Report on the
11th Annual General Convention of
Aug. 31st – Sept. 3rd, 2007
The General Annual Convention was held this year in the Holiday Inn Grand Island Resort & Conference Center, (Grand Island, NY) near the US-Canadian border. This site was chosen in response to requests of members for equal sharing in transportation efforts. However, the present experience shows that the willingness to attend such Conferences depends more on the involvement in the general efforts of Christian faith, and interest in Church matters at the Orthodox and Ecumenical levels, and that is what we shall continue to call for, as long as the hope of the return of the body of the Church to its true nature, one in Christ, remains in the heart.
The Convention started Saturday 9/1/07 at 9:00 am with a liturgical prayer led by Rev. Fr. George Dragas, Professor at The Holy Cross Theological Seminary, Brookline, MA, who attends our conference for the fifth time. This was followed by a brief introductory talk by Dr. Gamil Soliman, explaining the theme of this year’s convention, which was probably not very clear from the title, but is clearer in the detailed program. The lectures were centered on Church unity issues: Roots of divisions in the early Church, Relation of faith and love with the hope of unity, Advances in the dialogue between churches to remove obstacles against unity, and Fields of cooperation among churches in the preaching and salvation of a world alienated from Christ.
The four lectures of the first day included two consecutive lectures by Rev. Fr. George Dragas. In the first lecture, on the Roots of Divisions(1), Fr. Dragas pointed to the contradiction in the term “divisions in the Church”, because the Church of Christ is one and indivisible, being the body of Christ that fills heaven and earth, and He is her only head. What happened then is division from, rather than in, the Church. Although the rites of worship, the text of prayers, and the tunes of hymns may be different, yet the liturgy remains the same.
The Church was founded in God before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). It started with the angels, the invisible creation, then it became in the world, the visible creation. Divisions arise from alienation away from the mind of the Church. This we see first in the fall of Satan,and later in Adam and others in the Old Testament. In the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon all in the form of divided tongues of fire, to unite them.
In his second lecture(2), “Christian Faith, Dogmas, Rites and Salvation”, Fr. Dragas mentioned that the incarnation accomplished the miracle of union between God and Man, and the Gospel reveals to us this life in Christ. The Gospel according to St. John in particular, although the last to be written, yet it is the first in revealing the mysteries of the kingdom, faith and Church. The Creed of the Church did not bring anything new; it just reports the teachings of the Gospel.
Although the Liturgy includes rites, prayers, and matters of worship, hymns and feasts, which may differ in different churches, yet its center and focal point is Christ. And communion is not sort of magic in its action, but it depends on preparing the soul with repentance and confession of sins. Also, bishops and priests may sin, but that should not prevent our salvation. And it is not enough for us just to sin not, but we need to be “like Him”, doing righteousness. What is important is the Christian righteousness that we do, rather than the sin that we don’t do.
Dr. Nos’hy Abdel-Shahid, director of the Center for Patristic Studies in Cairo, who talks in our convention for the ninth consecutive time, gave two lectures on Saturday evening. The topic of the first lecture was “Christian Faith and the Hope of Unity”(3). He pointed to the fact that faith is not just belief in certain dogmas, nor is it knowledge, but it is union with the person of Christ the Son of God (Gal. 2:20). Christ dwells in the heart (Eph. 3:17), and through Him we become one with the Father. We have entered the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit in baptism (Eph. 1:22,23), and it is our unity with Christ that enables us to become one with each other (1Cor. 12). That was the desire of Christ in His prayer in Gethsemane before His crucifixion, “That they all may be one; as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that You have sent Me” (Jn. 17:21). It is our perfect love with each other that enables us to become one in Christ.
In Dr. Abdel-Shahid’s second lecture(4), Christian Faith and Preaching the World, he explained that preaching the Gospel is witness to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, as declared by the Lord Himself to His disciples before His ascension, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem … and to the end of the world” (Acts 1:8). Without the Holy Spirit, no one, not even an apostle or a prophet, can change the hearts to feel the need to the Savior. What preaching the unbelievers needs now, as it has been always, are servants filled with the Holy Spirit, because it is only the Holy Spirit who works inside the unbeliever’s conscience, heart and mind to confess that Christ is Lord (1Cor. 12:3). There is also witness without speaking, i.e. the witness of the Christian life that is practiced among people. This is the responsibility of every believer, to reveal the divine power that dwells in him, to attract others to the knowledge of Christ.
On the next day, Sunday 9/2, the Conference participants went to St. Catharines, ON, crossing the Canadian border, to attend the Holy Divine Liturgy in St. George and St. Mercurius (Abu Sefain) Coptic Orthodox Church. Rev. Fr. Antonios Samaan, who had participated twice in previous Annual SMOF Conferences, led the prayers of the Liturgy. He asked Dr. Abdel-Shahid to deliver the sermon of the Liturgy (Mk. 12) on “End of the World”. He welcomed the Conference participants at a reception lunch (Agape) after the Liturgy, and asked Dr. Gamil Soliman to lead a Bible study meeting (Mt. 5) after the reception. On the way back to Grand Island, NY, members had the chance to visit Niagara Falls on both the Canadian and American sides, and to contemplate God’s awesome creation, which proclaims His glory continually.
