Report on the Eighth Annual Convention of
St. Mark’s Orthodox Fellowship
August 30 - Sept 1, 2003
The Eighth Annual Conference was held for the first time in Sandy Cove Christian Conference Center (North East, MD), overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. About 100 members attended this year, many of them for the first time. They came from Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Ohio, besides a large number coming from Canada (Toronto, Ontario) and Egypt. (see Photo Album: 1, 2, 3, 4, and others)
A special parallel program, supervised by Dr. Yousry Armanios (Columbus, OH), was prepared for the youth this year. For many reasons, especially that most of the youth attending this time know Arabic well, it was not carried out. We hope that, in next year’s Conference at the Antiochian Village, God willing, we shall have the chance to carry out this program successfully, and it will become an established and important part of all upcoming annual conferences. Since the conference this year started Saturday morning, members started coming 8 – 9 am to register, and headed directly to a large conference room, the Chesapeake Auditorium, on the third floor of the building.
The Convention started 9:00 am with a liturgical prayer lead by Rev. Fr. George Dragas, using Greek language in few sections. This was followed by few words from Dr. Gamil Soliman on the theme of this year’s convention, “Salvation: An Orthodox Perspective”, and an exposition of the program which includes all dimensions of salvation, past, present and future, as detailed in the typology (symbols, and events) and prophesies of the Old Testament, the work of Christ, the only savior, and what the Bible reveals regarding the second coming of the Lord to declare the fulfillment of salvation and the glorification of the faithful. It also includes contrasting between the role of the Law and the work of grace in the story of our salvation, dealing with the issues of faith and work, the role of the Church in salvation, and salvation in the daily life of the believers, as well as the teachings of one of the greatest fathers of the ecumenical Church, St. Cyril of Alexandria, on the concept of salvation.
The program included four lectures I the first day: Two of these were given by Rev. Fr. George Dragas1, Professor of Patristic Studies at the Holy Cross Theological Seminary, Brookline, MA, who is speaking for the fourth consecutive time in the Convention. Due to other obligations, he presented his two lectures consecutively on the same day, and they were as well complementary to each other. The first lecture was on “Salvation: Faith and Works”, and the second was on “The Role of Church in Salvation”. As an introduction to these topics, Fr. Dragas stated that salvation is the pivotal issue in the word of God, it is the essence of Christian faith, and it should be understood through tradition, which has been defined by St. Athanasius as “what Christ delivered, what the prophets prophesied, what the apostles declared, and what the fathers kept and maintained.”
Salvation was needed to restore man to his good original image created by God. Therefore, it was only God, the creator who can save him. Christ is the new or second Adam, and the Virgin is the new or second Eve. John the Baptist is the last Old Testament witness, who announced the arrival of the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (i.e. salvation), and was martyred before the crucifixion of the Lord, and went to the dead proclaiming the arrival of the savior. Then, Christ descended to Hades, and raised the spirits of those who died in the hope of His salvation. The icons on the iconostasis describe this in the same order, Christ in the center, the virgin to His right side (carrying Him as a child) and the Baptist to His left.
Salvation consists of a gift of grace from above and work (a faith which works with love, repentance) from the human side. It is by the action of the Holy Spirit that a person is born again, and also continues to grow in the life of holiness. Christ, the lamb that was slain, offers the grace of salvation to all people, “He died for all” (2Cor. 5:15), and not as some claim that salvation is only for the elects (heresy of limited atonement), “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13, Acts 2:12). And the priest says before communion with the body and blood of the Lord: “given for us for salvation, remission of sins, and eternal life to (all) those who partake of Him”.
And after lunch, Fr. Dragas returned to the auditorium to answer members’ questions (see endnote 1) for 90 minutes, after which he left to the airport to fly back to his Theological School.
Rev. Fr. Antonios Amin2, pastor of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Heliopolis, Cairo, who is blessing our convention for the fifth consecutive year, gave the third lecture of the day. In his talk, “The Different Meanings and Stages of Salvation in the Bible”, he enumerated the meanings as follows: 1) Salvation from slavery to man or the devil, 2) Salvation from captivity and occupation, “That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us” (Lk. 1:71), 3) Salvation from imprisonment and death judgment, so whoever took refuge in the temple, or held unto the corners of the altar, was saved in Israel, 4) Salvation from the bondage of the Law, “… lawyers … ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne” (Lk. 11:46), 5) Salvation from eternal death and the devil’s captivity, which was accomplished by the Lord through His crucifixion, death and resurrection. This is the full meaning that could not be comprehended by the generations before Christ, “the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began” (Ro. 16:25)
Regarding the stages of salvation, Fr. Antonios explained them as: 1) Justification: by the grace of the redemption, the sinner is justified, i.e. receives Christ’s righteousness, “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Ro. 3:24), 2) Sanctification: which is the conversion of a person’s course into a life of holiness and rejection of sin, by the action of the Holy Spirit (Spirit of holiness), “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30), and 3) Glorification: which is the final salvation and arrival to the eternal glory at the second coming of the Lord, “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20,21), “So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him, He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. (Heb. 9:28).
