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Holy Three HierarchsMy Experience at the “Seminar on Theology” instituted by His Holiness Pope Tawadros II in Anaphora, Egypt, June 2013

*Brief account of my experience at the first theological seminar with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II – as requested 🙂 

It was another normal weekday — woke up, had my quiet time, prepared myself to take on another day of research and more reading and translating and deciphering ancient Christian texts. But it soon became more exciting 🙂

I received an email about a “Coptic Theological Seminar” to be held in Anaphora, Egypt this June 2013. I wasn’t sure what it was about (the message was first written in Arabic) — but as I opened up the email and saw the attachment of the invitation — it stated that His Holiness initiated a conference on theology – to gather all those who have studied (or are studying) theology across the world.

As I read the email a few times, I became more and more excited about the idea of an international theological seminar – in the Coptic Church! I was a bit confused as to how my information was found – but the Coptic World is quite small so word gets around as to who knows who and what people are doing worldwide.

I decided I must go. After weeks of battles with family (yes you know who you are 😀 – I say with love) as to not go or cut my trip short (due to the preparation and upcoming Egyptian Revolution June 30th) – I eventually had to leave the country a week earlier – nevertheless I was blessed to visit Egypt for a week – after having not visited for 7 years.

Now, more importantly – the conference. It was scheduled for three days, with 10 sessions made up of 31 short talks (including a presentation and discussion with His Holiness) on various topics of the importance of theology and how to improve the study of theology in the Coptic Church globally.

The atmosphere was lively and joyous, the people were welcoming, the centre breathtaking.

It was exciting to see people that I have come cross years ago all meeting in one place – with one purpose – to excel and uplift the importance of theology in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Being amongst such great theologians, scholars, clergymen, lay people – gave me such hope and inspiration that theology does matter to us Copts and that there is a place for lay people who pursue theology as academia and life.

Many of the presentations held the view that the Coptic Church needs to take several steps to push forth this desire and will to advance theological studies — to a higher (or even high) academic level amongst the Theological Colleges across the globe. Whether they be in Egypt, Australia, the USA or London — they all need to have a stronger academic level and focus on the community in which it serves. This doesn’t mean all theological colleges become solely academic, mundane and scholarly; no – they need to supply the student with challenges to learn, explore, understand theology as the early Church Fathers did.

I would like to highlight a particular presentation that was extremely moving — the presentation by His Grace Bishop Thomas on the importance of supporting theology financially as a church. I was pleased with his practical advice and wisdom; he insisted that the Coptic churches globally should set a side a fund to support students to study theology – wherever it may — just as many churches spend countless of finances on church buildings, the church should likewise or even more so – invest in building its members as leaders and witnesses of the church in studying theology at academic institutes.

Also, Fr John Behr, a Russian Orthodox Theologian and profound scholar (also dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary in New York — see more of his works and life: http://www.svots.edu/team/very-rev-john-behr) — presented on “Orthodox Theological Education in the 21st Century” — it was an incredible presentation – focusing on the importance of educating leaders for the church to lead others to the kingdom. “We are preparing students of what it is to come – it is a prophetic ministry.”

He mentioned that as a church we have to have a vision for this – for if there is “no vision, the people will fail” (Proverbs 29:18). He said we must “grow our minds as well as our hearts – it is both intellectual and spiritual food” (I paraphrase). If we fail to do so, we remain childless, and we reduce our faith to mere rituals and hence we betray the act of God if we are not prepared to grow. A few points struck me in his presentation — he stated that for theology — it is “simply wrong to oppose pastoral and academic instruction” — it is a false opposition – something I think many of us do as Orthodox Christians. They complement each other.

To experience God – this is theology. The fathers did not merely write out of theory or fantasising – but out of real experience, contemplation — revelation. It is “formative experience, and not acquisition”.

He also mentioned that if we do not teach and experience theology properly to others/or our students/whom we serve — we sell them “short” of what we should be teaching, what we should know — this is our failure in accountability (“we must never sell our students short and not provide them with the best we can give them“).

Lastly I will add that Fr John also states what a theological school should look like and he brilliantly quotes St Gregory Theologian – from his oration on his friend St Basil the Great — where St Gregory reminisces during their time together studying in Athens that they only knew “two paths — one to the chapel and the other to the classroom.” This, as Fr John states, is the basic principle/idea which a theological school should be founded upon.

(I highly recommend to watch the full presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgxT6rqTJso&feature=share)

I am honoured to have attended the conference; although I would have liked to see more lay people (I would say there were about 10% lay people, and of them were a hand full of women) – I hope this is a point where the Church realises theology is for everyone not just for the clergy or for the professor of theology — but for the elderly grandmother down to the young child in primary school. We are all called to know Him — know Him intimately and profoundly. For this is our eternity (John 17:3), this is how we will know His will (Ephesians 1:17-18).

As Copts we glorify Athanasius and Cyril tremendously – yet we fail to live up to their standards of learning and theological experience – (I go off tangent slightly) — so it is the Church’s duty to teach their members — we can no longer rely on being ignorant of what our faith is, who our God is – and what our life is purposed to be. We are in this world to know Him, to experience Him, to witness Him – and to share in the communion with the Fathers — the countless treasures they handed down to us through their strife for virtue, their fights against heresies, and their love for God and His Church. What are we doing with our Christian heritage? Watering it down to minimise our intellectual and spiritual capabilities for the sake of simplicity and laziness?  Orthodoxy cannot be carried in a pocket. It must be lived, experienced, witnessed. We are called to “hand down the traditions which we were taught” (2 Thess. 2:15) so what exactly are we handing down in our churches, to our children, to those we serve?

I hope the fruit of the conference will continue to inspire the attendees to hand down what they have learned through their own theological training and guide others to learn more about God.

Let us see theology not as an academic exercise – but as a life. Reading about the mysteries of God will enlighten our understanding and through ardent prayer bring us closer to Him.

And I share one last passage – of which I hope we all can experience, pursue and pray for in achieving this great spiritual knowledge in knowing Him:

For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9-10).  (*Some photos see here: https://www.facebook.com/donna.m.rizk/media_set?set=a.10152991999895224.1073741826.581900223&type=3  And the website: http://www.hscoc-seminars.com/)