Thursday, 9 January 2014

My Coptic Church Experience


On the 6th January I had the pleasure of attending a Coptic Christmas service (Coptic meaning 'Egyptian'). We travelled to a Coptic Church especially for this event. I definitely felt very 'other' as I travelled with the Coptic Christians and attended the overall event, but people were very friendly and happy to introduce themselves.

Upon entering the church I saw an entrance lobby, with two arches, one leading to the high altar, the other to the congregation. Beautiful smelling incense wafted around me, and as we were late arriving the sound of loud rhythmic male voices vibrated through the room, accompanied by the clang of cymbals and triangles. 

I took my place in the stalls by myself and looked eagerly to the front. The altar could only be seen through a small wooden archway, leading to a sense of mystery about the rites being enacted. Men and boys sang in front of the arch, all wearing white robes with red sashes. Above the arch that stood behind them was wooden panels decorated with twelve icons, and two larger ones depicting Mary and Jesus. Looking around the room were further icons, gold candelabras and a shrine to the Virgin Mary containing relics (I longed to approach it throughout the whole ceremony).

As the men sang I could spy the lead clergymen through the archway to the high altar, enacting rites over a white cloth covering something, holding up a cross, and holding up what appeared to be a gold Bible. The men and women of the congregation sat separately, the men on the left and women on the right; some of the women wore white veils over their hair, and some wore all white clothes. Perhaps the wearing of white clothes is a survival from ancient Egyptian practices. With regards to the veil I found the following purpose summarised from Corinthians: "The spiritual meaning behind it is to cover human glory in the presence of Gods." (A woman's external glory is in her hair.)

I did wonder why it was only men up there singing and enacting the rites. One man mentioned that whilst he was unsure, he believed it was due to menstrual impurity in women, a concept argued to have existed in ancient Egypt also; however I did wonder why this then discounted young girls from singing, if young boys could. A woman told me that men were given this duty from God, and women were given other duties.

The service contained much of this singing, with few breaks for short liturgical readings on the theme of the nativity. What I found greatly interesting was how it appeared to be a blend of a Catholic Church and a Muslim Mosque. With all of the iconography, bible readings, crosses and Jesus references, the readings and some songs were sang in the characteristic arabic/muslim 'singing' that they use when reciting the holy Quran. Please pardon my ignorance on what this is called! A screen showed the lyrics and readings to the congregation in English, Ancient Coptic, and Arabic. It was unlike anything I'd seen before in a Church. I found it fascinating!

At the end one of the lead clergymen shared a message about Christ, about how he came down to us not born in a palace, with fine linens, warmth and food, but in a dirty stable with an unmarried mother. He was a very spiritual and friendly looking man. To end the service some Copts from Zambia sang a beautiful song accompanied by a woman playing a large drum.

Upon leaving the church the friendly looking clergyman thanked me for coming with a warm smile and then complimented a woman's baby daughter by saying she looked like a young Ankhesenamun, which I liked! 

It was a very different experience from other churches that I have visited. Despite being a three hour long service (!) I'd consider going again to soak in the spirituality and love of the place.

10 comments:

  1. I find plenty of religious experiences confusing. Yet you have a talent of explaining things that bring a perceived orderliness to them.

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  2. I enjoyed this post and the accompanying video very much. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian who has lately been studying Pagan and Wiccan for my own knowledge on these spiritual paths, I would highly recommend attending an Eastern Orthodox service sometime which are extremely similar to the Coptic in many ways except only half as long. ;) Also, they usually open the altar doors so that the congregation can see what is going on. Perhaps a Russian or Antiochian or Syrian or Romanian and in English if possible. If you have any more questions about what you observed in the Coptic Church, I would be more than happy to answer them if I can. Blessed love and light.

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  3. Hi ,
    I watched your Coptic Church Experience video, regrading the question you asked about why the women didn't participate with the people wearing white cloth . The answer is simple because the people wearing white cloth should be man with the Priest too should be Man because we say in our prayer that Jesus was incarnated and became Man . So the Servants in the church Prayers are all Men . But be careful this doesn't mean that Women are ignored... this is a false idea.
    Simply , Our Coptic Church we glorify the Women in Our Lady te Holy Virgin Mary as being the Mother of God " the Holy Theotokos" and gave birth to God our Lord Jesus Christ. It is an important role in our role in our Coptic Church. Also if you go again to the Coptic Church in August , there is a two weeks period of fasting and prayers at the Church For the Virgin Mary . We remeber in this fasting period when the Disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ fasted for two weeks to let God tell them where is the Body of the Virgin Mary. So after two weeks he showed them the Virgin Mary herself came to him with the Body " Flesh without being dead and buried that because she hold in her womb the immortal One . Also in Our Church there are many Saints and Martyrs who are Women and young Girls :)

    I hope this answered your question about Women

    Arsanios

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    1. Thank you ever so much for your reply! This does make things clearer :)
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  4. Also they participate in the service of the Sunday School, Youth Meeting, Family Meeting and other Activities
    Also the prayers cannot be without having the Priest , Deacon " men wearing red cloth " and Congregation from both Sex " Male and Female " as you saw in your visit to the church last Nativity Feast :)

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  5. I am afraid that the answers here misrepresent the Church worship within the Coptic rite.

    The liturgical worship in the Coptic Church involve three ranks: the priest, the deacon and the laity or the congregation. The priest and the deacon are usually inside the altar. The priest intercedes for the congregation, the deacon alerts the congregation (i.e. to stand up for prayer, look towards the East, ..etc) and the congregation participates with the hymns.

    Of course the congregation does include both men and women and all are invited and encouraged to sing along because it is really an offering and a bloodless sacrifice that the congregation offers to God which we call it a "sacrifice of praise".

    Having said that, the Coptic hymns are long and some are difficult to memorize except by those who really want to learn them. So, in order to preserve the hymns a rank of singers exists and the job of this rank is to memorize the hymns. Only men are allowed in this rank.

    The perception then became that only men sing yet all the hymns sung by this rank are congregational ones and both men and women should sing and pray with them.

    Hope this clarifies the issue.

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  6. Well done for making it through the entire liturgy! I know the Coptic service is very long but i do believe it is one of the most beautiful services that anyone could ever attend. I'm not sure where in Britain you reside, but once a month in central London there is a 1 hour Coptic service in English which I usually try and attend. You're more than welcome to join :)
    Here is the link: http://www.stpaulministry.com/index.html

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    1. It was indeed very long, but beautiful! :) Central London is too far, but thank you!!

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  7. am Ethiopian orthodox. i would like to correct you on Zambia song and drum. they are from the Ethiopian church actually. Ethiopian have long history both in Christianity and Judaism. we have very rich and old history in Christianity since first century. i recommend you to visit to the church.it gonna be totally different experience to. try to read the Ethiopian history before u go the church.

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  8. I'm not sure if you're still interested, but I found this article this morning, from a credible source:

    http://www.stmaryscopticorthodox.ca/index.php/english/abouna-s-blog/96-the-role-of-women-in-the-church

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