I have been blessed by my own bishop, and by His Holiness Pope Tawadros to visit Egypt shortly. I will be serving Father Daoud Lamie at a conference, and recording a series of programmes to be broadcast on a variety of Coptic channels. This is the text of the first of these, introducing the series, which will describe and explain our Orthodox Faith.
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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hello. My name is Father Peter Farrington. I am a priest of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. Perhaps you have not heard of the British Orthodox Church before? It is a small community of Orthodox Christians, with an English bishop, Metropolitan Seraphim of Glastonbury, which was brought into union with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate through the imaginative and gracious activity of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III in 1994. The British Orthodox Church is committed to Orthodox missionary service in the United Kingdom, where we are sharing our Orthodox Faith with all those who live among us.
We worship in the English language, and we are living proof that it is possible to be authentically Western and European, while also preserving and experiencing a traditional Orthodoxy.
I have been Orthodox, a member of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, since 1994, and I was ordained a priest in 2009. I was brought up in a Christian family, but we were committed to Evangelical Protestantism, and I knew nothing at all about the Orthodox Church until I was training to become a minister and pastor in the Evangelical movement.
I have seen things from many different perspectives. I know what it is to be an Evangelical Christian and I know what it is to be an Orthodox Christian. I have participated in many different types of worship, I have studied many different understandings of doctrine and spirituality. Yet despite my wide range of experiences I am absolutely convinced that the Orthodox Church is the fullness of the Christian life.
In this series of video presentations on the Orthodox Faith I hope to be able to explore and explain the content of Orthodoxy, original Christianity, in a way that informs those who are interested in Orthodoxy, that educates those who are already members of our Orthodox Church, and encourages those who are struggling to grow as Orthodox Christians.
I shall often talk about my own experiences. This is not because I consider myself to have achieved any success in the Christian life apart from the mercy and grace of God. I am well aware of my sins and weaknesses. But I know that many of the things we will consider together need to be explained using real life examples, and the example and experience I know best is my own.
In this first presentation I would like us to examine why we should bother with the Orthodox faith and spirituality at all. It would surely be a mistake to launch into an explanation of Orthodoxy without producing some good reasons for considering Orthodoxy to be especially important.
What do we mean by Orthodoxy and the Orthodox Faith though? It might seem that Christianity is divided into many thousands of different groups, and Orthodoxy must compete with all of these variety of communities as just one among many. But in fact Orthodoxy refuses to do so. It is common to hear people insist that every Christian group is really the same, and that as long as people seem to have a high view of the importance of Jesus then they are all equally Christians. But this is not a view which would even have been very common a hundred years ago, let alone at any time in the first 1500 years of Christian history.
What we believe makes every difference to how we live the Christian life. Our beliefs change the way we relate to God and to one another, and the way in which we experience the spiritual life. If we don’t know what we believe, and why, then we may well end up believing all manner of things about God, about the Christian life, about our very salvation, many of which may not be true at all.
The teachings of our faith are the description and explanation of what we believe to be true therefore it is important that we seek to have a right understanding. This teaching is a spiritual medicine, or rather it is a description of the spiritual treatment which will heal us. Think how dangerous it is if the wrong medicine is prescribed to a patient, or the wrong amount is administered. A little while ago in the UK there was a drug trial which went terribly wrong and left several men damaged for life. The drugs they took, even with the best of intentions, turned out to be very dangerous and harmful indeed. Describing and understanding our faith using the wrong teachings is just as likely to cause harm, though it may be spiritual rather than physical.
Perhaps we can briefly consider a manifestly false doctrine or teaching, but one which has had some influence in the past decades. The ‘Health and Wealth’ Gospel teaches that God wants all Christians to be healthy and wealthy. More than that, if you are not healthy and wealthy then it is a sign that you lack faith. What sort of a Christian does this doctrine create? Surely one whose eyes are set on material gain. One who is taught to condemn and disparage those who are less well off because they have brought their poverty upon themselves by lacking faith. We can barely recognise this teaching as being Christian, but it is a Gospel for our modern, consumer society, and it has many hundreds of thousands of adherents, even millions, many of whom are found in the Third World and who hope that by praying more, attending Church services more, naming and claiming what material goods they desire, somehow God will grant them all. Yet the authentic Gospel teaches us ‘take up your Cross and follow me’.
So right and true teaching matters because error in what we believe can cause us spiritual harm, and even prevent us becoming truly Christian. The Mormon Church considers itself Christian but its teachings are contrary to those of the New Testament. Is it enough that it considers itself Christian, or should there be some lines in the sand which define the boundaries of that which is truly Christian and Orthodox teaching?
