The Coptic Experience in Los Angeles

“I attended the English Youth Meeting that night with His Holiness… There was a group of youth (part of a band) who were singing worship songs. But, I noticed in the room that no one was taking part or singing along with them. Although the words were on the screen, no one participated. Shortly after, I noticed that a decision was made to start singing the hymns of the church from the Midnight Praise. Suddenly, the room got quiet and everyone started singing the Coptic hymns of the church. We didn’t have the hymns on the screen for anyone to follow. Most people pulled out Coptic Reader and read from there. I am not here to start a mini-battle about praise, worship, hymns, or songs. I just want to state an observation that I saw and pretty much “put it out here”.”
- Fr Michael Fanous (St Mary Magdalene Coptic Orthodox Church, Diocese of Los Angeles)

The Coptic Experience in Los Angeles

In this video, H.G. Bishop Serapion of Los Angeles explains his idea of a “short” tasbeha in order for youth “to taste the spirit of the Church”, which he explains is the most important aspect of the “hymns vs songs” debate. H.G. points out that “the youth” is often used as an “excuse” by those who want the Church to move away from its liturgical Tradition. H.G. observes that in fact the American-born youth tend to be “more in the spirit of the Church” than the youth who just migrated from Egypt, about whom H.G. is “concerned”. H.G. admits that some youth are far away, but affirms that “we have to have a group of youth committed to the Church” in order to “bring the others”. “If we lose even those [who are committed to the Church]”, H.G. explains, “we cannot bring the others [those who are far away]”.

“As for us Orthodox, the simple question is, If Martin Luther saw the truth in Holy Orthodoxy, should we be influenced by Protestantism in things like Protestant-style songs and art? Or should we share more of the truth of Orthodoxy with our thirsty Protestant brothers and sisters? I absolutely believe it is possible to once again have a respectful dialogue with these sincere, good-hearted people who are thirsty for the truth, but in order to do so, we must understand our identity as Orthodox Christians, members of the Church that possesses the deposit of the Apostolic faith and the fullness of the truth.”
- Fr Moses Samaan (St Marina Coptic Orthodox Church, Diocese of Los Angeles),

“I see two trends now within the Coptic Church. One is a definite move towards traditional Orthodoxy (I mean here more in the educational realm, the Coptic Church has always maintained an Orthodox praxis) . This is coming about both in Egypt and abroad by establishing patristic centers of study, new translations of ancient and modern patristic texts, and an openess to modern Orthodox theology as found in some of EO schools (hence the translation of many Russian texts into Arabic). Unfortunately, the second trend is one that seems to be influenced by the success of Protestantism both in Egypt and elsewhere. The latter seems to have impacted Orthodox praxis more than the actual doctrinal teachings of the Coptic Church. Just visit some Coptic Church websites…at first you might think its a protestant site!

However, thank God that our Church has maintained its strong monastic spirit (both within and outside the actual monastic vocation – that is, both inside the monasteries and within parish life in the world). This monastic spirit is what I believe gives power and life to our church, producing saints in all generations, which in turn witness to the power of transfiguration withing tradition Orthodoxy…

I think the other problem here in the States is that many servants in Sunday School utilize Protestant materials in order to “attract” the youth to Church. It also spills over in music and art where we see many youth who prefer Western style pictures over traditional iconography and modern protestant hymns over traditional Coptic Orthodox chant.”
- Fr Kyrillos Ibrahim (St Paul American Coptic Orthodox Church, Diocese of Los Angeles) (before his ordination),,3912.0.html

“In one of the American “style” parishes, there was a disagreement about whether to get together and sing Evangelical songs in addition to the Liturgy. Did they argue until one side one [sic] and they became divided? No. Did they just pick one or the other for the sake of unity? No, clearly one answer is right. They asked their bishop to arbitrate their dispute. H.G. did not simply impose a decision. He asked each side to explain to him why they feel the way they do. After carefully listening to them and making sure he understood exactly what they were asking for, without quickly jumping to assumptions about what they wanted, H.G. answered them. He said that there are not two kinds of worship, each meeting different people’s needs. Orthodox worship is the Liturgy, and heterodox worship is a lie, an attempt by the evil one to distract people from the true worship in spirit and truth. H.G. did not allow the meetings to sing evangelical songs. Because H.G. is a wise pastor, everyone felt heard, considered, and respected. Because the group chose to submit to H.G. rather than striving for their own will, they remained united, and moved forward towards establishing Orthodoxy here.”
- A second-hand account of the establishment of “mission” parishes in Los Angeles by H.G. Bishop Serapion,