Dr. Nos’hy Abdel-Shahid3, Director of the Patristic Center in Cairo, who has been attending the convention for the sixth consecutive year, gave the fourth lecture of the day after Vespers (see pictures 16-20). His talk, “Salvation in the Writings of St. Cyril of Alexandria”, included these issues: 1) Salvation as the work of the Trinity, 2) Christ’s mediation as the unique sacrificial offering and the High Priest, 3) Christ’s reconciliation of humanity with God (the Father), 4) Christ is the perfect new man, and in Him, man became a new creation, 5) Salvation is a free grace of God, but it requires the human will, faith, and repentance, 6) The role of Baptism in forgiveness and new birth, 7) The role of Eucharist in sanctification and steadfastness in Christ, and 8) Salvation is accomplished in eternity at the second coming.
The next day, Sunday 8/31, started with the Holy Divine Liturgy4, ministered by Rev. Fr. Antonios Amin and Rev. Fr. Antonious Z. Samaan, pastor of St. George and St. Mercurius Coptic Church (St. Catharines, ON, Canada) who blesses our conference for the first time. Fr. Antonios Amin gave the sermon on “the end of the world” (Mark 13), and everyone attended this liturgy and had communion. After the Liturgy, the members went out to the Center gardens on the Bay front where memorial group photos* were taken (see Group Picture1 and 2).
In the afternoon, Rev. Fr. Antonios Samaan5 gave the fifth lecture of the Conference, “The Role of the Church in Salvation”. He affirmed the statement that “There is no salvation outside the Church”, and the fact that Adam and Eve failed to establish the Church on Earth. But, when Christ came in the flesh, the Church was in Him, and He was her Shepherd. After the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Church became the Shepherd of the salvation that Christ has accomplished by His incarnation, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. The Church serves this salvation to the believers as members in one body, and whoever separates himself from this body, withers and dies. Therefore, the prayers of the Church are always public and for all, and its sacraments, from Baptism and Chrismation to Repentance, Eucharist and Priesthood, are essential for salvation and its fulfillment. Her Mass is the Liturgy of salvation, and her rituals bring God to us.
The sixth lecture was by Rev. Fr. Antonios Amin6, and its topic was “Salvation in our Daily Life”. In this lecture, he emphasized that salvation is not just a dogmatic or theological issue, but its results must be reflected on our daily life in the practice of love to God and to the neighbor, worship in which we become united with God, rejection of sin and defeating it, and having a firm hope of eternal life.
The seventh lecture was by Rev. Fr. Joseph G. Chehata7, pastor of St. Anthony’s Coptic Church (Annville, PA), who blesses our conference for the first time. He talked in English on the topic, “The Second Coming of Christ and Eternal Life”. As an introduction, he quoted verses of the New Testament on this topic, then he explained that the Lord has hidden the time of His second coming (heretics have defined many dates for the resurrection of the dead, and of course they all turned to be wrong). However, the Lord has revealed certain signs that precede His second coming, as recorded in the synoptic Gospels and in Revelation. He concluded his lecture by talking about how the Church lives awaiting and longing for this hour, as reflected in her prayers, especially the mid-night service.
Rev. Fr. Antonios Amin8 concluded the lectures of Sunday with his third lecture in this conference, and its topic was “Salvation: the Law and the Grace”. He explained how the Law uncovered sin, and revealed human failure, but it did not bring salvation. It was God’s free grace that fulfilled this salvation through the death and resurrection of His Son. And we became God’s children after being slaves of sin. The grace of God was reflected on the believers through the Sacraments, which are founded on the power of the Cross, and which support their salvation and the receiving of eternal life.
