March 17 2021
By Mena Mesiha
I have written to you before to encourage you not to leave the Coptic community because you are the Church, even if that means that it requires you to experience suffering that can feel senseless, at times. Making a commitment to a community that sometimes seems hopelessly broken is not easy. My ongoing question to myself is: “what do I need to know to make the right decision about whether this community is worth the trouble?” Just as there are four loves, there are also three types of knowledge that are also helpful to distinguish from one another: 1) epistēmē is an intellectual knowledge that applies to discrete facts and ideas, like how an engine works or why ice cream tastes so good, 2) technē is a practical knowledge that applies to skills like building an engine or making ice cream, and 3) yada is a deep form of spiritual knowledge that Emmanuel Katongole defines as “an intimate personal knowledge of and participation in God’s anguished love for God’s people.”1
How do we learn yada? One simple answer is to say that by practicing our Christian faith, the Sacraments help us to build a sacramental life that helps us to know yada by knowing Jesus. The problem many of us are facing now is that it has been called into question whether the church is a safe place to go and practice the sacraments.2 There was a time where it would have been unthinkable to say that the church is not a safe place. We have always felt comfortable sending our kids to overnight retreats, assuming that if someone was affiliated with the church, they could be trusted. We are now, unfortunately, aware that this is not always the case. Even if the cases are rare, it is undeniable that there are predatory servants and clergy that exploit this assumption of safety for their own perverse ends.
How do we make the community a safe place to learn yada? One very obvious statement to make is that ignoring the problem is not a viable solution. To tell sexual abuse survivors to be quiet and just keep going to church like good boys and girls is, at best, misguided paternalism. If survivors have the gumption, the bravery, and the faith to continue to participate in a community that has harmed them, this is nothing short of an act of martyrdom. Whether or not they choose to stay, speaking out against their abusers should not be seen as causing scandal but as a step toward cleansing the church from scandal, so that we can avoid the fate of other faith communities that have been accused of covering up sexual abuse allegations.3 There are diocese and church initiatives across the country that have sprung up to set policies on how sexual misconduct should be handled and to educate the leaders and the communities on how to identify potential perpetrators.
Despite all of these efforts, the reality is that we still have perpetrators who have not yet been brought to justice, and making the church a safe environment will be a perpetual work in progress. In the meantime, there is a significant majority of people in the church who feel that they have been put in a position where they have to decide whether to stay and worship in the Coptic Church or to go and seek God elsewhere. The remainder of this article will explore the role that the liturgical worship of the Coptic Church plays in knowing yada through a eucharistic approach to social activism.
How does the Coptic liturgical life help us to know Jesus and know yada by fostering a culture of repentance, reconciliation, and peace? A culture of repentance is a running theme in our Agpeya, where we are invited to repent in the spirit of David the Prophet. Every hour starts with Psalm 50 (51), which he wrote in response to being corrected by Nathan the prophet for his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah.4 This and other penitential psalms in the Agpeya are prayed by the clergy and the laity in a process of repentance that includes the sacrament of confession. This self-examination is an essential requirement for anyone partaking of the Eucharist, since anyone “who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:29 NKJV). The reason for the shift away from the public confessions of the early church toward private confessions was not to promote secrecy, but rather to make it more likely for sins to be brought to light by making confession more accessible. Therefore, a church community that fosters a culture of repentance and confession should not be one that harbors perpetrators, but should be one that identifies them and isolates them from any contact with children, given the unacceptably high rates of repeat offenses.5
A culture of reconciliation is lived out in the Liturgy of St. Basil where we ask God first to cleanse us and then to “make us all worthy … to greet one another with a holy kiss, that without falling into condemnation, we may partake of your immortal and heavenly gift in Christ Jesus our Lord.”6 In addition to validating the importance of repentance and confession, the kiss of peace was a universal practice in the early church that operationalized Christ’s admonition that Christians must be reconciled to each other before approaching the altar of God (Matthew 5:23-24).7 A church community that loves God must also be a church community that loves each other (1 John 4:20); therefore, being reconciled to each other is a prerequisite to being reconciled to God in the Eucharist. The clergy who call upon the community to be reconciled in the kiss of peace should not be abusive toward members of this community, nor should they protect other members of the clergy who do so. Therefore, a church community that fosters a culture of reconciliation is one where the clergy do not put themselves in the judgment seat, but instead commit themselves to being agents of reconciliation that seek after the lost sheep, so that we can work towards a culture of transparency and trust.
A culture of peace is imparted every time the priest says irini pasi (peace be with you), and the congregation responds ke to pnevmati so (and also with your spirit). Before the epiclesis (the descent of the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ), the priest will make the sign of the cross to bless the congregation with the peace of God. After the epiclesis, during the diptych, the priest will say irini pasi, but instead of turning around to cross the congregation, the priest moves out of the way of the Body and Blood and bows in reverence, signifying that in this case the blessing is coming directly from the presence of Christ on the altar. In reality, even when the priest is making the sign of the cross, the blessing is not coming from the priest but from Jesus Christ who was crucified on this cross. Therefore, a church community that fosters a culture of peace is one in which it is clear that the priests are not themselves the source of blessings or peace, but rather serve as the messengers of the blessings and the peace of Jesus Christ.
How do we move forward in yada together? These connections between the liturgical life to repentance, reconciliation, and peace show that participation in the liturgy bears “a key mark of the truth and power of Christian social activism [which] is the consistent commitment to nonviolent social change and the invitation into the story of a loving and peaceful God.” There is no way to make this problem go away quickly, and there is no way to make it easy for the affected members of the community to bear their afflictions. However, even though it is completely understandable why some people would choose to walk away, I hope you will continue to participate with me in the liturgical life of the Coptic Church as an instrument of social activism. While it is possible to know Jesus in a yada sense in other ways, doing so together as a liturgical community is a means by which to grow in yada together, grow closer to Jesus together, grow closer to each other, and grow to become a place that truly embodies the liturgical values of repentance, reconciliation, and peace.
1 Emmanuel Katongole, Born From Lament, The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdemans Publishing Company, 2017), 163.
2 Fam, Mariam Fam. “For Coptic Church, changes, questions after priest ouster.” AP News, October 7, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/egypt-media-florida-social-media-sexual-abuse-by-clergy-26e17b7551434e77e5880677e807bc51.
3 See Zach Hiner, “SNAP Writes to Coptic Orthodox Officials: Group Should Learn from the Mistakes of the Catholic Church,” Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, November, 19, 2020, https://www.snapnetwork.org/snap_writes_to_coptic_orthodox_officials_group_should_learn_from_the_mistakes_of_the_catholic_church?fbclid=IwAR1ED1U9YKiNvuNZqseefmeqdUxbaMSIzpuajC4fZGlZgppHijfr18EpeQk.
4 See Clare Costley. "David, Bathsheba, and the Penitential Psalms." Renaissance Quarterly 57, no. 4 (2004), 1241.
5 Maria Hardeberg Bach and Carolin Demuth, “Therapists' Experiences in Their Work With Sex Offenders and People With Pedophilia: A Literature Review,” Europe's Journal of Psychology vol. 14,2 498-514, 19 June 2018.
6 The Coptic Liturgy of St. Basil, made available by St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Seattle, WA, accessed 12/14/20, http://www.coptic.net/prayers/stbasilliturgy.html.
7 See William T. Cavanaugh, “Discerning: Politics and Reconciliation,” in Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Header image source found here.
Copyright © Coptic Voice 2021.
Built by Jonathan Adly.