December 2006 - January 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Contra mundum

By Kate Holden
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A paean in an arcane language derived from ancient Egyptian and Greek; a ceremonial procession of men in Byzantine beards and robes; a supper table laid with platters of pizza and fried rice; a sermon aided by PowerPoint slides above a Madonna icon outlined in blue sequins; the spiritual wisdom of the Desert Fathers. Welcome to a Friday night Coptic service in a northern Melbourne suburb.

There is something splendidly venerable about an institution such as the Coptic Church. Founded in Egypt in the first century, it has survived centuries of persecution and misunderstanding, and estrangement from the wider Christian establishment, without ever changing its archaic traditions. Its people claim descent from the ancient Egyptians; its honorific gestures are taken from Byzantium. It is a revenant of a very old tradition, mummified in ceremony and faith. Yet it is not only enduring but thriving in modern, secular Australia: of the more than 10 million Copts in the world, an estimated 60,000 live here.

Its people are first- and second-generation migrants from Egypt, highly educated and professional. When they first arrived in the 1960s, there was no church of their own. In the 35 years since its foundation, however, the Coptic Church in Melbourne has established seven churches, two schools, a monastery, a headquarters of some magnificence, an old persons' hostel, a theological college and a flock of some 15,000 parishioners.

The head of the church in Melbourne, several territories of Australia, and New Zealand is His Grace Bishop Suriel, a tall, charismatic patriarch with a warm, rather shy smile. He greets me in the church's headquarters, in an outer suburb, wearing long black silk robes and a heavy jewelled cross in the Coptic design. On his head is a curious onion-like cap of black silk; his hair is covered by a kind of burnous. He answers my questions thoughtfully, using stock phrases which seem nonetheless sincere. "A church without youth has no future; a youth without a church has no future," he says, quoting His Holiness Pope Shenoudah III.

"People come to the church because we have preserved a very long tradition of worship, which has not changed in 2000 years," Bishop Suriel says. "There is an integrity in the Coptic tradition which people cannot find anywhere else."

The church is, indeed, a missionary one: it claims to have begun evangelism in Ireland even before the Roman Church. Proselytising communities exist all over the world. (Some Melbourne Fathers, recently returned from an expedition to Islamabad, shake their heads. "Difficult," they say.) The Copts - almost, as Bishop Suriel puts it, "annihilated by history" - are deeply assured of the worthiness of their tradition.

Their precepts combine the mystical, ascetic philosophies of the Desert Fathers with inflections of even older, incense-shrouded worlds. There is an Easter Passion rite in which an icon of Christ is ritually buried beneath spices, perfumes and roses, in the manner of ancient practices for the dead. And a hymn, ‘Golgotha', is sung, the music of which is said to date to the time of the pharaohs. The Coptic Christmas, celebrated on 7 January, is less extravagant than Easter, but nevertheless involves gifts of candles and lamps; the baking of decorated bread, Qurban; a midnight mass and ringing of bells. The feast that follows breaks a six-week fast (no meat, fish or dairy).

At the youth service I attend, the pews of the former Anglican church are crammed with people in sweatshirts and jeans. They listen attentively to a pious sermon, delivered in English and occasional Arabic. It could be any Christian gathering, Catholic or Protestant, except for one phrase in the Creed, the Filioque, concerning the Holy Trinity (for Copts and other Orthodox believers, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father but not the Son). The only striking exotica, apart from the robes, is the song greeting the entrance of the bishops and priests: a fast, joyous melody in their antique language. The young people sing it confidently, though they may not understand the words. They ask earnest questions of the guest bishop: "Why was I born a Copt?" "How can I love God better?"

"Cool," says a chic young woman, Christina, when I tell her I am writing about her church. "We need more advertising!" The church's youth magazine is called ‘Contra Mundum' (Against the World), a severe sentiment that adheres to the determined purity of Coptic life in resistance to a licentious environment. It sits oddly with the fashionable clothes on display.

The supper afterwards with the Fathers and deacons is vegetarian, because it is Friday (in remembrance of the Crucifixion; there is also a fast on Wednesday, to recall the betrayal of Judas). We eat moussaka, chips, salad, pizza, white bread-rolls, fruit salad. The Fathers drink Fanta. It is an entirely typical Australian cold buffet, part of a satisfying night out for the Coptic community: spiritual guidance for the faithful, a chance to catch up with friends and relatives, a convivial meal.

But underneath, there's an earnest, assiduous desire for what Bishop Suriel calls "a righteous and holy life". The Copts fast for nearly two-thirds of the year, in pursuit of humility and asceticism; they hold tight to a patriarchy in which women are educators and health workers but cannot be admitted to the clergy; they revere their religious leaders. Bishop Suriel and his fellows, conspicuous in their robes and distinctive caps, are often stopped in the street. "People look to us for the truth," he says.

At this point, a phone buzzes within his voluminous robes. A conversation about Frequent Flyer points ensues. "You've eaten all my miles!" he says, chuckling, to a colleague. As our meeting draws to a close, he gives me a bounty of promotional and historical material on CD and DVD.

It's this strange mixture of slick, practical modernity and antediluvian mystique that seems to characterise the Coptic Church in Australia. In Egypt, Copts are still sometimes subject to abuse: in 1981, Pope Shenoudah III was put under house arrest for three years; other detainments are frequent; earlier this year a Copt was killed with a sword in Alexandria, an eerily old-fashioned death. Here in Australia, concern is with the brethren in Egypt, but also on pushing forward here, within a more elastic society.

I compliment Bishop Suriel on the impressive headquarters, a monastery bought from the Catholic Church. Outside, the gum trees are drying under a big blue sky. The square Coptic cross, with its distinctive pronged arms, towers over the buildings. His Grace smiles deprecatingly. "It'll take a while to pay off," he says.

Kate Holden

Kate Holden is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.

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