By Father Peter Farrington
“The Coptic Orthodox Church, which estimates that as many as 75% of those who are associated with the Church by family background are lost to the Church as they grow older.” The Lost Sheep of Orthodoxy | Part 2.
As we continue the discussion started in The Lost Sheep of Orthodoxy [Part 1].
The Lost Sheep Of Orthodoxy | Jack Of All Trades
I do know that many of those with whom I speak, or who contact me by email, seem to think that as a priest I might have experience of every situation and be able to speak authoritatively on any subject. But it is not true. I have some experience as a priest and I have studied aspects of theology and spirituality, and I believe that thanks to God I am granted grace to serve others when they ask for spiritual advice. But I am not a marriage guidance counsellor. I am not a careers counsellor. I am not a financial advisor. I am not a motor mechanic either.
“Unfortunately there are those who have been hurt by receiving advice as if it was authoritative when it should not have been and was outside the scope of the spiritual relationship proper to a priest.” The Lost Sheep of Orthodoxy | Part 2.
Often I will say to people that I am speaking only as their friend, and that they can reject my suggestions and conversation as being inappropriate when it comes to something practical about their life. I am aware of how dangerous and harmful it might be for me to speak with any authority outside of the responsibility I have as a priest and spiritual father. Unfortunately there are those who have been hurt by receiving advice as if it was authoritative when it should not have been and was outside the scope of the spiritual relationship proper to a priest.
When such advice is given with too great an authority it can cause great harm, and has done so. In such cases it is again not surprising to me that some will find it impossible to continue sharing in the life of the Church. But it is not the one who has been hurt who should surely be blamed.
The Lost Sheep Of Orthodoxy | Bear With One Another
Sadly, many of the people I hear about seem to have left the Church because they have been hurt by others. Sometimes this is because they have become the subject of gossip. Others have found themselves isolated and ignored when they have attended Church services and meetings. Still others have been let down by people in the Church, or have been offended by the behaviour or conversation of others, even that of the clergy. Of course when we have a stable and mature faith we can bear with many such offences.
“I cannot blame someone for finding it difficult to continue in the Church when they do not experience it as a warm and comforting community.” The Lost Sheep of Orthodoxy | Part 2.
But if such a person is perhaps young, or not very well established in their spiritual life, then being hurt or ignored or gossiped about can be more than can be borne with. And what is to be done when it is the priest who has unfortunately caused such offence. I feel the responsibility as a priest and in my weakness I know that I have sometimes caused others to feel hurt. I cannot blame someone for finding it difficult to continue in the Church when they do not experience it as a warm and comforting community.
The Lost Sheep Of Orthodoxy | Keep The Tradition
These are some of the reasons why it seems to me that people are leaving the Church, and cannot easily be blamed for doing so. Those of us who are converts face our own difficulties sometimes. I am sadly also aware of many converts who are considering leaving the Coptic Orthodox Church, or have already done so. For most of these, as far as I can understand, it is the apparent failure of the Church to preserve the Orthodox Tradition which is the greatest obstacle.
“I appreciate why they feel it necessary to turn to another Orthodox community to find a greater adherence to the Orthodox Tradition they have often adopted at personal cost.” The Lost Sheep of Orthodoxy | Part 2.
The introduction of Protestant forms of worship for instance, and other recent developments in ecclesiology, seem to suggest to some converts that the Coptic Orthodox Church is not as serious about maintaining the Orthodox Tradition as they are. I know what they feel and I sympathise to a very great extent. I may not always agree with any particular action that a person takes, but I appreciate why they feel it necessary to turn to another Orthodox community to find a greater adherence to the Orthodox Tradition they have often adopted at personal cost.
I don’t blame them. They love the fullness of the Orthodox Faith as I do.
Are these enough reasons to help me understand why people are leaving the Church? I believe they are, and they should be the subject of much reflection on my own practice and behaviour as a priest. There is a need for education in many cases. An authentic spiritual education that leads Orthodox Christians into a continuing and deepening experience of union with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
There is a need for the clear rejection of false views of Orthodoxy at every opportunity and the presentation of the transforming experience of the Orthodox spiritual life. We need to address the cultural, scientific and social questions which are raised by our living in the 21st century, and we must make sure that no questions are dismissed and no one who asks a question is made to feel as if they are a cause of offense.
And we must take much more effort, and greater care, of all those who belong to the Church with us. We must not be a cause of hurt, we must ourselves become spiritual men and women who are filled with the divine life and love and are sharing that life and love with others. How can it be possible that so many of those who leave the Church do so without any great effort to support them and help them find healing? We are at fault for allowing people to leave without being noticed, and for being the cause of them leaving.
“But they also belong to Christ. He loves them and died for them, and wishes them to find life in union with Him.” The Lost Sheep of Orthodoxy | Part 2.
What is required of us beyond better spiritual education and apologetics, and a more caring and loving experience of community? It seems to me that we who remain must repent. We are not without fault, even if we have not directly caused any soul to be lost. But they also belong to Christ. He loves them and died for them, and wishes them to find life in union with Him. We did not take such care of them as Christ asks of us.
Therefore we should repent. And if our repentance is true then we must begin, now and immediately, to do all that we can so that no other soul be list through any of these reasons, and that as many of those who have already departed from us be gathered up without any blame being laid upon their own choices, but as though all the fault were our own.
“Without them we are incomplete for God desires them to find the fulfilment of their own renewal in baptism which unites us with them and with Christ.” The Lost Sheep of Orthodoxy | Part 2.
How can we speak of Orthodoxy as being true and abundant life in Christ is 75% of those who belong to us are lost? If it is truly that transforming and renewing experience of union with God then we must come to share his own life and love, and give ourselves in sacrifice and humility for the sake of those on the edges, those who are struggling, those with difficult questions, those who have fallen and need a hand to stand again, those who have not succeeded in the world.
They are the majority of us, not the minority. Without them we are incomplete for God desires them to find the fulfilment of their own renewal in baptism which unites us with them and with Christ.
May He grant us such grace, such compassion, that we are not content to lose such precious souls but will do all that we can in the will of God to preserve them in peace and in the unity of the Church.
Delivered to you by COPTICNN™ | Coptic News Network on 2020-03-15 from Liverpool, England
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