“We should therefore be diligent to purge our meetings and our churches from all elements alien to the Orthodox faith and the Orthodox rite… going ahead and introducing non-Orthodox elements into my meetings, that’s the real danger, this is a technique of changing the church from the inside. We need to be careful about these things.”
- H.G Bishop Serapion of Los Angeles,

“I’m glad Father Peter is writing about this, because this new trend of teaching has irked me for a long time.
The role of a priest in giving a sermon, is not to make people feel good, it’s not to light them on fire to go “save” people around them, this is not orthodoxy. The priest is supposed to call the people to repentance, and this is a Biblical teaching:

They say still unto them that despise me, The LORD hath said, Ye shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you. For who hath stood in the counsel of the LORD, and hath perceived and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it? Behold, a whirlwind of the LORD is gone forth in fury, even a grievous whirlwind: it shall fall grievously upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the LORD shall not return, until he have executed, and till he have performed the thoughts of his heart: in the latter days ye shall consider it perfectly. I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. – Jeremiah 23:17-23, emphasis mine

I really think that we’re doing this today: making people feel really good, but not really teaching them holiness and how to hate evil. A sermon is meant to teach us to leave the error of our ways – to repent. If someone needs to smile, needs some consolation, needs encouragement, that is what that person will receive from Youth Group, Sunday School, and from the priest in and outside of confession, but the Liturgy is Liturgy, it is sacred, and the Body of the Lord is at the altar when we are laughing hysterically and clapping.
Our greatest example is our Lord Jesus Christ, He was meek, yet He still pricked the hearts of all to repentance. He showed love, but He was also very firm. God help and have mercy on the priests, because their responsibility before God is tremendous, it is not for us to judge them or their burden, but it is the “feel-good” sermons that most of us are referring to as being “Protestant”.

I listened to a sermon by a very charismatic preacher, who was teaching that “the will of God has to be taken by force”, this is not Orthodox, and is contrary to the teachings of the fathers – both patristic and monastic! I heard another sermon in which Jessica Simpson was used as the inspiration, in a song that is purely about lust, a song that, if we really took our Lord’s call to holiness seriously, would have been insulting to our ears. I won’t go on with examples because it will detract from the purpose of discussion, but wanted to say that yes, there are teachings that are coming out that are simply wrong, and not o/Orthodox.

“Talks” at youth group, and other meetings I can understand a different style, more diverse sermons etc… but the dignity of the clergy and the Church should never be diminished. By no means am I saying that to be an “orthodox” sermon, one must be stern-faced, never laughing, never smiling, and speaking in Old English – but the “old” truths are still that, truth, and we have to learn it whether we feel we like it or not. The congregation needs to be raised to a certain level, not the Truth watered down.

I didn’t say anything directly about any priest. I spoke about a general style/trend without mentioning anyone, and that was very intentional. The “feel-good” sermons, in general, though, are the ones that get you all worked up emotionally. You feel extreme emotions but are left with little meat, little content, little guidance, and little moral relevance. It’s like when you go on a school trip with all your friends, and you internally love it so much, and then crash a week later because you can’t reattain what was there. It’s like when you get a buzz from a sermon or convention, and then you go nowhere with it, and just crave the next “buzz”. At that point, you’re looking for things that make you feel differently, that get you excited, and when you don’t feel that charge, you assume that your spiritual life must be down or that talk has become cheap. Sermons are not about feeling worked up, if they’re really the words of God, they should humble and transform you.”
- Fr Antony Paul (St Paul’s Brotherhood, Diocese of Los Angeles) (before his ordination),

“I once visited a Coptic Orthodox parish for a weekday meeting. Before the meeting began, a “praise and worship team” came into the church with their instruments and began singing a couple of Protestant songs. As odd and surreal as it was to hear these songs in a holy place in which mystical and spiritual hymns are chanted, this is not our present focus. Rather, it is the song that was chosen, a song entitled “Amazing Love” or “You are My King.” One of the verses of the song contains the following words:

I’m forgiven because you were forsaken
I’m accepted, You were condemned
I’m alive and well
Your spirit is within me
Because you died and rose again

These words are not merely reminding us that we are healthy and happy, but rather, they speak to us about salvation itself (especially in the context of also speaking about forgiveness and acceptance). As such, they remind us why Protestant songs should not be used in Orthodox Christian services and meetings without careful scrutiny. At first glance, the words seem innocent. They express the reality that, because our Savior was forsaken, we are forgiven and accepted. So far, so good. But then we hear, “I’m alive and well. Your Spirit is within me because you died and rose again.”

