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monastery entrance in Egypt

Monks and Martyrs

An interview with Archbishop Angaelos

Archbishop Angaelos

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What can martyrs teach us about vocation? Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, speaks with Plough’s Peter Mommsen about the persecuted church today.

Plough: “Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,” wrote the apostle Paul (Eph. 4:1). What is this vocation?

Archbishop Angaelos: We all have a vocation: to be the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth”; to be contributing members of our communities and of the Body of Christ. God gives us gifts so that we can use them as the faithful stewards did in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel when they came and presented their Lord with the profits of what they had been given. To faithfully follow God is a vocation.

Of course, vocation can also more specifically mean calling to Christian ministry. That might be the offices of bishop, priest, and deacon, or it might be those who teach in Sunday schools, those who feed the homeless, or those who do other kinds of outreach.

There is also the calling, as was mine, to be a monk. Monasticism was established in the fourth century by Saint Anthony in the deserts of Egypt, and it is one of the pillars of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Today, we have vibrant monasteries and convents, where committed men and women follow their special vocation of praying for the church, praying for the world, and obeying the call to “leave all to be with the One.” But they do not abandon the rest of the church, or the world: they serve the church and the world through their prayers. Our parish priests, on the other hand, are ordained as married men, while our monks and bishops are all celibate.

You yourself lived in a monastery. What brought you there?

I was born in Egypt. We migrated as a family to Australia when I was five. When I was a young man, I felt a strong calling to return to Egypt and join a monastery. I left Australia in 1990, when I was twenty-two, and, taking my lifetime vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, joined the Monastery of Saint Bishoy, in the Valley of Scetis – Wadi El-Natrun in Arabic, which is halfway between Cairo and Alexandria, on the desert highway. This monastery was established in the fourth century, and some of the buildings actually date back to then. It is now home to about two hundred and fifty monks.

The decision to take lifelong vows to a religious community strikes many people today as a radical step. What led you to become a monk?

God speaks to us in the way he chooses. As you and I consider our callings, we can remember how it seemed at the time, and then we can perhaps see more, in hindsight. At the time, I felt moved to leave the world and go to the monastery. I had been very involved in my
community in Australia – I served in the church, I had studied political science and philosophy, and then gone on to postgraduate study in law; I was working. But I left all that behind because I wanted to be in the wilderness to pray.

While the vast majority of monks remain in their monasteries for life, sometimes we are sent elsewhere. As I said, our parish priests are usually ordained as married men, but there are exceptions – as in my case. After a time in the monastery, I was sent to England to serve as a monk-priest in a very small parish. Then, I was consecrated as bishop, and now appointed archbishop.

How do you account for the vibrancy of the Coptic monasteries?

We fast, we pray. Those ascetic practices that came out of the fourth century continue to be a crucial part of who we are. The monasteries are also a haven where, even in the midst of the strongest pressure to abandon the faith, men and women can go and find the living Church, relying on God.

Despite the misunderstanding of some non-Orthodox historians, the early monks and nuns did not flee to the desert to avoid martyrdom, because the monasteries themselves were targets, subjected to attacks by the Berbers around them, who killed many of the monks and nuns for their Christian faith; but the monasteries remain standing, and have outlived that persecution.

The monasteries are not just for the Christians, not just for the Copts, and they never were. My monastery has a trap door at the very top of the arch that overlooks the main entrance to the monastery from a safe height. The monks had it built in so that they could lower food, water, and medication to the attacking marauders. This is the ideal of Christian stewardship and of Christian hospitality. We must look after our communities, but also we must look after the world, even those who consider themselves our enemies.

Asceticism plays a role in the life of the laity as well. You fast for about two-thirds of the year and have daily prayers. Do you think there’s a link between that rhythm of life and the willingness of so many in your church to suffer for their faith, and especially to accept the particular calling of martyrdom?

The fasts and the liturgies become an intrinsic part of how one lives one’s life. There is a connection between one’s own personal life of prayer, and the very public witness of martyrdom, as when the twenty-one martyrs were killed in 2015 by ISIS. It is there that we see the beauty of the Church.

