Report on the Ninth Annual Convention of
St. Mark’s Orthodox Fellowship
September 3rd – 6th, 2004
The Ninth Annual Conference was held this time in the Antiochian Village Retreat Center (Ligonier, PA), which is desirable by many members, despite its location away from major airports and highways, because of its unique facilities and its beautiful Orthodox Chapel. About 90 members attended this year, many of them for the first time. They came from Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Florida, besides a large number coming from Canada (Toronto, Ontario) and Egypt.
As promised last year, a parallel conference for the youth was successfully held this year by providing lectures in English in a separate room at times of Arabic lectures in the main program. Also, there was a chance for members attending the conference to meet and socialize with each other, and with all speakers in the conference throughout all the evening of Friday 9/3, right after registration and assignment of their rooms.
The Convention started 9:00 am with a liturgical prayer lead by Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko (Orthodox Church in America), Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir Theological Seminary, NY, who attends our conference for the first time. This was followed by a brief talk by Dr. Gamil Soliman on the theme of this year’s convention, “The Christian Faith”, and an exposition of the program, which includes different aspects of this broad and lively topic. These start with the essentials of Christian faith as outlined in the Holy Bible and defined in the Creed, followed by the manifestations of true faith: enjoying salvation and new life, preaching Christ to others, and in practical life: manifestations of faith in worship and daily life, the founding of a Christian home, interactions of parents and children, factors that enhance faith and factors that make it wither, and finally, the role of faith in dealing with temptations and sufferings.
The four lectures of the first day included two by Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko: The first was on “Faith and Preaching”(1), followed by the second on “Faith and Church Unity”. In his first lecture, Fr. Hopko pointed out that faith is not just thinking or believing, but it is deeper than that such as you can give it all your life. Jesus Christ is the subject of faith and the center of life. In our preaching we have to realize that: (1) Faith does not contradict reason and knowledge, but leads to knowledge and knowledge leads to faith. Thomas for example, after doubting, he believed when he touched and saw (forms of knowledge, John 20:28), and Peter when he insisted to stay with the Lord declares that “we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:96). In the Orthodox thought, the facts in which we believe are not irrational and unreasonable metaphysical revelations, but they can be proven and explained. (2) Faith requires will, and without will the chance to believe can be missed although it is available, as in the people of Jerusalem whom Christ wanted to save and He wept for them because they “were not willing” (Mt. 23:37). (3) Faith and love are profoundly related, for you have faith in the person you love, and you love whom you believe in (God who loved you first). (4) Faith needs adventurous courage; the lazy and double-minded will not accept faith. (5) Faith needs meekness: submission to the word of God and the work of the Savior.
He also pointed to the error, into which many slip in their preaching, alluring people to faith by teaching them that God will reward them with all their wishes in a life that is happy, successful and rich with earthly blessings. We don’t believe in God for rewards and deny His existence if we don’t receive them. The three young men who refused to obey the king even if their God did not save them from the king’s punishment (Dan. 3:18) illustrate the Orthodox faith.
In his second lecture(2), Fr. Hopko discussed the topic, “Faith and Church Unity” which is Christ’s desire and the hope of all faithful Christians. He listedthe difficulties facing unity, whether they relate to acceptable theological expressions or exchanged “anthemas” between the different Churches. In addition, the division of the Eastern and Western Churches was provoked by historical and political factors and accumulated painful experiences, which could not be overcome in various reconciliatory meetings. But we should not give up, and perhaps if the unity could be achieved between the two Orthodox families, as their theological differences regarding the Nature of Christ has been minimized, then this may be a beginning that encourages further efforts to achieve unity with other Churches. After this introduction, Fr. Hopko responded to all the questions of the attendants regarding church unity.
The third lecture Saturday was on “The Essentials of Christian Faith” by Dr. Nos’hy Abdel-Shahid(3), director of the Center for Patristic Studies in Cairo, who talks in our conference for the seventh consecutive year. He pointed to the fact that the Nicene Creed did not just start in the Council of Nicea, 325 AD (as many think), but it was included in the Canons of the Apostles (first century) and the early Church Fathers (Irenaeus, 170; Tertullian, 200; Cyprian, 250; Origen, 230; Novatian, 250 … as described in the distributed tables). Then he discussed in detail the Nicene Creed regarding the Father and the Son, who is one in essence with Him, then its continuation in the Council of Constantinople (381), regarding the Holy Spirit, the life giving Lord, who proceeds from the Father, … the Church … baptism … and the resurrection of the dead …
The fourth lecture was by Rev. Fr. Antonios Amin(4), pastor of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Heliopolis, Cairo, who blesses our convention for the sixth consecutive year. This lecture came after Vespers, and its topic was “Faith, Worship, and Daily Behavior”. It included different aspects of worship such as prayer, the word of God, repentance and communion, and aspects of daily life such as committing life to God, forgiveness, love, and prudence.
Next day, Sunday 9/5, the program started with the Holy Divine Liturgy, ministered by Fr. Antonios Amin, and Fr. Antonios Samaan, pastor of St. George and St. Marcorios Coptic Church (St. Katherines, Ontario, Canada), who blesses our conference for the second consecutive year. Fr. Antonios Amin delivered the sermon on “the Feeding of the Multitudes”. Visitors as well as all Conference registrants attended the Liturgy, and all were urged to receive communion. After Liturgy, all members went out to the Village gardens where memorial group photos(*) were taken (click here for Photo).
