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January 28, 2012

The Missionary Patriarchate of Alexandria

Andrei Zolotov, Jr.
January 26, 2012
Ria Novosti

The Thirteenth Apostle was in town earlier this week. The Judge of the Whole Universe. I am not kidding. His name is Theodoros II, and he is the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa.

His full title is a bit of a going joke among the knowing: His Most Divine Beatitude the Pope and Patriarch of the Great City of Alexandria, Libya, Pentapolis, Ethiopia, all the land of Egypt, and all Africa, Father of Fathers, Shepherd of Shepherds, Prelate of Prelates, thirteenth of the Apostles, and Judge of the Œcumene (inhabited Greco-RomanUniverse). A bit too much for the head of the ever dwindling Hellenic community of Egypt and neighboring countries, not to be confused with the Coptic Pope, who bears a similar title but leads Egypt’s much greater indigenous Christian community, which broke away from the Greek Orthodox Church in the 5th century over Christological and political differences.

That could well be just one of those anachronistic tributes to the Golden Age, whenever one can find it, that people in the Orthodox Church are so fond of – after all Alexandria was indeed the second most important city in the Roman Empire. If it wasn’t for the remarkable missionary outreach into the black, sub-Saharan Africa that turned the Patriarchate of Alexandria into one of the fastest growing and most actively evangelizing churches in the world! And if the Western Christian mission in Africa has been vividly described, vastly romanticized on the one hand, and criticized as a part of the European colonialism on the other, the Eastern Christian mission, both by the Greeks and by the Copts, both taking place largely in the late colonial and post-colonial era and to a large extent based on indigenous quest by native Africans, remains tremendously underresearched and underreported.

Patriarch Theodoros was in Moscow to receive the prestigious award from the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, and the Foundation for the Unity of the Orthodox Peoples, which he shared with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and the world’s number one tennis player – and apparently a church benefactor, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic. He also presided over a glorious service last Sunday at the Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Russian Patriarch Kirill made clear that he honors his “senior brother” in the unruly family of Orthodox patriarchs not only for his missionary efforts, but also as a token of solidarity with Christians in Egypt and elsewhere, who are suffering attacks from radical Muslims. “We are praying today for the Christians of Africa, especially Northern Africa, where Christian blood is being spilled now, but not only for them,” said Patriarch Kirill addressing Patriarch Theodoros. “We know that in the countries of Central Africa, Christians are being killed, sometimes whole villages are being annihilated because the very fact of a Christian preaching appears to someone untimely, superfluous and even dangerous… After visiting Moscow, you will go on a missionary trip to 14 countries, including those where Christians are being killed. We will be praying for you.”

The pomposity of the hierarchical liturgy somehow makes it hard to imagine Patriarch Theodoros playing the drum in a Madagascar village or surrounded by ritual dancers in Cameroon. But in his acceptance speech in Moscow, he made it all clear: “When I leave this world, I would like to be remembered as a missionary Patriarch,” he said.

It was only in the 20th century, and particularly since the 1950s, that the mission to Black Africa began in earnest. Both the first President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, and the present Archbishop of Albania Anastasios spent time as missionaries in Kenya and Uganda – the countries with the largest Orthodox presence in sub-Saharan Africa. Another towering figure in this effort was Patriarch Petros VII (1996-2004) who increased the number of dioceses and spearheaded a major missionary campaign in areas previously untouched until his dramatic death, together with three bishops and his brother, in a helicopter crash en route to Mount Athos.

I remember interviewing Patriarch Petros in Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare in 1998. When asked about the pompous ancient title, he appeared to have some weary embarrassment, as if he is often asked about it. “It is a tribute to an old tradition, and we only use it rarely in a liturgical context,” he said.

The numbers of Orthodox Christians in Africa is a big unknown. It is known that there are presently 21 archdioceses and 4 dioceses in the Church. Only two out of 27 active bishops are black. But the majority of clergy are native and locally trained in African seminaries. The total number of Orthodox Christians in Africa is estimated to have grown in the past 20 years from 200,000 to 1.5 million. Some sources speak of several million members, but it is impossible to verify any figures. What is important is that the growth is out there.

What is also remarkable is how this church combines in its worship the Greek, Russian and local cultural forms such as instruments and dance unheard of, if not to say an anathema in more traditional Orthodox cultures. The video of an Easter celebration in Ghana went viral last year among the world’s Orthodox Christians precisely for that reason – the dynamism and enthusiasm so long lost in our crystallized ritual. In a sign of a growing interest in Russia, a popular Russian Orthodox magazine Foma (Thomas) published a report about the life of a parish in Kenya which generated a large response from readers.

“In my view, this is probably the most interesting phenomenon within the 'Orthodox world' in the twenty-first century, and one that is very little known and even less understood,” Irina Papkova, the associate professor of political science at Central European University in Budapest said in an email interview. Papkova is also launching a research project on African Orthodox Christianity. “I think that it is important because of the ways in which Africans are adopting Orthodoxy. They are accepting the content of Orthodoxy, but they are transforming the form, which shows to us really that common images of Orthodoxy as a completely rigid, traditionalist religion are not accurate. There is plenty of space within the faith for creative transformation, at least as far as the form of outward worship is concerned. This is really important for us to remember, as Orthodox populations in Europe and Russia in particular are struggling with the question of how Orthodoxy fits with (post)modernity and whether it is heretical or not to adapt certain non-dogmatic aspects of worship (such as language) to contemporary cultural conditions.”

When one sees what is happening in Africa, it is impossible not to be inspired by the absolute purity of faith with which the people of Ghana, