Book Reviews

Christopher Birchall, Embassy, Emigrants, ad Englishmen. The Three-Hundred-Year History of the Russian Orthodox Church in London (Holy Trinity Publications, Jordanville, New York: 2014), xx + 712 pp. + illus. ISBN: 978-0-88465-381-3 (Hardback),Price: $69.00 978-0-88465-336-3 (Paperback): Price $37.95 (£27.42 on Amazon)

Histories of Orthodox churches in Britain are rare, mainly because they are largely relatively recently established and their current members are themselves often among the founding fathers. There are exceptions, however, notably the Greek Orthodox community dating back to the seventeenth century and the Russian Embassy Chapel founded in the reign of Tsar Peter the Great. Previous attempts to write an English history of the Russian Orthodox Church in London have their limitations. A 46-page History of the Russian Orthodox Church in London 1707-1977 (1978) by M-N-B was not what its title claimed, but largely  an outline history of the Russian Church, with only occasional references to the situation of the community in  London; Metropolitan Kallistos’ brief overview of “The Orthodox Church in the British Isles” in Christine Chaillot’s A Short History of the Orthodox Church in Western Europe in the 20th Century (2006) placed the Russian Church in its historical setting;  whilst Michael Sarni’s bilingual The Russian Church in London from Peter the Great to the Present Day (2012) was a short but fair attempt to recount the parish history, beautifully illustrated with appropriate photographs of personalities, places and documents.

It has taken Protodeacon Christopher Birchall many years to bring this worthy project to fruition, but it has been time well used in pulling together many strands and themes stretching over three centuries. Although an English convert for many years (he was chrismated in Bethany on 28 August 1969 by Fr. Gerassim of Paris), being domiciled in Canada must have made research more difficult.  The end result, however, is well-researched, eminently readable and authoritative.

Like ancient Gaul, his book falls into three distinct parts, with the 1917 Russian Revolution concluding the first era; then 1991 with the fall of Soviet Communist hegemony marking another key moment to the present day. The first six chapters document the first epoch, tracing the foundation at the time of Metropolitan Arsenius and the Non-Jurors followed by the long chaplaincies of Archpriest James Smirnove (1780-1840), Father Eugene Popoff (1842-1875) and Archpriest Eugene Smirnoff (1877-1923). From a private dwelling in York Buildings, one of London’s many inner courtyards, (close to Charing Cross) the embassy chapel moved to a more commodious building in Clifford Street, Burlington Gardens in 1756; with a short period in Harley Street before settling in Welbeck Street in 1813, where a permanent cast-iron chapel was built onto the house in 1866. It was a brilliant idea to have the book launch in this very building, so redolent with the community’s history. Among many historical events, Father Christopher records the incidence of English converts during these years, among whom was Frederick North, fifth Earl of Guilford (1766-1827), son of George III’s Prime Minister. The chapter on pro-Orthodox Anglicans and the rivalry between Father Stephen Hatherly and Dr. J.J. Overbeck, two nineteenth century converts, is of great interest and  well recounted. 

The vicissitudes of the community following the Russian Revolution draws on many personal reminiscences as the community split into two and the personal histories of so many faithful clergy and people are closely interwoven, some of whom deserve their own separate biographies.  Father Christopher has chosen to concentrate on the portion which remained free of Soviet control, latterly known as The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which in 2007 re-entered into communion with the Patriarchate of Moscow. It has remained a distinct community, deserving of its own history and future generations will also doubtlessly record the diocesan history of those who served under the Moscow Patriarchate, which was dominated for so long by the charismatic Archbishop Antony Bloom.

Father Christopher’s book is a model of how such histories should be written and it is not only to be hoped that he will turn his attention to other areas of British Orthodox history but will encourage others to emulate his meticulous and scholarly work.

Maged S.A. Mikhail, From Byzantine to Islamic Egypt. Religion, Identity and Politics after the Arab Conquest (I.B. Taurus, London & New York: 2014), xiii + 429 pp. Hardback ISBN 978 1 84885 938 8. Price: £68.00

The conquest of Egypt in late November 641 may have been sudden and dramatic but the process of transformation from a Byzantine province to part of the nasacent Islamic caliphate was a more complex and nuanced process which Professor Mikhail’s study seeks to identify through aspects of hybridity, innovation and continuity.

