Protestant-Style Sermons? by Coptic Orthodox Bishops and Priests

Fr Peter Farrington of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate comments:

My understanding of the Fathers is that an Orthodox sermon should not be excitable and loud. It should be serious and prayerful. It should be Scriptural and Patristic. It should not be like stand-up comedy and should not provoke raucous laughter. It should not be filled with anecdotes. It should be both theological and spiritual rather than moralistic.

The examples should be St John Chrysostom, St Severus, St Philoxenus, and the other Fathers who have left us collections of their most valuable sermons.

From the first prayer to the last words of blessing I do not believe that laughter has a place in the Church. Nor do I think that anything should be done to encourage laughter at this time.

At a meeting outside the liturgy perhaps there is a place for some mild humour, but never comedy.

The words of the sermon are deadly serious and should never be a matter of levity. Indeed at the beginning of the Liturgy of St James which I celebrate I pray…

Therefore I bring you this supplication, that your Spirit, the Advocate, may be sent down to me, strengthening and preparing me for this ministry. And grant that without condemnation the word that has been declared by you may be proclaimed by me to the people in Christ Jesus our Lord, with whom you are blessed, together with your all-holy, good, life-giving and consubstantial Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Before the reading of the Holy Gospel I pray…

Master, Lover of humankind, make the pure light of your divine knowledge shine in our hearts and open the eyes of our mind to understand the message of your Gospel. Implant in us the fear of your blessed commandments, so that, having trampled down all carnal desires, we may change to a spiritual way of life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to you.

and when I have preached I pray..

You have made your divine and saving words resound for us, O God, enlighten the souls of us sinners to understand the things that have been read, so that we may be seen to be not only hearers of the spiritual songs, but also doers of good deeds, maintaining a faith without pretence, a life without blame, conduct without reproach..

It seems to me that these words of prayer do not allow me to make the proclamation of God’s word a matter of levity or comedy, but of the utmost seriousness. Young people must also learn that these are serious matters. It seems to me that relying on humour teaches entirely the wrong response to the words of the Scriptures and their explanation in the sermon. Even young people can and should and must pay attention to these things. If they do not then it is not necessarily the fault of the preacher. If we say that we are Christians then we must act as Christians. If we say that we are servants of Christ then we must act as servants. Playing with our i-Phones, chatting to others etc etc cannot be excused in anyone who has any grasp at all of what it means to be a Christian.

Before his ordination to the ranks of the clergy, Fr Antony Paul of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles commented:

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.

Source: http://tasbeha.org/community/discussion/11133/abouna-anthony-messah-faith-in-action

Addendum

H.G. Bishop Serapion

“Sometimes with a congregation who has been served well, and even a [new] priest arrives, they tell you “His methods are not Orthodox”. The congregation themselves [say this], and we’re talking about a priest who is preaching to them in the church. We ask, “What did he say?”

Interviewer: He hasn’t said anything wrong.

HG: No, no, his ‘methods’, they say that his ‘methods’ [are the issue]. Just like someone, for example, who is accustomed to a certain food – they recognise it when they are presented with something different. But if someone is accustomed to eating all different kinds of foods, it doesn’t make a difference to him. When a person and a congregation have been built on a solid foundation – I always like to give the example of St Athanasius, sometimes we focus on the role of St Athanasius in defending the faith, and that’s true, but we forget the role of the people. As for the Alexandrian people, the people of the Church, who were ready to be martyred because of a single letter [homoousios vs homoiousios], what theological awareness did they possess? Today when we begin talking about such things, people say “It doesn’t make a difference, etc, etc, these things are not a big deal”, but this was about just one letter. If these contemporary people were living at the time of St Athanasius, they would have said what kind of narrow minded [approach is this]? But this was a people who possessed theological awareness, because they were brought up well and served well. That’s why, as long as we serve our people, they are the ones who will protect the Church. They’re not waiting for me [the bishop] to speak, they themselves will protect the Church. They are the ones who will say “No. This is a spirit that is not correct.””

Fr Daoud Lamie

In this Arabic video, Fr Daoud Lamie explains why it is wrong to listen to non-Orthodox sermons (let alone rely on these in the preparation of one’s own ostensibly Orthodox sermon).

H.G. Bishop Raphael

Below, H.G. Bishop Raphael explains that neglecting to mention the Eucharist regularly in one’s sermons is tantamount to denying it.

“Are the Body and Blood of Christ important? You are all Orthodox and well aware. “Unless you eat the body of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves” (John 6:53). How can one live then without the Eucharist? The Church Fathers teach us “He who is estranged from the altar is estranged from God”. This was in the second century, lest someone accuse the Church of bringing an innovation. The quote continues “And he is a fox, even if his appearance is moderate”. So those who speak on the sattelite channels and have been explaining the scriptures for years, and people listen to him without a single mention of the Eucharist – even if his appearance is a moderate, he is a fox.”

