A New Church For An Ancient Church

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Copts have hundreds of liturgies throughout the year. Few are as moving as the Good Friday liturgies and one of its center pieces is a hymn called “Pek-ethronos” or “Your Throne”. The hymn is a single sentence from Psalm 45 “Your Throne, God, is Forever”. But the hymn typically lasts close to 20 minutes of praise on the darkest day of the Christian liturgical calendar. It is less a song than an audible play of opposites, death and resurrection, suffering and redemption, tragedy and joy, defeat and victory. Strange as it may sound to Western ears (Herodotus’ claim about the strangeness of the Egyptians comes to mind), to most Copts it is a full encapsulation of their history, which is hardly surprising. Except for its early history, and recent times, the Church encoded its theology in hymns and liturgies, rather than commit it to scholarly books. Such thoughts come to mind on hearing liturgies read for the first time in a new Church. This particular one, nearly the 250th Church in 50 years of immigration, is located the East Side of Manhattan, in the heart of the so-called “Silk Stocking District”. The genesis of that single Church is a reflection, writ small, of Christianity as it enters its third millenia.

The Church, a designated landmark, was built in 1886 for the prosperous burghers of German descent in what was rapidly becoming the home of the wealthy of New York, less than 3 square miles dense with museums, schools, cultural centers, Churches and elegant mansions and apartments. As new waves of immigrants came, the Church changed its character, becoming home to Irish and then Italian Catholics, as our “Lady of Peace” Church. Aging population and declining attendance forced the Catholic Church to merge the parish into another and lease the Church to the Copts, while negotiations are ongoing for outright purchase (on occasion involving both Pope Francis I and Tawadros II). All New York stories, as they say, are about real estate. The celebration of the Copts was a stark contrast to the previous image of the Church as a hushed place of worship sometimes sparsely attended by the older faithful. The Copts overflowed the pews with entire families, mostly young, many with children adding what the parish priest, Father Gregory, called the “sound, not of noise, but of growth”.  But the deeper backstory to this small event is a large one, about the destinies of Eastern and Western Christianity, the differing threats they face, their changing relationship, and finally the fortunes of the Copts both in Egypt and outside it.

No Coptic Church event in America these days fails to reference the suffering of Egyptian Copts, especially those events that tell of the dynamism and good fortune of the American Church. The most recent instance was symbolized by seven killings and a funeral. The killings were brutal door-to-door murders that successfully removed all Copts from the North of Sinai. The funeral was that of the “Blind Sheikh”, a man who dedicated his life to hate and mayhem, first of his fellow Egyptians, Muslims but especially Copts, and finally Americans who had given him refuge in their country. He died in prison of old age, but his funeral in Egypt was a raucous celebration and chilling reminder of the hold his angry and murderous vision still has on many Egyptians. Meanwhile in the Church on the East side of Manhattan, the presiding Bishop, Anba David, gave the assembled throng a brief sketch of how this new Church came to be. His friendship with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan, was forged two years ago in the aftermath of the horrific beheading of 21 Copts in Libya. The idea of obtaining a Catholic Church building for the use of Manhattan Copts germinated at a memorial service for the murdered men. In this case, the blood of the Martyrs was indeed the seed of the Church. Further assistance came from Pope Francis I, who waved aside the usual theological and historical differences between the Catholic and Orthodox rites to claim a unity and “ecumenism of blood”. It is possible to see the actions of Francis as that of a powerful Church lending support to a persecuted one. It is also possible to see it differently, that Francis wishes to revive his Church by reminding its members of the power of faith and hope as demonstrated by the persecuted Eastern Christians, as indeed he did by quoting the Coptic monk and theologian,  Matta el Meskin (Matthew the Poor) to the Curia on December 22 2016.

The event at the Coptic Church ended with a short speech by an early immigrant, a member of the “Class of 1969”, who reminded those attending it of how, less than fifty years ago when liturgies were usually heard in private homes, this event would have seemed exceedingly unlikely. Those not attending it, however, can also use such a reminder. The 21th Century, still young, has already delivered plenty of carnage, hate and reasons to fear that established good orders are at risk from negligence, malice or indolence. As with the message of the Good Friday hymn, hope, however naive in the presence of adversity, remains the most potent force to overcome it.

— Maged Atiya