This has certainly always been the opinion of the Church, and we find St Paul warning his young Christian disciples to keep away from those who were bringing them another, different Gospel. There is a Christian truth, and the Church has been committed to preserving that truth since the beginning. Certainly not because it lacked the imagination to think of new teachings, certainly not because it was merely old fashioned, but because it has always believed that ‘the truth shall set you free’, and that Christian teaching is a means of finding salvation, a spiritual map. It is not the same as salvation certainly, not the same as knowing Christ, but it is the means by which we find the true Christ and enter into the fulness of the Christian life.
It is easy to be misled. He who said He was the way and life also said He was the truth, and we neglect the truth at our spiritual peril.
Where is this truth? Where is this authentic spiritual medicine properly administered for the healing of our souls? We need to ask this question because it has everything to do with the reason why we should consider the Orthodox Church.
When our Lord Jesus Christ was preparing to leave this world and ascend to heaven, he promised that he would send his Holy Spirit upon his Apostles. Several times in the Gospel of St John he speaks about the Spirit of Truth who would come. In John 14 he says…
And I will pray to the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever… even the Spirit of truth:. .. the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.
These words were addressed to the Apostles before the arrest and crucifixion of our Lord Jesus. They were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, came upon them and filled them. What do they mean? They mean surely that the Apostles especially and above all others were so filled with the Spirit of Truth that they were able to teach and establish the Church on the foundations of the truth.
This is what we believe. Who should we trust to show us how the Christian life is to be lived if not those who were taught by Christ himself, and who were filled with the Holy Spirit of Truth, to establish the Church in Truth? Truth matters. Christ said of himself, I am the way, the truth and the life.
So as Christians we must also be concerned with truth. And we must ask ourselves where is Christian truth when there are tens of thousands of different groups all teaching something different. It is not possible that all can be speaking and living the truth. It is not possible that things which are entirely contrary can both be true, and our salvation depends on following the true way into true life with Christ.
We have one fixed point where we can be completely certain. The Apostles were those who received the Holy Spirit of Truth and their teachings are true. If we doubt this then there is no basis for being a Christian at all. The Apostles have not left us without a testimony or witness. And this authoritative witness is twofold.
In the first place we have the writings which were produced over the first century from about 45 AD to 100 AD, during the lives of the Apostles. But in the second place we also have the writings and very existence of the early Christian Church which the Apostles established through their missionary preaching. The New Testament Scriptures are an authority to which we constantly return. They form the basis of our knowledge about Christ and about the substance of our Christian Faith.
But many people twist these New Testament teachings to suit themselves, just as in the example of those who insist that God wishes all Christians to be always healthy and wealthy. The Scriptures do not belong to us as if we were all independently able to choose for ourselves what we think they mean. In fact the earliest Christian Church existed before any written New Testament Scriptures had been circulated and it came into being on the Day of Pentecost.
Therefore we cannot turn to the Scriptures and decide for ourselves what they mean. It is this determination to choose for ourselves what the Bible says which has led to an estimated 40,000 different Christian groups being in existence in our times. We must turn to the earliest Church, the Church formed by Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit of Truth, and taught by the Apostles and those who were their disciples. It is when we read and study the Scriptures with the Church that produced them that we will understand in the right way.
What then is Orthodoxy and the Orthodox Faith? It is those Christians who believe that they are this same earliest Church, and who believe that they hold and practice the same faith. This is surely an important matter to consider. If the Apostles taught the truth to their own communities then it is reasonable to believe that these early communities properly understood and practiced the Apostolic Faith. Who is most likely to have understood the Apostolic teaching correctly? Those who actually knew the Apostles? Or those of us reading the Bible 2000 years later and deciding it means something completely different?
It was a great surprise and shock for me to discover that many of the writings of these earliest Christians, the disciples of the Apostles, had been preserved to our own time. I first found them when I was still an Evangelical Protestant, and I was rather angry that no-one in my congregation had ever revealed them to me. I felt cheated. The Church that they showed me in their own words was not the same as the Evangelical congregation I belonged to, and this challenged me greatly. If we did not believe and live as the earliest Christians did, then in what way were we connected with the Church of the New Testament?
This matters a great deal. We know that the earliest Church believed and lived as the Apostles taught, and as the Holy Spirit of Truth had inspired them. We can be sure that such a manner of being Christian was in accordance with Christ, the true way and the true life. How can we be sure that we are following this same way of truth and life?
Orthodoxy makes a big claim for itself. It claims to be this same Church and to be teaching and living the same life. In fact Orthodoxy means right opinion or right teaching. Orthodoxy claims to teach that which is true. Is that a problem? In modern times it sometimes seems we are not allowed to have definite opinions, and we have to suggest that everyone is right. But surely we want to believe what is true and live out our Christian life in a way that truly manifests Christ and unites us with God.
It is not possible, for instance, to insist that the bread and wine in the Eucharist truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, and also insist that the bread and wine in the Eucharist do not truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. These two views are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true. A Christianity where truth does not matter is not truly Christianity. But the standard of our Christian truth must not be our own opinions, but our conformity in faith and practice with the earliest and Apostolic Church.