From a discussion on tasbeha.org:
“Let’s not forget, a sermon can not be “Protestant-ish” unless it is inline with Protestant Theology.”

The sermon is an integral part of the Liturgy: “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight” (Acts 20:7). This also applies to sermons outside of the Liturgy proper, since we are called to refer our whole life to the experience of heaven that is the Liturgy. Those who wish to make a sharp distinction between sermons (or hymns) outside the Liturgy versus inside the Liturgy are usually trying to circumnavigate the liturgical norms of the Church. That is, “How can we break the rules without technically breaking the rules?”

A sermon delivered from a non-Orthodox mindset without explicit heresy is far more dangerous for simple Orthodox believers than a sermon with explicit heresy. Take, for example, the term ‘Christotokos’ during the Nestorian controversy. The Nestorians may have claimed that there is nothing explicitly un-Orthodox about the term, and they would have been correct. The Orthodox may have responded, “But you are attempting to deny St Mary the title ‘Theotokos’ by replacing/displacing it with ‘Christotokos’”. The Nestorians may then have simply continued to insist that there is nothing explicitly un-Orthodox about ‘Christotokos’ (not realising that omitting something is tantamount to its denial). More perceptive Nestorians may have engaged the argument better and insisted that St Mary is peripheral to the Gospel and therefore we should avoid “disputes over doubtful things” (Romans 14:1). However, the Orthodox realised the Christological implications (albeit seemingly obscure) and rightly condemned this as a heresy which endangers people’s salvation, preventing us from becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

When evaluating Protestant (more specifically, revivalist) practices we should always remember that “We’re dealing with two radically different traditions, theologies, ecclesiologies, and soteriologies here, and unless the underlying elements, the internal faith and vision that support their views are changed, their views probably will not change.” [http://returntoorthodoxy.com/orthodox-church-america-orthodox-worship-vs-contemporary-worship/]
That is, explicit heresy is only the tip of the iceberg. Underwater, informing this heresy is a mindset or phronema.

St John calls us to “test the spirits, whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). He does not say to pull out your textbook of dogmatic theology and cross-check this with whatever the preacher is saying. Discernment is a spiritual, not an academic exercise. 1 Timothy 3:16 is an early Christian creed which does not contradict Macedonianism or Protestantism. Does this mean that the pre-Nicene Church would have accepted these heresies? Certainly not! For these heresies were contradicted not by codified dogmatic statements, but by the experience of the life of the Church (e.g. the divinity of the Holy Spirit is confirmed by baptism by triple immersion). If a book or creed is all the Church has to defend Herself, then what a weak defence that is, easily circumvented by those who wish to harm Her (here we must immediately add that many if not most are doing the wrong thing out of the purest intentions). Rather, we defend ourselves by participation in an all-encompassing life “in Christ” (St Paul), which is much more than a few abstract dogmatic affirmations, for “theology without practice is the theology of demons” (St Maximus the Confessor). This life “in Christ” must always be referred to and judged by our experience of the Kingdom in the Divine Liturgy. Indeed, dogmas can only really be said to be officially ‘dogmatized’ after they have entered the liturgical life of every autocephalous Orthodox Church.

“The same goes for a “Coptic sermon”. Just because he doesn’t have a cane or an accent, doesn’t mean it isn’t Coptic. We need to get rid of this mentality”

We need to get rid of this mentality of identifying ourselves as ‘Coptic’ before being ‘Orthodox’. Then maybe we will cease being so closed-minded within a purely Coptic/Indian/etc milieu and look around at the rest of the Orthodox Churches and be embarrassed at the current state of parts of our Communion. (And thank God for the things we are doing right). In regard to both sermons and hymns, American Orthodox does not equal Evangelical Protestant, as a brief perusal of Ancient Faith Radio will show.

“and search for what the hearts of these priests are sharing with us that they learned during their personal time with Jesus. This is a true shepherd.”

We hope this ‘personal time with Jesus’ was being constantly informed by the (Orthodox) Church’s liturgical life.

“A different style doesn’t call for him being called a Protestant.”

When a ‘style’ is radically different from almost all of the thousands upon thousands of Orthodox clergy who have ever lived on the face of the Earth, it is quite reasonable that this should raise eyebrows. When Evangelical Protestant materials are referenced and affirmed or even plagiarized, it is difficult to consider said ‘style’ in isolation from its theological roots.

People’s fears are confirmed when it is clear that the ‘style’ is not a coincidence, but is often directly traceable to certain known centres of Protestant influence, some of whose public statements have been officially and publicly denounced as heretical by the Church hierarchy.