Prof. Dr. Richard Schneider started his two Sunday lectures at 7 PM. Dr. Schneider is Professor of Church History, Trinity College, Toronto, ON, and St. Vladimir Seminary, NY. Also, he is Emeritus President of the Canadian Council of Churches. His background is scientific and his beginnings were Jewish. He is participating in SMOF Annual Conference for the first time, but he has participated in many of the previous Canadian SMOF Conferences.
In his first lecture(5), Interchurch Dialogues, Progress in Unity, and Fields of Cooperation until Church Unity can be achieved, Dr. Schneider emphasized that the model presented in the book of Acts (Acts 4:32-35) regarding the Church is its oneness and its unity (Jn. 17:11). But, as we know, there were always differences and divisions in views, authorities, and even in Dogma. Being Orthodox (right) we tended to condemn the others as heterodox (wrong). But issues are now more complex than this simple view, as we live in a reactive and evolving multicultural world. Our present civilization is collective, and neither law nor philosophy justifies condemning others as being wrong.
Therefore, participation in ecumenical efforts becomes essential. To deal with this dilemma, Prof. Schneider presented the model adopted by the Canadian Council of Churches, which was constructive despite the differences. This model is based on 1st Corinthian chapter 12 regarding the different gifts and the unity of the body. It requires unanimous agreement, which in turn requires seeking the truth through dialogue. Fruitful dialogue requires mature good teaching together with wisdom. Old arrogance should be replaced with listening to the others in Christian humility and patience. That is the only way for us to become true witnesses, remembering that witness means martyrdom also.
In his second lecture(6), Practicing Religion in a Civil-Rights Democratic Society, Prof. Schneider said that the events of the early Christian history, primarily the blood shed in martyrdom, followed by the Roman acceptance of Christianity, have promoted our feeling of the firmness of truth in our faith. On the other hand, they also promoted self-confidence. And as all churches, when embraced by their States, change from dependence on faith and preaching to dependence on state legislation and enforcement. Historically, this led further to religious wars.
In this respect, the North American experiment of separation between Church and State, becomes a unique experience in history, and it has important repercussions on Orthodoxy ecumenically and locally. It demands intellectual openness and a return to the apologetic approach of the early Christianity, renouncing the attitude of self-righteousness or correctness, just because we are Orthodox. So, Can we adapt to Civil-rights and remain faithful to the Truth? In democracy, the week groups (e.g. minorities and the poor) suffer, and they become the field of our Christian calling, even our treasure, and even our Christ Himself (Mt.25: 34-36). Are Orthodox people the good example here? Can we learn from other churches?
On the last day of the Conference, Monday 9/3, Prof. Schneider delivered his third lecture(7), “Orthodox Values and Scientific Understanding of Man and World”. He started by pointing that there is no war between Science and Religion. But in the recent era, Science and Religion became two different languages, in need for dialogue. This effort is required from both scientists and theologians. Regarding religion, the old spiritual vocabulary cannot cope adequately with the insights of modern science, and our religious values must be renewed on account of this. Both fields need to teach each other. The Orthodox, with their holistic understanding and Patristic vision of the world as God’s creation, should be leaders in this dialogue. Instead, we are ways behind every other church in this area. Very few Orthodox have spoken about bioethics, conservation the environment … etc. Our habitual use of monastic vocabulary, concepts, and hagiography may have limited our vision and understanding of the world, which is God’s own creation and His image (Col. 1:15-17). Sanctity and mystery should be found in most simple, ordinary, everyday realities, not only in spectacular “violations of scientific laws” (i.e. miracles). The greatest mystery is love.
The lecture was followed by discussion of Dr. Schneider’s three lectures with their content of essential and serious issues. Many attendees had excellent instructive comments. But we admit that many issues that were pivotal to the topic of the Conference could not be accommodated in its program this year, such as: Fields of cooperation between the churches until unity is achieved, Christian faith and the attacks against it in the Middle East (Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon), Preaching and guarantees of stability in multi-religious countries, Relations of Christian faith with other major religions of the world (Islam, Buddhism, … etc), and Role of social services in Evangelism, positive and negative. We hope they can be covered in forthcoming conferences.
In this present Conference, we missed Rev. Fr. Antonious Amin, who blessed our conference with his participation for seven consecutive times (1999 – 2006), but his sickness prevented his presence with us this year. We were informed of his departure on November 6, 2007, and we ask for his prayers for us before the throne of God, and we ask the Lord for consolation to his family and all his spiritual children.
The proceedings of the Conference included exhibits of books, CD’s and other publications of the Fellowship (SMOF, USA and Canada) and of St. Antonious Patristic Center (Egypt), among others. Also the Arabic book, “Explanation of the Gospel of St. John”, by Dr. Guirguis A. Ibrahim, the late president of SMOF, was distributed as a gift to all attendees.
The Conference concluded at noon with thanksgiving prayer, and the members greeted each other hoping to meet again in the next conference.
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