Some may consider Coptic Orthodoxy to be antiquated or irrelevant, but when we see those martyrs, who very naturally witnessed to their faith, even paying the ultimate price, we realize that the Coptic Church is alive, and that it nurtures its children in a particular way. Fidelity becomes a totally inseparable part of who they are, and God gives us the grace to overcome this pain, to resist the pressure to abandon faith.

Can you describe what’s been going on in Egypt over the last few years?

Well . . . this is not a matter of the last few years. Saint Mark preached Christ in Egypt in the middle of the first century. The Church has been there ever since, and we have suffered one form of persecution or another since then, and this continues in our contemporary history, particularly since the 2011 uprising against then-President Mubarak – the so-called “Arab Spring” – where there was a temporary breakdown of law and order.

Since that time, we have seen pockets of violent Islamism that have targeted Christians. Just in the past two years, we have lost about one hundred and fifty children, women, and men to acts of terrorism in the form of church bombings, shootings, and the targeting of Christian families and individuals, which has been ongoing in some regions. There were bombings of churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, in the midst of celebrations; the shootings of the faithful leaving churches; and the shooting of pilgrims on a bus going on a pilgrimage to a monastery at least twice – one of these targeted a whole extended family returning from a baptism at a monastery.

The witness of the Coptic Christians in Egypt is that they continue to live their lives, even when they know that they are targets. I have known families that pray together before going to church, because they know that they may not all be coming back.

Pope Francis has used the phrase “the ecumenism of blood.” How has the persecution of the Coptic Church in the last years opened new doors to Christian unity?

I first heard that expression from Pope Francis in Rome in 2013 at the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the Christological Agreement between our two Churches, settling the theological issue that had divided us in the fifth century.

We must remember that one of the twenty-one Libya martyrs of 2015 was not a Copt – he was Ghanaian. But persecution has a strange way of uniting us. When the persecutors come, they do not ask what denomination you are, they just kill you because you are a Christian. We share that designation by our persecutors, so surely, as the body of Christ, we should recognize that commonality.

Persecution does not affect Copts alone. Recently we have seen churches bombed in Sri Lanka and in Iraq; Christians have also been killed in Syria and in Nigeria. We must all take this personally; we must learn to pray for one another, to advocate for one another, and to share in each other’s pain and joy. I cannot sit back and be comfortable with the fact that another human has been persecuted, and that is even more applicable when the other is a member, with me, of the body of Christ.

The Monastery of Saint Bishoy in Egypt

The Monastery of Saint Bishoy, founded in the fourth century, is now home to two hundred and fifty monks.
Photograph by Paweł Filipczak. Used with permission.

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This past year, you and I have been at a number of events together to commemorate the twenty-one martyrs. Theologically and culturally, it’s hard to imagine a greater distance within the Body of Christ than that between my Anabaptist community, the Bruderhof, and the Coptic Orthodox Church. But it was striking to me how clear it was that we are one body. For example, in the Anabaptist tradition, too, there is a strong tradition of telling the stories of the martyrs. This does not do away with difference, but it certainly seemed to me to put it in the right place.

Absolutely. We should never gloss over theological difference, but it does not mean that we would not stand shoulder to shoulder in our work together, as the Coptic Church and the Bruderhof have done this past year.

We’ve talked about persecution, yet there’s also a pressure that’s less dramatic but possibly just as dangerous to our faith. Our liberated culture prizes autonomy. We’re supposed to always keep our options open. Discipleship, by contrast, is a calling that we don’t choose. We can say yes or no to it, but we don’t define what it is. And when we accept that call, when we give our full allegiance to Christ, we do not keep our options open. Is accepting the calling of discipleship more difficult today than in previous centuries?

Every era has its own challenges. Still, when I was sent out by His Holiness the late Pope Shenouda III to serve in England, he said something that has stuck with me. He said that the problem in the past had always been that there has been a choice between right and wrong, and people chose what is wrong. Whereas now, there is a blurring between what is right and what is wrong. That is what creates the challenge for our children, and for others we are trying to reach. Everything is now seen as relative. For some, there is literally nothing that should be considered sacred.

