How long do experiments last? What does commitment mean in an experiment? Is it right to experiment with church?
Having returned from a short vacation in America, we are now beginning our second year of life in Egypt. The first year was very good, and we are happy to return. While acknowledging our status as foreigners, we like to live as Egyptian a life as possible, which includes worshiping in the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy is the denomination of the vast majority of Egyptian Christians, and though it is not our own, last year we joined in as best we could. God’s church is one, and though we may or may not agree with all of Orthodoxy’s distinctive tenets, we desire to signal our support and serve Christ’s body.
Our reception has been welcoming, but tepid. While we have described this in the past, beginning again in year two we face again the same reality. By now more than a few people know and greet us, and we have learned better the rhythm of the service and the liturgical year. We are not yet comfortable, in the way an old shoe is comfortable, but we are still not sure if the new shoe fits. Still, it is better than being barefoot.
In our estimation, being a Christian is expressed in a significant way through commitment to a local congregation of believers. Namely, we go to service, we get to know people, we explore opportunities to serve. These actions, and others, are necessary, but they are not the essence of commitment. Rather, commitment is an attitude that says, ‘This is my church.’ The response of others may make this easier or harder, but commitment is a decision dependent only on one’s self.
But have we committed? We began our attendance as an experiment, to see if the church could serve as our spiritual home in Egypt. We desired it to be; it is consistent with the sense of belonging that drives our attitude toward overseas life. I think it is clear, though, that experimentation and commitment are not synonyms. Perhaps beginning year two, we are realizing this. What does it mean for us?
An attitude of experimenting can be a means of resisting full commitment, but it is not the only one. I have previously described the non-uniform Coptic tendency to leave early or come late. In fact, it is a common habit of many Copts here to enter the Mass near its conclusion, partake of communion – necessary as the literal body and blood of Jesus – and then leave, or, enjoy meeting up with their friends and socializing.
Today one of the priests deviated from the timeless repetition of the Mass. As the congregants were approaching to receive the host, he announced that the entire Mass was holy, and the Bible readings and sermon (done earlier in the service) were also necessary for the life of the Christian. One should not take communion unless he attended the whole Mass.
The whole Mass is very long. It begins around 7am, and ends around 11am. Perhaps aware of this, yet frustrated by the many deliberate latecomers, he did not speak absolutely. Rather, he ended his interjection by saying that no one would be denied Christ’s body and blood, but that each person was responsible for himself.
We, meanwhile, may not partake, as we have not been baptized Orthodox. By now we are quite used to this, and I do not write from frustration. Neither do I wish to trigger in the reader any sense of injustice. I mean, perhaps, to highlight that belonging depends on more than commitment.
As a note, we aim to arrive at Mass at least by 9am, in time for the Gospel reading and sermon. Our commitment, as exposed by the priest, is partial at best.
The latecomers, technically, in the Orthodox theological sense, belong to the church, even if their commitment is lacking. Yet their commitment is there – they do come. We, in the Orthodox theological sense, do not belong to the church, even if our commitment is present and our belonging is desired.
We are not Orthodox, but we are able to accept them as fellow Christians. By and large, they are able to do the same with us. Yet we are not the same, and in this reality there is that which keeps us viewing ourselves as if in a glass, darkly. Will it keep us ever experimenting, no matter our commitment? Must belonging at church involve mutual acceptance? If we are barred from communion, the central act of Orthodox worship, can we belong? We can commit, we can serve, we can attend. Can we be one? Is the church truly so? Is it all an experiment? Is this appropriate, for either them or us?
Year two begins with such questions. Please feel free to share your impressions.