Drawing on a wealth of historical sources, historians are reminded of the need to be mindful of the distortions of “pervasive nationalist reading that has endured for a century.” Dr. Mikhail notes the caricature of “oppressive” Byzantines and “nationalistic” Copts who welcome the Arabs as “liberators” and the manner in which the Coptic Patriarch Benjamin I’s actions are portrayed, as well as later historians confusing Benjamin with the Melkite Patriarch Kyros, known as al-Muqawqas. He contrasts the contemporary Chronicle of John of Nikiou, who views the conquest as a divine reprimand, with the ninth century Futuh misr of Ibn Abd al-Hakim, for whom it is a manifestation of divine providence. The former was suppressed and supplanted by the latter. However, if the Copts generally failed to welcome the Arabs, there is good evidence to show that the surviving Melkite elite, anxious to preserve their personal health and status, did collaborate with their conquerors. By drawing on primary sources rather than ninth century narratives, Dr. Mikhail’s study challenges the “master narrative” of the Arab conquest on several fronts.

Another inference of later historians is that the Islamic government favoured the Coptic Church and utilised it to rule.  Contemporary accounts, however, show that the Arabs were not so interested in adjudicating between Christian factions as with establishing an efficient bureaucracy, which was actually dominated by Melkites, who were reinstated after the conquest. Under the influence of the two Melkite brothers, Theodore, Governor of Alexandria, and Theophanes, Governor of Maryut, Copts were actively persecuted. It is more than a generation later, under Abd al-Aziz ibn Marwan (685-705) that Copts were courted and confiscated churches returned, possibly because he was anxious to keep the Coptic majority on side in case the Byzantines should attempt to regain the province.

We are introduced to many long-forgotten lay and ecclesiastical notables, among whom Lord Ishaq ibn Anduna, chief of the governor’s diwan, is unique. Although a Copt he exerted much energy in undermining the authority of the Coptic Papacy, even to the extent of attempting to have himself appointed Pope, despite having a wife and children. Although, in the face of opposition, he withdrew his candidacy, the new Pope Yusab I (830-849) appointed him his deputy and, eventually, a bishop; in which post he proved rapacious and self-serving. After Ishaq’s death his sons succeeded him and kept a tight hold on the power and wealth of the Papacy.

Professor Mikhail examines texts for evidence of conversions and questions the veracity of the account of the first converts even before the Conquest, one of whom became a concubine of the Prophet of Islam, as the doubtful account chooses identical names to the concubines of a sixth century Sasanian Emperor. He also notes that Pope Benjamin was engaged in converting Melkites back to “the right faith by his gentleness, exhorting them with courtesy and consideration.” After the Conquest many Melkites were received, including Constantine, Bishop of Misr, as well as remnants of earlier schisms, such as the Julianists, Meletians and Basanuphians. The Umayyad caliphs (661-750) generally did not promote conversion to Islam, being content to extract the jizya or tax, but under the Abbasids in the 8th century, there is the first reported mass conversion of some 24,000 Christians. Generally conversions were voluntary, but there was some coercion. Converts tended to come from the two extremes of the socio-political spectrum, either the riff-raff who wanted to improve their lot or the elite, who wanted to maintain their status and prestige. There was a strong financial incentive to convert, intermarriage increased as did Arab immigration. In 719 the Qaysi tribesmen were settled in Egypt and many more were to follow. A decline in Christian education also help to blur the distinction between the two faiths.

The “long eighth century” is seen as a cultural bridge, during which legislative reforms and building programmes contributed to the creation of a distinctly Islamic identity. Arabic became the official language of the administration; the Coptic calendar was supplanted by the Arab-Islamic one; there was a mass slaughter of pigs (as in 2009 on the pretext of avoiding “swine flu”); impressive mosques and other Islamic buildings became more prominent whilst a decree for the destruction of idols led to the removal of much Graeco-Roman statuary. The tax burden led to numerous and frequent Coptic revolts and their suppression. In other ways Egyptian society itself was undergoing a transformation. The Christian elite, which dominated rural areas for some eighty years after the Conquest and maintained a strong degree of autonomy, was gradually replaced by muslims settling in the villages. As wave upon wave of immigrants arrived, the dominant military elite with its tribal ties was diminished and settlers were allocated land in the villages.