Dr. Nos’hy Abdel-Shahid delivered his second lecture for the Conference in the afternoon, and its topic was “Faith, Salvation and New Life”(5). It is by faith that we receive the salvation from sin and death that has been accomplished for us by the Lord. In St. Cyril’s teachings, salvation, both at present and in the future, includes the two faces of justification: a negative one, i.e. forgiveness of sin and new birth, and a positive one, i.e. sanctification, and these faces are inseparable. Also, we are justified freely by the grace of Christ, and even the yearning for righteousness is a gift of the Father. The role of man is to truly believe, i.e. to have a living faith joined to repentance and love. Faith and love (i.e. works) are tightly associated together as two faces of one coin. In sanctification comes the work of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Eucharist, making us partakers of the divine nature, as we abide in Christ and He abides in us.
The sixth lecture in the conference was by Rev. Fr. Antonios Amin(6) on “Faith and the Christian Home”. He talked about how faith plays the primary role in choice of the partner, relation between the spouses, and relations with the children. Our guide is the word of the Bible which should be obeyed and which guarantees stability of the Christian home, its progress and protection from falling apart, or slipping into the worldly streams.
The seventh lecture was on “Faith: How it grows and how it withers” by Rev. Fr. Antonios Samaan(7). He mentioned these points that help faith to grow: (1) Previous experience with God, (2) Thankful endurance of sufferings, (3) Worship, (4) Contemplating the creation, (5) Fear of God, and (6) Friendship of the saints; and those that make faith wither: (1) Self confidence, (2) Living by materialistic wisdom, (3) Neglecting worship, (4) Evil company, and (5) Seeking Satanic help.
Also on Sunday, the proceedings of the Conference included Report on the Fellowship’s Activities during the last year, submitted by Dr. Ramzy Labib(8), reminding us of the Fellowship’s purpose, the extension of its conferences in Canada, and, this year, in Michigan. The Fellowship continues its openness to Clergy of the sister Orthodox Churches in its efforts to promote Church Unity. In its efforts for preaching in Western Countries, a project to distribute freely the Gospel of St. Luke together with the Book of Acts was proposed. Together, these two books offer a more complete life of our Lord on Earth as well as the establishment of His Church in the world in fulfillment of His promises. Through its web page and its Yahoo Group, the Fellowship continues to spread its message to all places in our world.
Time for Hymns and praises, in English and Arabic, was remarkably increased this year. It extended almost to all the free time periods, and after the last lecture every day. Music accompanied these hymns, using piano, violin and guitars. Fr. Antonios Amin, Fr. Antonios Samaan, Mr. Akmal Hanna, Dr. Mona Armanios, and sisters Myriam and Sherry Samaan participated in leading this activity, in addition to groups of young people, adding a spirit of joy and spiritual refreshment to our Conference.
The eighth and last lecture was on Monday, 9/6, on “Faith and Endurance of Sufferings” by Rev. Fr. Antonios Samaan(9). In this lecture, Fr. Samaan brought forward the fact that sufferings are the road of the kingdom, and that faith, while it does not stop tribulations, it removes from them all negative effects. Our faith in the ever-victorious Lord, and our keeping of the word of God and confidence in its powerfulness are our weapons during temptations. They enable us to pass the tribulation safely, and with stronger faith contrary to what the tempter wanted for us.
After the lecture, broad closing discussions and conference evaluation started, moderated by Dr. Gamil Soliman(8), who started by listing the suggestions and comments of the members as written in the evaluation forms. A predominant request was to increase the proportions of lectures and hymns in English to encourage attendance of the youth. Also, diversification among speakers and organization of activities for children were requested. The latter, evidently, requires active participation of parents and volunteers to supervise them in alternation.
Some of the members commented that the number of the conference attendants should have been bigger to benefit of such an important program, and suggested to broaden the scope of the topics to attract more attendants. However, the conclusion of the discussions was that it is better for the Fellowship to stick to its goals of promoting the Orthodox Knowledge of the Bible, rather than diverting to other goals such as problems of marriage, family, children, and work place, which can be also discussed in the conferences as a part of the broader spiritual topics through the Biblical understanding.
Regarding next conference place, some suggested alternate places every year, such as the Midwest and East coast, or somewhere in between, so that the members drive more reasonable distances. Regarding its topic, the choices converged to one of the following two: 1- The Kingdom of God, 2- The Holy Bible and Modern Time Issues.
The Conference concluded at noon with thanksgiving prayer, and the members greeted each other hoping to meet again in the next conference.
(1) A 90 min. audiotape in English is available for this lecture.
(2) A 60 min. audiotape in English is available for this lecture.
(3) A 90 min. audiotape in Arabic, and handouts in Arabic (4 pages) and tables comparing the different ancient Christian creeds in English (3 pages) are available for this lecture.
(4) A 90 min. audiotape in Arabic, and handouts in Arabic (8 pages) and in English (6 pages) are available for this lecture.
(5) A 60 min. audiotape in Arabic, and handouts in Arabic (3 pages) are available for this lecture.
(6) A 90 min. audiotape in Arabic, and handouts in Arabic (5 pages) and in English (4 pages) are available for this lecture.
(7) A 60 min. audiotape in Arabic, and handouts in Arabic (2 pages) and in English (3 pages) are available for this lecture.
(8) A 90 minute audiotape is available for this report and the closing discussions of activities in English and Arabic.
(9) A 60 minute audiotape in Arabic is available for this lecture.