On 8 January Abba Seraphim ordained Roman Ivanovich Benchak to serve as a Reader at St. Athanasios & St. Alban Parish at Chatham. Roman is a Russian who has been worshipping for some time with the British Orthodox and during his homily Abba Seraphim commented that although the Russian Orthodox Church was a relative ‘newcomer’ to Orthodoxy it had made an amazing contribution to the world, with its profound spirituality and great catalogue of saints and martyrs, especially those who had struggled to keep the Orthodox faith alive during a difficult history, from the Tartar Yoke to more recently, the darkness of atheistic communism. What a rich schoolmaster it had proved to bring Roman to Christ. In entering into service in the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Patriarchate, Roman becomes the ‘firstfruits’ of the full reunion we all long to see between the two families of Orthodoxy and a witness to our common faith and adherence to the same Apostolic Tradition.
Abba Seraphim noted that today in Stevenage His Grace Bishop Angaelos was holding a special Memorial Service for all the Coptic Christians who have lost their lives – indeed become martyrs – in the recent troubles which preceded and took place during the Revolution: from, El Kosheh, Nag Hammadi, Al-Qidiseen in Alexandria to Maspero. Although unable to be there personally, he had directed all British Orthodox congregations to make similar commemorations and to join in prayer and in spirit with that service. Thankfully this Nativity Feast has passed off in Egypt peacefully but these are still uncertain times. He noted that His Holiness Pope Shenouda had invited representatives of all political parties to join the Christmas celebration; which was right as Christians can show no hate, even for those who have treated them cruelly, especially as the Eucharist is about union with God and the spirit of forgiveness and new life in Christ; so all must be welcome. Yet we do not forget those whose lives have been sacrificed and whose blood is a witness of injustice. At this time we also called for prayer for the Christians of Syria, who are suffering because of the unrest there.
At the invitation of the Oxford University Orthodox Christian Student Society, Abba Seraphim gave a talk on “The Orthodox Heritage of Pre-Schism Britain” at Trinity College, Oxford, on 17 November. He began by pointing out that as a Metropolitan of the Alexandrian Patriarchate, within the Coptic and Oriental Orthodox traditions, the Great Schism of 1054 might seem to be somewhat beyond his remit, as it was a schism between two Chalcedonian churches which had been separated from that portion of the Orthodox Church for centuries. However, as an Englishman with canonical responsibility for a community of British Orthodox congregations he had a keen interest in Britain’s Orthodox heritage and what we may be learnt from it.
The Insular Church from its foundation was an integral part of the universal church, holding to a common faith and order. It withstood successive waves of persecution and when the Constantinian Peace of the Church was established, its hierarchs took their place in the counsels of the church. St. Athanasius the Great commended the British Church for upholding the Nicene Faith and very early we find it drawing on the support of sister churches to root out heresy.
Abba Seraphim examined the eastern origins of early British monasticism, especially links with Coptic Egypt; the role of saints and martyrs; the British enthusiasm for pilgrimages; the evangelism of the Irish saints and later Anglo-Saxon missions (Boniface & Willibrord); the evidence of liturgical and cultural links with other Christian cultures in Europe and the significant cross fertilisation of art and learning. He also highlighted the development of the Roman Primacy from one of honour to one of jurisdiction, examining the traditions of Pope Eleutherius, Augustine of Canterbury and Theodore of Tarsus and the gradual introduction of the filioque.
In concluding Abba Seraphim observed that the title of his talk was capable of two interpretations. The first might be simply to demonstrate that the Orthodox faith was manifested fully in the British Church prior to 1054, whereafter it gradually became more Romanised and fell into schism or worse; the second might be that the British Church in its first thousand years was not only fully Orthodox in its faith and order, as manifested by its full participation in the life and witness of the universal church, but that it made its own significant contribution to the faith, which carried the Gospel to huge populations but enriched and renewed Christendom with its own unique character and perception.
Following questions and a vote of thanks, Abba Seraphim was invited to join representatives of the society for dinner at a local restaurant.
At the invitation of The Waterloo Place Group, a private luncheon club composed of School Chaplains, Abba Seraphim spoke on 10 November at The Athenaeum Club in London. His subject was the background to the current situation of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. Briefly tracing the political history of Egypt since the 1952 Revolution, Abba Seraphim spoke about the outrages of El Kosheh (New Year’s Eve, 1999) and Nag Hammadi (Christmas Eve 2010) leading to the acceleration of events over the past twelve months. Throughout all the terrible events of this period and the uncertainty of the future, the message of His Holiness Pope Shenouda has been clear, “We do not know anything concerning the future. The Lord said: Do not care for tomorrow, tomorrow cares for itself. The future is in the hands of God not ours.”
In response to the deaths of two dozen and the wounding of very, very many of our beloved Coptic Orthodox brethren in Cairo on Sunday and the Holy Synod call for three days of fasting and prayer “so that the Lord dwells with His peace in our beloved country Egypt” the British Orthodox Church stood in firm solidarity with the Mother Church.
Members of the Portsmouth congregation kept the three days of fasting and prayer concluding with a special prayer service on Thursday evening during which these latest martyrs were remembered.
Similarly the Bournemouth and Southampton congregations observed the three days fasting and prayer.
The prayers in the Bournemouth Church each day centred around Sixth Hour (Noon) Prayers with the Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 5 so appropriate: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… great is your reward in heaven…” (Matthew 5:10-12) Particular verses from the Psalms also resonated powerfully: “O God, in Thy Name save me… hearken unto my prayer… strangers are risen up against me, and mighty men have sought after my soul…” (Psalm 53) The words of Psalm 92 also remind us that though “the rivers have lifted up their voices” that though they “lift up their waves as the voices of many waters”, that whatever “the surgings of the sea”, above them all “wonderful on high is the Lord”. “The Lord is King, He is clothed with majesty; the Lord is clothed with strength…”
The Southampton Mission under the patronage of Saint Polycarp similarly centred their prayers around the Sixth Hour Prayers.
The three days culminated in the Bournemouth Church (also joined and supported by members of the Southampton Mission) with Twelfth Hour (Evening) Prayer and special prayers for the Mother Church in Egypt as well as remembering the new martyrs. Father Simon led the congregation as they stood before icons of Saint Antony and Saint Paul, Saint Bishoy, Saint Moses the Black, asking their intercessions for the monasteries that bear their names and for all the monasteries and holy places. Standing in prayer before their icons the intercessions of Saint Mary the Mother of God and of Saint Mark were invoked for the whole Church in Egypt. These prayers concluded before the icon of Saint Simon the Tanner whose intercessions were also sought, this great saint whose prayers God had answered a thousand years ago after the three days of fasting and prayers in similar times of danger and trouble for the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Your Holiness, dear Father in God,
For the second time this year it is my melancholy duty to send to you the profound condolences of your British Orthodox clergy and faithful at the deaths of so many faithful Christians who were peacefully protesting against recent attacks on Coptic churches. We join wholeheartedly in the three days of prayer and fasting and share the grief and shock which the loss of so many innocent lives deserves.
We also extend our deep sympathy to the families and friends of all the departed as well as well as those who were injured in the vicious and unwarranted attacks which took place.
We earnestly pray for peace and justice in Egypt so that all sections of society may be united in rebuilding a free and fair society so that the people of Egypt may be united together in common cause for the benefit of all.
We thank God for preserving Your Holiness in health and safety to lead the church and ask Him to uphold you in your sacred ministry.
Commending myself to Your Holiness’s prayers.
Your loving and faithful son-in-Christ,