The Abbasids were initially welcomed as “crypto-Christian liberators” but the church hierarchy’s submission to the rulers of Egypt weakened its authority. Caliphs repeatedly interfered in papal elections and Popes urged rebels to repent for their uprisings. The authority of the Coptic popes over Christians in the independent kingdoms of Nubia and Ethiopia began to be seen as an asset which could be used to the government’s advantage. The decline of Alexandria as a politico-religious centre and the move of the Coptic Popes to Fustat, Hulwan and Cairo, near to the centres of Islamic government, marked a further stage in the decline of Coptic autonomy. Fluctuations in building codes and restrictions placed on church building, placed the Coptic Pope at the mercy of the government. As the independence of the clergy declined, the Pope’s role increased and his authority was proclaimed as being derived “from God and from the Caliph.” The later growth of inter-religious polemics, in which both Christians and Muslims interpreted natural and supernatural events as demonstrating divine favour, marks a consolidation of each community and the summation of the long period of assimilation, integration, subjugation and dominance.

Professor Mikhail’s scholarly and thorough analysis of ancient texts shows the extent and complexity of the Muslim Conquest stretched over centuries and explains the evolution of Coptic society as it remained at the dawn of the early modern era and the rise of Muhammed Ali. His choice of demonstrating this by a thematic rather than historical narrative allows him to redress the simplifications and distortions of popular history and to build his case on firm foundations. His account, however, is not without some rare insights into mediaeval Coptic history and the colourful characters who fill it.

Fr. Michael Sorial, Incarnational Exodus. A Framework for the Advancement of a Christocentric Ecclesial Model for the Coptic Orthodox Diaspora in North America based on the Incarnational Theology of Athanasius of Alexandria (Saint Cyril of Alexandria Society Press: 2014), i + 68 pp. Pbk. ISBN 9780984891856. Price: £8.00.

Fr. Michael, a Coptic Orthodox priest serving in the USA, attempts to understand the relatively recent growth of the Coptic diaspora and the challenges facing it, in the light of Saint Athanasious the Great’s De Incarnatione Verbe. He hopes, by utilising a text which is held in such high deference by the Coptic Church, as a critique on the ecclesiology and method of enculturation of the community, it will contribute to the acceptance of the recommendations that he is making. His methodology for engaging with this is by first examining contemporary scholarship on three cultural models – ethnocentric, ideology-centric, and Christocentric. He does this by comparing three Orthodox diaspora communities: Greek, Russian and Antiochian, although in doing so he depends rather heavily on four texts.  

Two texts are used to explore the Ethnocentric model, although they are clearly written by Americanisers who are critical of ethnic Orthodoxy. George Matsoukas, Project for Orthodox Renewal (1993) studies key issues facing Orthodox Christians in America produced by a movement, Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL). As it is led by American-born laity, its ultimate goal is the creation of an independent American Church to replace the ethnic communities who still look to their mother country and the local issues which beset it. Critics of OCL, accuse it of Americanisation and argue that it incorporates class and racial ideologies, by desiring to escape its immigrant and ethnic base in order to create a middle-class white American institution whose members can enjoy the social prestige and status they have attained in their private and professional lives. Mark Stokoe’s Orthodox Christians in North America (1995) traces the history of Orthodox communities in America from 1794 with some astute analysis, but at heart he also appears to be an Americaniser. 

The Ideology-centric model is defined as “placing emphasis on a specific philosophy, which is largely associated with the experience of the community in its prior context.”   Valerie Kivelson’s Orthodox Russia. Belief and Practice Under the Tsars (2003) and Stephen Headley’s Christ after Communism. Spiritual Authority and its Transmission in Moscow Today (2010) both refer to the seminal impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and life under Communism. Headley’s portrayal of Russian Orthodoxy is deeply anthropological. It is to be regretted that later, when Fr. Michael discusses Coptic Orthodoxy, he makes no significant comment about the impact of almost 1,400 years of living under Muslim domination.

