Him shall prosper: and every tongue which rises against Him in judgement, He shall condemn’ ( Isaiah LIV:17). And in these blessed days, following the feast of the holy apostles, we may remember the strength and unity of the early church ‘who were of one heart and one soul and had all things in common’ (Acts IV: 32). We pray that our beloved church continues to be a living witness of the goodness of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to keep us united in Christian love.”
Bishop Kyrillos then presented Abba Seraphim with an ikon of the Holy Theotokos, sent by His Holiness Pope Tawadros and Bishops Louka and Pavlos also made presentations. Later, to mark the occasion, the three bishops were presented with commemorative glass paper weights inscribed with the Anniversary logo.
Assisting at the celebration of the Liturgy were Fathers Simon Smyth, David Seeds and Peter Farrington; Archdeacon Alexander Astill, Deacons Christopher Barnes, Theodore de Quincey and Daniel Malyon; Subdeacons Michael Kennedy, Paul Ashdown, Nicolae Popa, Edward Smyth, Anthony-Paul Holland, Trevor Maskery and Reader Christopher Shaw. Representatives of British Orthodox communities attended from Babingley (King’s Lynn), Bournemouth, Chatham, Cusworth (Doncaster), Glastonbury, London, Portsmouth, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent and Windsor, as well as the Eritrean churches in London and Sheffield. Also seated in the sanctuary were Fathers Yonas Tshemi and Shenouda Haile of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Father George Joy (representing H.G. Dr. Mathews Mar Thimothios) of the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church and Father Aphram (representing H.E. Archbishop Athanasius) of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Among the distinguished visiting clergy were His Grace Bishop Hlib of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Deacon Meliton Oakes (representing H.E. Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira); Father Andreas Andreopolous of the University of Winchester; Father Mark Woodruff, Vice Chairman of the Fellowship of St. John Chrysostom; Father John Salter and Deacon Richard Downer of the Greek Melkite Church as well as clergy of the Anglican and Catholic churches. Dr. Simon Bryden-Brook played the organ.
At the conclusion of the service, for which the church was packed, a buffet lunch (with a specially baked cake bearing the Anniversary logo) was served to all present mingled in the courtyard while the bells were rung in celebration. Later Fathers Yonas and Shenouda led the Eritreans present in traditional Eritrean songs and dance on the terrace in front of the main entrance.
Among the many messages of greetings received were those from His Grace Bishop Angaelos, who wrote, “It is with great regret that I am unable to join you today on this joyous occasion as I’m currently in Australia for my annual youth ministry visit. I could not let this occasion pass, however, without extending my congratulations and fraternal wishes to your Eminence, my dear brother in Christ, as well as your clergy and congregations. Praying that God continues to bless your ministry, and looking forward to our continued witness, I ask your prayers for me and my Ministry as I assure you of mine for you and yours.” Also received was a formal message of greeting from the Executive Council of OCP (Orthodoxy Cognate Page) Society, which expressed joy and great pleasure on the glorious occasion of the twentieth anniversary, “The commendable growth of the British Orthodox Church in the past 20 years has borne a great witness of her holy mission to restore the ancient Orthodox roots of the British Isles. The relationship established between the British Church and the ancient Coptic Patriarchate stands tall as the true model of Orthodox Conciliarity Union. Words are not enough to congratulate Your Eminence for the phenomenal leadership given to the British Orthodox Community that has taken the church far beyond the borders of the nation.”