If we serve our children from a young age, if we guide them, if we show them that we ourselves are faithful and not hypocritical, then we will pass on the faith. If, in my preaching and in my conduct the message of Christ remains strong and clear, I will still be able to reach people. The Spirit within them will still be yearning for it.

Many Christians in the West seem to be in mourning for the days when Christianity dictated the boundaries of culture. Unlike the church in the West, the Coptic Church has been a minority religion for centuries. What might the experiences of the Coptic Church teach the Western church?

We are certainly a numeric minority in Egypt, as there are fewer Coptic Christians in Egypt than there are Muslims, but we reject being classified as a minority. For us in Egypt, as well as for the many Christian communities across the Middle East, we are the indigenous peoples of the countries that we still inhabit. We are natives.

Ninety percent of Coptic Christians are still in Egypt. Of course, that is a very different scenario than for Christians in Syria, or Iraq, Libya, and the Palestinian territories, where the vast majority of Christians have now left their homelands.

When one is placed under pressure, the way one lives one’s faith changes. There is less opportunity for people to become indifferent, and so their witness is more existential, and more powerful.

Archbishop Angaelos with Bruderhof elder Paul Winter at an event commemorating the twenty-one Coptic martyrs.

Archbishop Angaelos with Bruderhof elder Paul Winter (left) at an event remembering the twenty-one Coptic martyrs, February 2019.
Photograph by Melinda Goodwind/Bruderhof

You’re a bishop – that means you’re a shepherd. What does it mean to have that calling?

That calling always takes priority; I am committed to being available to the people who are in my care, for whom I am responsible. That is what keeps me going.

The relationships I have with these people to whom I have ministered over the past thirty years will always have priority. These are people who rely on me and with whom I have been entrusted. In our Church we have a very strong sense of direct pastoral ministry, where the priest or bishop is a father. Not like a father, but actually a spiritual father. This means that we do not retire, but we die in our ministry. When a bishop is enthroned to a diocese, as I have been, he serves it for his lifetime.

Because I started here in London as a priest, everybody in our congregations deals with me directly. While my office deals with all the outward-facing work, including all of our ecumenical relations, advocacy work, and so on, anything pastoral comes to me directly. People call me directly, and make pastoral appointments with me directly. I still do home visits, I still hear confessions. I am baptizing the children of the children I baptized when I first came. That stability is important for those we serve.

We are entrusted by God to serve his children, and it makes a difference whether we are faithful to that calling or not. The more faithfully we shepherd, the more people are able to really follow Christ in their lives and reach his kingdom.

We’ve been speaking of vocation. But there are people who feel they have no gift to offer – that they have no calling. How do you encourage them?

Well, firstly I would tell them that they are wrong. Everybody is given gifts. Our God is a generous God. He loves us as his children, and gives us gifts that we do not deserve and have not actually earned, so that we may use them for his kingdom. If we are not able to see those gifts, then either we have not been empowered by those around us to see them sufficiently, or we are giving in to a ploy of Satan to make us feel that we are of no value, and thus to render us ineffective. We all certainly have something to offer, but sometimes we cannot see it ourselves.

If we want to make an investment, we get a financial advisor. If we want to get fit, we have a fitness instructor. Likewise, when it comes to our spirituality, we need to have someone who guides us in discipleship. These are the people who will help us to find what our calling is, what our gifts are, and how to use them well. These are the people who will call us to account if we are not using them, or not using them properly. Our families, our faithful friends, our spiritual directors, our priests can certainly help us.

We always have something to offer, even if it is the widow’s two mites or the young boy’s five loaves and two fish. We are called, and that means that we are responsible before God to answer that call, and to use those gifts. Even if they look like they are of no consequence, that is false, and God is able to do so much more with them by the blessing that he puts upon them.

This interview from July 31, 2019, has been edited for clarity and length.

The Monastery of Saint Bishoy in Egypt

The Monastery of Saint Bishoy, Wadi El-Natrun, Egypt
Photograph by Paweł Filipczak. Used with permission.