Interview
Creed
Freedom of Belief
9 min read

An Archbishop’s life: monasteries, martyrs and media

Archbishop Angaelos, the leader of the Coptic Church in the UK, is one of the most respected and recognisable Christian leaders in the UK and around the world. He shares his journey and that of the Middle East's largest church in conversation with Belle Tindall and Graham Tomlin.
An archbishop wearing a black hat and robes stands next to a new building's plaque, while King Charles, wearing a suit stands the other side holding a mic.
The archbishop with King Charles at the opening of a Coptic Church centre.

Archbishop Angaelos, the first Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, tells Graham Tomlin and Belle Tindall what life is like as a Coptic Orthodox monk, what makes this church so distinctive, and why, despite the harrowing danger that so many Christians are in, we should not consider them to be victims.  

We wanted to discover your background and what has led you to where you are today, yet also about the situation faced by the Coptic Orthodox Church, both here in Europe, but also in Egypt as well.

But I'm just going to start off the conversation by asking you about your own story. You were born in Cairo, in Egypt - did you also grow up there? And how did you become an Archbishop in the Coptic Orthodox Church?

By complete surprise to me. 

I was born in Egypt and we migrated as a family to Australia when I was five. I finished my education there, completed my qualifications, worked. And then I decided to go back to Egypt to join the monastery, expecting that I would live the rest of my life in, quite literally, the desert.

How old were you when you decided that? 

I was the ripe old age of twenty-two. 

And what prompted it? That’s quite an unusual decision. 

It is, I think, like any sort of ministry, a calling.

And no, there were no bright lights or big voices. But I do remember the exact moment in my room, I was doing some postgraduate studies, so I had my books surrounding me, and all of a sudden I felt this incredible calling, this feeling. I remember I closed my book, put it on the side, and never looked back.

And that was it – I was going to the life of the monastery. But then in retrospect, you realise that the calling has been happening over a long period. That's the wonderful benefit of the hindsight. So many things had been preparing me for that moment, but that's the moment when it became real.

And so, you moved back to Egypt, and you joined one of the monasteries, which of course goes back to the days of Antony, back in the second century, and that long tradition of Egyptian desert monasticism? 

I did.

The monastery is halfway between Cairo and Alexandria. And it's said that that part of wilderness was a monastic area where there were, at one stage, 10,000 monks and nuns. There were 50 major monasteries and 500 settlements. It has been there for 1,500 years, which is quite the history.

I remember one particular instance when I was there, towards the end of my time (I was there for six years before I was sent to the UK to serve), I was walking down a tunnel, a tunnel that links the back of the church with the refectory. Because, of course, monks would come from the desert, gather for Liturgy in the church, and then after they finished, would move into the refectory to break the fast. And I just had shivers down my spine. I don't know why, but for the first time, it struck me that monks had been walking up and down this tunnel for 1,500 years, and I was the latest generation of monks to do that very thing. It was just such a beautiful feeling.

There's been quite a revival of Coptic monasticism in Egypt in recent decades.

What has stimulated that revival?

It was stimulated by the late Pope Shenouda III, who was our Pope before the current Pope Tawadros II. He was a monk from the same region, the same area. He had a great love of monasticism, and really did reinvigorate monastic life through small things, such as that he ensured that his residence was in the monastery. 

He wanted the monasteries to have more of a presence in people's lives. Because, if you imagine a community that is living under persecution, they need their monasteries as a haven. I remember one particular day, it was 6th October, which is the Egyptian Day of Independence, and a public holiday. I went to the main monastery and spoke to one of the monks who looked after the guests, and he had said that on that day, 10,000 pilgrims had come through the monastery. They come in busloads from all over the country. It becomes their haven, their escape. 

Monasticism is one of the three major pillars of the Coptic Orthodox Church, along with theological teaching, and martyrology. So there is still a great space for monasticism, and we have a very specific experience of it, because we have an oversubscription of people wanting to be monks and nuns. For that reason we're constantly building monastic cells in our monasteries and our convents, to keep up with the demand.

It's quite a rigorous life. We wake up at 4am for what we call midnight praises, which are preceded by the Midnight Prayers, one of the seven offices that are prayed throughout the day: a series of psalms, Scripture readings and litanies. That will go through to about 6am, at which point there will be a Eucharistic service, and then monks go back to their cells. Those who don't have to work very early will get a little bit of sleep, others will go straight into their work. All of the monks work.

They do everything from overseeing agricultural work, to construction and maintenance. There is a workforce of about, let's say, two to three hundred, just to oversee these incredible acres of agricultural farmland. We also have livestock.

There are monks who will be responsible for guests, engineering, and so on. So, everyone has a job. It's like a city. It's a complete community.