The program this year included also a brief report of the activities of the Fellowship for the last year, presented by Dr. Ramzy Labib9. He reminded the members of the main targets of the Fellowship, which are: 1) Emphasizing the importance of knowing, studying and spreading the word of God: Up till now, 20 “Short Notes on the Bible”, 8 studies of “Bible Characters”, in addition to 10 issues of “The Word of Life” Bible study magazine, have been distributed with the Newsletter of the Fellowship. 2) Annual conventions, one in USA and another in Canada, for the promotion of Orthodox Biblical knowledge. 3) Publication and distribution of Orthodox spiritual books. 4) Working for Church unity, and cooperation with Fathers of other Orthodox Churches. 5) Communicating with the Mother Church, and the Orthodox centers of the world, and arranging tours to visit them. 6) Orthodox Evangelization in the West. Through its website, the message of the Fellowship reaches all countries of the world. However, there is much yet to be done, and all members should actively participate in this work.
The Program of this year included many periods of Arabic and English hymns and praises accompanied by piano, guitar, violin, and flute. Rev. Fr. Antonious Samaan, Dr. Maguid Mansour, Dr. Mona Armanios, Mr. Akmal Hanna, Mr. Tony Zacharia, and many of the youth participated in this activity, imparting a spirit of joy and revival to the sessions. Starting by the conference of next year, God willing, the program will include specified periods for Hymns, in addition to the usual free periods outside the program.
On the last day of the Convention, Monday 9/1, Dr. Nos’hy Abdel-Shahid10 gave his second lecture (the ninth, and last lecture in the program), “The Prophesies and Symbols of Salvation in the Old Testament”. Starting with the promise of God that the seed of woman will bruise the seed of the serpent, he continued to the Passover and all sacrificial offerings, the brass serpent, characters that symbolically represented Christ the Savior (such as Melchizedek, Isaac, Joseph, Jonah … etc), prophesies of Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and minor prophets until Malachi, and the testimony by John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Testament, showing that Christ is pivotal for both Testaments, the Old and the New.
After the lecture, there was a final discussion and an evaluation of the work of the Convention lead by Dr. Gamil Soliman (see endnote # 9). He summarized first the suggestions and comments of members, which they wrote in the evaluation sheets. Although members appreciated the increase in number of talks in English, yet they requested more and recommended a complete program for the youth next year, with youth attending with adults when their lectures are in English. Also, many members asked to increase the hymns and prayers periods, and longer periods for meditation and solitude. Some members noted that there was insufficient care for the young children, which calls for members to volunteer to take care of the children in alternation with each other, and for the Fellowship to ensure the availability of the required instruments and facilities. Others suggested to have a book show including books and articles relevant to the topic of the conference. Another suggestion was to utilize Friday afternoon period that precedes the conference to organize open discussion in the topic of the conference, allowing more time for all members to actively participate. Members also agreed to have the convention next year during Labor Day weekend in the Antiochian Village, and suggested the theme to be topics around: “The Christian Faith”.
N.B.: To order any or all of these tapes, please use the enclosed Response Card, and mail it with your check to SMOF, PO. Box 6192, Columbia, MD 21045. Please notice that it will take about 4-6 weeks till you receive your order.
1 - Two audiotapes (90 min. each) are available for these 2 lectures and the discussions in English language. The discussion was extended to the issues of the theological agreement between the different Orthodox Churches and the disagreements between them. As a participant in these talks, and as one who researched the original documents of the Ecumenical councils, Fr. Dragas responded in detail. From the latter source, he mentioned a passionate story about a Syrian monk who came to the 6th “Ecumenical Council” with a document from the Holy Virgin …
2 - A 90 min. audiotape in Arabic, and handouts in Arabic (6 pages) and in English (9 pages) are available for this lecture.
3 - A 90 min. audiotape in Arabic, and handouts in Arabic (8 pages) and in English (5 pages) are available for this lecture.
4 - A 90 min. audiotape in Arabic and English is available for this Liturgy.
* - Photos will be posted as links to this report on SMOF website. If you have photos for this conference that you like to post, please send them to SMOF (postal or –mail from the web site: www.mesk.com/SMOF/).
5 - A 60 min. audiotape in Arabic is available for this lecture.
6 - A 60 min. audiotape in Arabic, and handouts in Arabic (4 pages) and in English (6 pages) are available for this lecture.
7 - A 60 min. audiotape in English is available for this lecture.
8 - A 90 min. audiotape in Arabic, and handouts in Arabic (3 pages) and in English (4 pages) are available for this lecture.
9 - A 90 min. audiotape in English is available for this report and the final discussions of activities.
10 - A 90 min. audiotape in Arabic is available for this lecture.