It might appear strange that a Church known for not endorsing monasticism as a concept should hold a seminar on the topic. This was the first thought to spring to minds when it became known that an entity belonging to the Evangelical Church of
Egypt, a Protestant Church, was holding a four-day training course on “Monasticism and oriental spirituality” in Cairo. Predictably, sceptics numbered much more than those who took the event seriously, but they were in for a pleasant surprise.
Inseparable from Egypt’s history The course was held by the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo’s Centre for Middle Eastern Christianity (CMEC) in cooperation with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s (BA) Centre for Coptic Studies (CCS)
Participating were Youhanna Nessim Youssef, senior research associate at the Centre for Early Christian Studies at the Australian Catholic University; Loay Mahmoud, director of the CCS; Rev.
Youssef Samir, pastor of the Evangelical church in Heliopolis; Rev. Dr Waguih Youssef, head of the CMEC; and Anba Maqar, Bishop of Sharqiya and 10th of Ramadan city who gave the final address.
Anba Maqar focused on monasticism as inseparable from Egypt’s history since as early as pre-Christian times and until the present. He said Coptic monasticism had its sources in Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, and Christian origins; and gave audiences a briefing of that history until the emergence of institutional Coptic monastic thought at the hands of St Anthony the Great, and its development to its present form at the hands of St Shenoute and St Pachomius in the fourth century.
Misconceptions How the Evangelical Church relates to monasticism was the topic tackled by Rev.
Dr Youssef. “Coptic monasticism,” he said, “is an integral constituent of the Coptic Church. Many Evangelicals, however, believe that taking orders in some
desert monastery is tantamount to escaping all worldly problems and responsibilities, and opting for a ‘peaceful, problem-free life’.
Jesus Christ, they say, told us to be ‘the salt and light of the world’; how can this be when we leave the world and isolate ourselves in the desert? “I am Evangelical, but I see this viewpoint as totally erroneous if not outright extremist. Throughout some 2000 years monastics have served the Church and all the Christian world very well. In this I say that the monastic movement is not an escape from the world; rather it is an escape to God for the sake of serving the world.
The most valuable books and studies in the history of the Church were written by monks. The ‘isolationism’ of which monks are frequently accused is a positive activity and vocation.” Rev.
Youssef spoke of other differences between the two Churches, such as the icons which are a major feature of Orthodox churches but are totally absent in Protestant churches, or that Protestants erroneously think that the Orthodox believe
in justification by works whereas they themselves believe it is by grace. “We find Protestants who reject anything and everything Orthodox,” he said, “and also the other way round.”
Sharing monasticism “Today,” he said, “One hundred-and- fifty years after the introduction of the Protestant faith in Egypt, it is time to vocally reject extremist thought, and work for rapprochement between both Churches.
As regards monasticism, we must acknowledge that both Orthodox and Catholic monks have done momentous services to Christianity.”
In modern times, Rev. Youssef said, there have been moves towards ecumenical monasticism. One such movement appeared in the south of France in the 1940s, the Taizè community, led by the Catholic Church. Another emerged in Oxford, Michigan, in the US in the 1950s, The Congregation of the Servants of Christ at St Augustine’s House, led by the Lutheran Church.
Monasteries serving present-day use Dr Mahmoud of the CCS talked about Coptic monasteries, monuments and antiquities. He said there were 45 ancient churches and monasteries within the
boundaries of Pharaonic, Greek, and Roman ruins. There were also four entire monastic settlements in Killia, Abu-Mina, Nubariya and Wadi al-Natroun; as well as 300 old monasteries and churches throughout Egypt; and countless early- century caves and monk cells of which a mere 90 are on the Antiquities List in
Coptic antiquities and monuments, Dr Mahmoud explained, were the responsibility of three official sectors in the Antiquities Ministry: the museums sector, the Coptic antiquities sector, and the Egyptian antiquities sector. The division of responsibility does not serve the preservation of the antiquities or monuments.
The biggest predicament, however, is that many of these heritage items lie within working churches and sites of worship. The swelling congregations need more space, so the priests in charge of these old sites frequently expand them at dire cost to their historic features. Dr Mahmoud gave the example of Deir al-Maymoun in Beni Sweif, 100km south of Cairo, which is a listed monument. Four years ago the priest decided—owing to the large number of worshippers—to expand the worship area by demolishing an old wall. He was summoned by the police, but it was discovered that the site was only listed but was not documented in detail.
Nothing could thus be done, and the old feature has been forever lost. The case of Deir al-Maymoun is not an isolated one, Dr Mahmoud said; many others have taken and are taking place. “We need good-willed coordination between the Church and the antiquities authorities,” he said.
“This is the only way we can preserve Coptic monuments and antiquities.”
1 June 2016