In the evening, at sunset, we meet in church again for the evening prayers, where again, we chant the Psalms, read Scripture, and then we literally go out and walk in the desert, and just greet sunset in the desert, then come back and then do our own studies.

Do you miss being there? 

Well, I still have my cell there, because monks die to the world. You see, there are two parts of a monastic consecration service. The first half is a full funeral service, where you lie on the ground, are covered with an altar curtain, and there’s a full funeral service for you. Your old life has concluded. The second part is a joyous service where you get up, are given a new name, and are welcomed into monastic life. The monastery becomes your family. So, my cell will remain mine in my monastery until I die, because I have nowhere else to go to. It’s home. 

Tell us a little bit about the Coptic Orthodox Church, what makes it distinct?

Well, Coptic simply means Egyptian. 

Christianity has been in Egypt since the first century. In 55 AD, St Mark the Evangelist, the writer of the Gospel, went to Egypt and started preaching Christianity there.

It spread quite quickly because of the foundation of ancient Egyptian theology and mythology. In the Egyptian spirituality, you already have concepts of deities, an afterlife and of judgment. It was easy for Egyptians to absorb and accept the idea of Christ and Christianity.

Within a few centuries, Egypt became 85 per cent Christian. The church has remained there. St Mark is considered our first Pope, and we’ve had an unbroken succession of priesthood until now; so I can trace my priestly ancestry all the way back to St. Mark, and through him, to Jesus. 

We are also a very scriptural church, with the Bible is core to all things. It's also a deeply sacramental church.

While Islam and Arabization in Egypt started in the seventh century in Egypt, Christianity went back to the first century. So, our roots are in ancient Egypt.

I think that's important for us because it shows not only the longevity, but the resilience of the Christians in Egypt, who have been persecuted massively. If it wasn't Rome, it was Byzantium, the Turks, and many others. And yet the church remains strong. It still remains the largest Christian gathering in the Middle East, with  about 15 million Christians in the Egypt. 

You began talking about the reality of persecution. This always strikes me when I meet Coptic Christians. I have a Coptic friend in Jerusalem who has the cross tattooed on his wrist, as all Coptic Christians do.

Yes. It’s a proclamation of Faith and a daily witness.

And I suppose, most people’s minds go to that horrific event in 2015 when 21 Coptic Christians were lined up on the beach and beheaded by ISIS.

I just want to offer a slight correction, there were 20 Coptic Christians and one of them was a Ghanaian whose name was Matthew.

You must remember that time. Do you remember where you were when you heard that and what your reactions were and what were your feelings around that time? 

Absolutely. The Libya martyrs were pivotal in my life.

You were talking about tattooed Coptic crosses, I have one on my right wrist on the inside of the wrist, if you imagine palm facing up.

I didn't have one originally because I grew up in Australia. I had it done in 2015 after the Libya martyrs because I was so moved by their story and I was so moved by their witness. And so this was done in memory of that.

I remember it very well. I was visiting a family and over the course of the day, we were receiving lots of communications backwards and forwards that these men, who had been kidnapped and we didn't know where they were, had died. The Egyptian foreign ministry said they had died. Then they said they hadn't. There was confusion all day.

And then I finally got a call around 8pm from a news organisation to say that there was a video.

I remember jumping in my car and driving. I stopped along the way because I thought people wanted to know. I posted on my Twitter account that it had been confirmed that these men had died, and that we were praying for their families and communities.

I don't know why, but I felt compelled to write ‘father forgive’ at the end of my message. It's just what I felt. I went and did this interview, and the interviewer asked - how can you talk about forgiveness? How does a Coptic bishop, who sees this happen to his spiritual children, talk about forgiveness? Quite simply, that's really what we've been taught by our church: forgiveness, resilience, and reconciliation. 

I remember, during the next 24 hours, I must have done something like 36 back-to-back interviews between television, radio and press, and the whole conversation became about forgiveness.

Even right up to today, it's remarkable how much the witness of these men has touched so many lives. 

We can spend a lot of our Christian lives only pondering the hypothetical. And yet, some of the real tenets of Christianity are laser sharp for those who face persecution. They're focused and their witness is vibrant. Those of us who don't have pressure put on us for our faith have so much to learn from them about the preciousness and resilience of our faith. 

This has been the story of Christianity since the beginning, since our Lord Jesus Christ himself walked on this earth. He was rejected and persecuted. He was captured, tortured, killed, and so that is our story. It's one of carrying that cross, but carrying the cross comes with grace.

One thing concerns me sometimes - when we speak of Christians who are persecuted, we speak of them as victims. The language we use is ‘survivors’, not ‘victims’. Christian communities have survived, and survived incredibly well, with great courage and grace.

Explainer
Creed
Faith
6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  

Watch

The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.