The third model chosen by Fr. Michael is the Christocentric, as it “places Christ at the center of the process of self-identification with one’s current environment.” He returns to Stokoe, quoting his positive comments about the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Stokoe’s account speaks positively of the Syrian Archbishop Antony Bashir, which Fr. Michael extends by selecting approving comments about his successor, Metropolitan Philip Saliba.  

Having made a rather cursory summary of his sources, unsurprisingly Fr. Michael’s critical analysis dismisses the ethnocentric and ideology-centric models and chooses the Christocentric  culture as the foundation for an incarnational model, by which the Word of God is renewed within the living organism of the Church.  Having selected those diaspora groups which created an organic relationship between their old cultural, national, and religious identities within their new societal environment, he raises a word of caution that this often takes several generations before reaching a state of cultural equilibrium within its new society.   

His third chapter on ‘Incarnational Theology: Christ and the Church’ expounds St. Athanasius’ teachings on the organic link between the Christians’ incorporation into Christ as members of his Body and the hypostatic union of God and Man and the consequent nature of the Church, as His Body.  In doing so, he also quotes from Hosea XI: 1, a text much beloved by Copts, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” Apart from, its prophetic character in relation to the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt, Fr. Michael understands this as the Father calling humanity out of the spiritual Egypt, the land of bondage to death and idolatry, in order to have the image of the Word restored.

Finally he applies these various paradigms to the specific case of the Coptic diaspora, the rapid growth of which he feels is “a challenge that the church has never faced before and is one that it is currently unequipped to address. The true challenge of the Church will be in learning ‘how to become a truly universal church,’ open to the environment.” By reflecting on the three models of enculturation and the experience of earlier diaspora groups, who share a similar theological outlook, he seeks to manifest the body of Christ and bypass many of the common pitfalls. In doing this he examines in some depth the first Annual North American Mission and Evangelism Conference of the Coptic Orthodox Church held in March 2014 at Titusville, Florida, under the chairmanship of Bishop David of the New York & New England diocese. This offered four categories for cultural integration: the assimilationists, who follow mainstream American culture; the separationists, who have entirely disassociated the Coptic Church from the indigenous culture; the marginalists, who lose both Egyptian and American cultural identity and the integrationists, who take the best of both cultures. Clearly those present were sympathetic towards the integrationists in order to “allow for the emergence of American Orthodox Spirituality,” although it was emphasised that this “can neither be forced nor done haphazardly”, but should come about organically with direction being offered by leadership. 

Among specific topics discussed at the conference were the language of worship, the need to align the church and secular calendar, the shape of the liturgy, a need for culturally integrated churches and whether they should be identified by name (i.e. American Coptic Orthodox Church), liturgical music and the role of women. It was noted that historically the Copts have been more ready to adapt linguistically to their environment and to integrate than other communities, which is why Christianity in North Africa disappeared, whilst the Coptic Church survived. In conclusion Fr. Michael contends that the Church in North America is not a fundamentally diaspora Church but rather is “evolving into an indigenous and American faith whose promise is limited only by the vision of its congregants. This the Coptic Orthodox Christian must acknowledge that having been ‘called out of Egypt,’ their continued purpose as the Body of Christ mandates a proper theology of inculturation.”

Fr. Michael’s framework of a Christocentric model is essentially sound, but the history and ethos of the Coptic community has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, which are sometimes quite distinct from other ethnic Orthodox communities and which need more thorough examination. Recent events show clearly how the links between Egypt and its diaspora communities are still amazingly close and the readiness of affluent Copts living abroad to fund significantly the work of the church in the home country is a manifestation of those links.  The debate, arising from a love of the faith, which the Copts have preserved so devotedly down the centuries, and a concern to share that faith with others, is a promising sign of spiritual maturity. America is a multicultural society with a strong sense of national identity binding together great diversity. In principal the same should be said of Orthodoxy, where heterogeneous cultures share a common faith, although the desired unity still eludes us. Perhaps that is the paradigm America has to offer the Orthodox churches ?  

Abba Seraphim

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