16 November 2008
On 29 October 2008, people from far and near came to hear the inspiring lecture of His Grace Bishop Serapion on “Christian Unity from an Orthodox Perspective” at Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California.
The Coptic Church Ecclesiastical Choirs opened the event by singing ancient Coptic hymns and prayers as His Grace was ceremoniously ushered into a packed theatre attended by students, faculty, distinguished scholars, as well as members of the religious Coptic community and the general public.
Dr S. Michael Saad welcomed everyone to the lecture by explaining the significance of the ancient music sung by the choir. He pointed out that the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Chants and Hymns is housed at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.music/eadmus.mu004008).
Then Dr Saad discussed the four pillars of Coptic Studies:
School – Claremont Graduate University and Claremont School of Theology have been involved in the promotion of Coptic Studies for the past forty years.
Faculty – Dean Karen Torjesen, Professor James Robinson, Dr Gawdat Gabra, Richard Smith and others have taught many courses in Coptic Studies.
Students – Prinny Miller and Patricia Eshagh, both PhD students at Claremont Graduate University, spoke about their devotion to Coptic Studies in their doctoral programs.
Community – The efforts of the Council for Coptic Studies at Claremont Graduate University along with events such as the lecture by Bishop Serapion serve to gather a community of interest in the development of a Coptic Studies program.
Dr Susan Nelson, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean at Claremont School of Theology, formally welcomed Bishop Serapion and acknowledged the importance of his visit.
Then His Grace took the stage and began his lecture on Christian unity. He reminded the audience that initially Christianity was one unified church which symbolised the body of Christ, and that the Eucharist was the supreme manifestation of this unity. Christianity underwent many challenges over the course of history, resulting in a splintering of the church into many Christian faiths and ecumenical organisations. The Orthodox Church was a part of this schism, which divided itself along Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian lines.
Beginning in 1964, a series of four non-official consultations took place among the Orthodox communities, where it was determined that no real theological difference existed within the various factions of the Orthodox Church. Instead, historical events of the past were responsible for causing division within the church.
This conclusion resulted in a series of official dialogues beginning in 1985, which produced a proposal to lift the historical anathemas dividing the Orthodox Church. It also asked for the mutual acknowledgement of both the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian factions as one unified Orthodox Church. Bishop Serapion noted the leadership role of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III in achieving ecumenical progress.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has also been in dialogue with the Catholic and certain Protestant Churches; however, certain challenges have emerged including such issues as “Eucharistic hospitality,” a unified ecumenical prayer, and the ordination of women.
Several national and international councils of churches are active in the ecumenical movement. Bishop Serapion served on the World Council of Churches Central Committee for many years and is a participant in two recently established organisations that have been embraced by almost all denominations, including Catholics. These are the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together in the USA.
Bishop Serapion stressed that success on the road to Christian unity is a gift that can be achieved if Christians come together with pure hearts, with open minds and a willingness to listen. He pointed out that the future of Christian unity rests on four principals: to know each other; to focus on common ground and emphasise what we share rather than our differences; to return to the early church as a model (before the historical divisions occurred) and to advance patristic studies; and to carry the cross together and share our suffering and solidarity.
Dr Saad provided the concluding remarks, first by thanking Bishop Serapion for his informative speech, and the Coptic Church Ecclesiastical Choirs for their beautiful music. He also thanked Vice President Susan Nelson and Dean Karen Torjesen (Dean of Claremont Graduate University School of Religion) for cosponsoring the highly successful event.
The Coptic Church Ecclesiastical Choirs closed the event with more traditional Coptic music and prayers.
His Grace Bishop Serapion has been the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii since 1995. He is on the governing board of the National Council of Churches of Christ. He is also a member of the steering committee for Christian Churches Together in the USA.
Patricia Eshagh is a second year PhD student at Claremont Graduate University##s School of Religion. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, which analyses the influence of Coptic monasticism on the early monastic communities of Western Europe.