Refutation of Dr Magdi Khalil (Washington DC)

Self-proclaimed Coptic activist Dr Magdi Khalil recently gave an interview on Protestant satellite channel Al Karma. He gave a heavily biased account of the events in Washington DC, which was riddled with both theological and factual errors. Read our point-by-point refutation and dislike his video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsN1UP-0uZE

Refutation of Dr Magdi Khalil (Washington DC)

Claim 1: Quoting Anba Serapion’s recent statement in his Logos TV interview that the Coptic Church has been in theological decay since the Council of Chalcedon, reliant only on the liturgy to preserve the faith, Dr Magdi interprets H.G.’s statement to mean that we should introduce novel forms of worship and teaching alien to our liturgical phronema, since the liturgy alone is “not sufficient”.

Response: Anba Serapion in fact prefaced this comment in his Logos TV interview warning that some people use the claim of the Coptic Church’s theological weakness to push their own agenda (38:17-39:03) – as in this case of Dr Magdi.

Instead of relying on a Coptic activist who himself appears to be theologically uneducated, let us turn to a theologically educated priest in Los Angeles ordained by Anba Serapion himself for the proper interpretation of H.G.’s comments:

“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), http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net/forum/index.php/topic,3912.0.html

So when Anba Serapion speaks of a return to the early Church, H.G. means this “more in the educational realm”, and when H.G. states that the faith was preserved only through the liturgy, this means that “the Coptic Church has always maintained an Orthodox praxis”.  H.G.’s meaning is lost on Dr Magdi and given the complete opposite interpretation, as he seems utterly unaware of the theological concept of “Orthopraxy”!

Claim 2: “As long as the faith and teaching are sound, then the style of presentation is not important, do anything that will bring the people to the faith…  Let people rejoice, let people “come to Christ”, attract people to Christ by all methods”.  Dr Magdi specifically mentions non-Orthodox songs (i.e. Evangelical Protestant “praise and worship”) that “contain joy” (as if Orthodox hymns are not joyful).

“Christ” is a Person, not a mere concept or label that can be attached to just any practice in an attempt to validate it.  Christ is the Head of the Church, Who is inseparable from His Body.  It is therefore not Orthodox to claim that we can “come to Christ” apart from the Church’s Holy Tradition.

Unfortunately, Dr Magdi has divorced dogma from praxis, and thereby articulated the heresy of pietism:

“Increasingly pietism equates the spirituality and piety of the various churches and confessions, taking them on the level of individual, or socially useful and efficacious, ethics, while disregarding even fundamental dogmatic differences. The piety of a Roman Catholic, a Protestant and frequently even an “enlightened” Orthodox, do not present substantial differences; practical piety no longer reveals whether the truth one lives is real or distorted. Dogma does not appear as a “definition,” laying down the limits within which the Church’s experience is to be expressed and safeguarded. Christian piety appears unrelated to the way we experience the truth of God in Trinity, the incarnation of the Word, and the energies of the Holy Spirit which give substance to the life of the members of the Church…

Pietism undermines the ontological truth of the Church or totally rejects it, but without questioning the formulations of that truth. It simply disregards them, taking them as intellectual forms unrelated to man’s salvation, and abandons them to the jurisdiction of an autonomous academic theology. Pietism preserves a formal faithfulness to the letter of dogmatic formulation, but this is a dead letter, irrelevant to life and existential experience.”

- Professor Emeritus Christos Yannaras, http://returntoorthodoxy.com/pietism-ecclesiological-heresy-christos-yannaras/

Claim 3: The Coptic Church treats the rite as the end rather than the means to Christ.

Response: On the contrary, those who do lip-service to “following all the rituals and traditions of the Coptic Church” during the Divine Liturgy (at least before Psalm 150), and then turn around and embrace a radically different ethos the rest of the time – these are the ones who treat the rite as an end, as a box to be ticked to “prove” their Orthodoxy.

Claim 4: Dr Magdi claims that opponents of this ‘New Age Orthodoxy’ movement have transferred a hard-headed Middle Eastern mentality to the Lands of Immigration.

On the contrary, Anba Serapion observes that the youth who were born in the West are more in the spirit of the Church than those who migrated from Egypt.  As a Copt in Egypt, one feels secure in their Christianity as a cultural identity, and therefore the temptation is great to “shop around” for different types of spirituality, without even considering that one might be falling away from the faith.  On the other hand, being an Orthodox Christian in the secular West is a serious commitment that requires one to be radically countercultural anyway, so one might as well live the authentic Orthodox life.

Claim 5: Dr Magdi likens this ‘New Age Orthodoxy’ movement to that of St Habib Girgis.

Response: H.G. Bishop Dr Suriel, who did his PhD on St Habib Girgis, stated that:

“Coptic seminaries should endeavour to train prospective clergy how to be Orthodox. A future goal for us as bishops should be to ensure that no man be ordained into the priesthood without first obtaining a degree in theology. This was one of St Habib Girgis’ criteria of sound theological education.”

- Lands of Immigration Seminar, May 2015, http://returntoorthodoxy.com/bishop-suriel-habib-girgis-vision-theological-education/

Moreover, H.H. Pope Shenouda, St Habib Girgis’ student, states:

“He was also a poet and a composer. He composed the theological college anthem. He also composed many spiritual songs that follow the same tune of the church hymns. Upon this context, he wrote many spiritual poems for adults and children. His poems reflected a genuine orthodox character such as St Ephrem the Syrian.”

http://returntoorthodoxy.com/pope-shenouda-legacy-habib-girgis/

Claim 6: Dr Magdi likens this movement to that of Fr Matta El Meskeen and Dr George Habib Bebawi.

Response: The controversies regarding Fr Matta El Meskeen and Dr George Bebawi largely involve issues where there is a diversity of views within Orthodoxy, e.g. communion during menstruation.

Unlike these more peripheral issues, all Orthodox Churches are committed to maintaining an Orthodox praxis in all aspects of Church life, in continuity with the past and centred around the Divine Liturgy.

Dr George Bebawi himself supported the decision to ban Protestant songs from Mukattam in this series of articles:  http://returntoorthodoxy.com/decision-ban-protestant-songs/

Anba Serapion referred to Fr Matta el Meskeen favourably during his Logos TV interview (37:29-37:38), and in this same interview unambiguously supported the Holy Synod’s excommunication of Atef Aziz.  Therefore, the equation of Atef Aziz with Fr Matta el Meskeen is clearly ridiculous.

Claim 7: Dr Magdi claims that H.H. Pope Tawadros supports Protestant songs and a seeker-sensitive approach to mission.

Response:

“Let us not forget that Unorthodox worship can pollute our being, leading to forgetfulness. It can cause one’s mind to drift quite far, rendering him unable to value the Traditional Orthodox melodies and style of Church Worship. [...] Orthodox worship is distinct in its constant reminder of the real presence of Christ and his Saints in our lives. We must be careful to ensure that the worship songs we use are Orthodox in their origin, lyrics, melodies and in their spirit. Communion and unity with Christ ought to be embedded within their meaning.”

- H. H. Pope Tawadros II

Claim 8: Anba Michael’s proposed diocese was to include the State of New Jersey, and H.G. as a general bishop currently oversees “only 3 or 4 churches”.

Response:

Both claims are factually incorrect.