The Orthodox Church claims to preserve that conformity and on this basis declares itself the true Church. Does that seem a reasonable claim? As I came to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Orthodoxy, from my Evangelical Protestant background, it certainly seemed reasonable to me, and was perhaps the main cause of my becoming Orthodox.
Let’s look at a few of the reasons why it makes sense for Orthodoxy to claim to be the Apostolic Church.
In the first place we have a documented historical continuity. In the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate for instance, Pope Tawadros II is not simply the present leader of the Church, but he is the 118th Patriarch of Alexandria in a continuous succession that can be traced all the way back to Bishop Anianus and the preaching of St Mark the Apostle and Evangelist. My own Evangelical group was only established in 1829. It might have wished to express some sort of spiritual connection with the Apostolic Church, but there was no historical continuity at all.
The Methodists began in the late 18th century, the Baptists in the early 17th century, the Anglicans in the 16th century. All of these had particular beginnings in recent centuries and have no documented historical continuity with the Apostolic Church. In the last century there has been an explosion of groups, all claiming to represent the Church but all of them lack this historical continuity. They cannot be the Apostolic Church if they are recently established. But the Orthodox Church does have this well documented continuity.
In the second place we have clear evidence that the teaching of the Orthodox Church is of the same substance as that of the Apostolic Church. This is documented in the writings of the early Christians. If we consider the letters of St Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch. He was an early Christian who had known the Apostles and been appointed bishop by the authority of St Peter. In his letters, written just after the last of the Apostles had fallen asleep in the Lord, we find that everywhere he is writing to Churches who have a bishop, priests and deacons. This was the order of the Church as far as he understood and experienced it. Indeed we find the same order and structure in the letter of St Clement one of the early bishops of Rome, which was written even earlier, to the Church in Corinth.
It is reasonable to conclude that the Apostolic Church represented a community with bishops, priests and deacons. This is certainly the case with the Orthodox Church, and has always been the case for 2000 years. But it is not the case for most Protestant groups.
We might also consider the very early document, the Didache, or to give it the name it gives itself, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles. This text dates to about 70 AD, a time when there were still many Apostles and other Disciples of the Lord Jesus still alive and active in their ministries. This little book instructs the Apostolic Christians to fast on each Wednesday and Friday. In our own times it is the Orthodox Church which preserves this ancient practice and continues to fast on these days.
There is therefore a great continuity of teaching between the Apostolic Church and the Orthodox Church of our own times. There are many other teachings which will be consider in other presentations.
But what are we to say? The Orthodox Church has the same structure and the same practices as the Apostolic Church, and it has an historical continuity with the Apostolic Church. These two signs of Apostolicity are not found elsewhere among the hundreds and thousands of Protestant groups.
It is entirely reasonable for Orthodoxy to claim to be the same Apostolic Church which was founded by Christ in the Holy Spirit of Truth and preached by the Apostles and their disciples.
This is why I examined the claims of Orthodoxy and found them to be convincing. If Orthodoxy is the true Church of Christ, then it is the place where we are called to experience the true life of Christ.
If you are investigating Orthodoxy as a non-Christian or member of another group, then you will discover that as we consider the Orthodox Faith we are always returning to the example of the earliest Church, the Church of the Apostles. This is the standard by which all opinions and teachings must be measured. We are not saying that a person should become Orthodox as if we were just one group among many, but we are inviting all to consider being united with us and with Christ in that Church which he himself established.
If you are a member of the Orthodox Church then you will find that future presentations will explore in more detail the various aspects of our Faith, and will reveal the earliest testimony for our teachings and practices so that we can be confident in our Orthodoxy.
And if you are an Orthodox Christian struggling to understand what our Faith means, then you will be encouraged as we look practically and simply at why the various elements of our faith and practice matter, and what the purpose of our Orthodox Faith really is.
When we say that Orthodoxy is the true Church of Christ we are not suggesting that somehow we are holier than others. On the contrary we are taught to become more aware of our sin and weakness and rely more completely on the grace of God. It is not that Orthodox Christians are right and everyone else is wrong. But that the Apostolic Faith and Practice is true and we have been blessed to be united to this Apostolic Church, not through anything we have done or deserve, but by the mercy of God. We invite others to become Orthodox because we have found that there is life, true life in Christ, in the teachings and spiritual practices which have been preserved among Orthodox Christians since the beginning.
We cannot deny what seems to us to be true, that it is Orthodoxy which is the Apostolic Church preserved to these present times. It is Orthodoxy which is the Church that has no beginning other than at Pentecost. In future presentations we will examine together what it is that Orthodoxy teaches and how it is that Orthodox Christians are to live.
To the glory of God and for our salvation. Amen.