Is that right? Let’s think about it for a moment.

We Orthodox Christians don’t go around proclaiming that we are “alive and well,” but rather, the opposite. The Holy Fathers teach us that the first step of the spiritual life is coming to the realization that everything is not well. Our Christian lives begin with the realization and understanding that something has been lost. God created us to exist in glory and ultimately perfection, but because we disobeyed God, we now find ourselves in a completely different state. Our spiritual lives begin with this realization… something is wrong in the world today. This is not the way God intended us to live. Man disobeyed God and lost communion with Him.

For this reason, we don’t proclaim we’re “alive and well” in our prayers and liturgical services. In fact, all of our Orthodox prayers and liturgies can be summed up in one phrase: “Lord have mercy.” If we are “alive and well,” why do we ask for mercy? Why do we ask for the intercessions and prayers of the saints towards God so “that He may forgive us our sins?” Why do we continually pray the Jesus Prayer, “My Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner?” If I am “alive and well” as the song tells me, perhaps I don’t need any of these things. Perhaps I don’t need the Mystery (Sacrament) of Repentance and Holy Confession. If I sing this song enough, perhaps I don’t even need to go to Church, because “I’m forgiven because You were forsaken. I’m accepted, [because] You were condemned. I’m alive and well.”

The words of “Amazing Love” beautifully reflect a concept of salvation and spirituality, but sadly, not an Orthodox concept. The song reflects the common view in Protestant society that people are saved instantly by our Savior’s sacrifice on the Cross when they “accept Jesus” as “their personal Savior.” In light of this view of salvation, the song makes sense. In contrast, for an Orthodox Christian used to crying out, “Lord have mercy” and seeking union with Christ through the Mysteria (Sacraments) of the Church, the words “I’m alive and well” are confusing and perhaps even counterintuitive.

This is one of the reasons why it’s not a good idea to blindly welcome popular Protestant songs in Orthodox churches: the spirit of many of these Protestant songs (many, but perhaps not all) doesn’t match the spirit of Orthodox worship and oftentimes conflicts with dogma, as well.

The spirit of Orthodox worship has been handed down to us in an unbroken line from the time of the Holy Apostles until the present day on the basis of the Holy Scripture, the Holy Fathers of the Church, the Divine Liturgy, the sanctified lives of the holy saints, etc. In contrast, the spirit of many of these Protestant songs come from contemporary men and women who were never exposed to these things.

The tragic reality is that they inherited an ever-changing type of Christianity in which it’s perfectly acceptable to think one is “alive and well,” even while living a sinful life, because Christ paid the price once and for all, and everything is going to be okay in the end, no matter what. This is the sad result of not being exposed to (or perhaps rejecting) Apostolic Christianity, and sadly, we Orthodox make such people our spiritual guides whenever we repeat these songs. Our spiritual guides should be those who have mastered communing with God in the ways He has appointed, not those who were never exposed to these things.

So, does all of this mean that we Orthodox Christians are depressing people who don’t want to be “alive and well?” Are we “downers” who just can’t enjoy such an uplifting message?

Of course not! We fervently hope and pray that we will be “alive and well” in the Kingdom, but we know that this can happen only if we struggle in this world to be united with Christ by imitating Him and His saints, obeying His Commandments, entreating His mercy, and communing with Him through the Mysteria of the Church.

We need more songs focusing on this reality and helping us along this difficult path in the Church. Consider the words of a contemporary Orthodox saint, Mother Maria of Paris (1891-1945):

It would be a great lie to tell searching souls: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. The Church tells those who are at peace and asleep (i.e., the “alive and well”): ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real anguish for your sins, for your perdition, for the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There, instead of become lukewarm, you will be set on fire; instead of pacified, you will become alarmed; instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become fools for Christ.

This is what it means to be “alive and well.””

- Fr Moses Samaan (St Marina Coptic Orthodox Church, Diocese of Los Angeles),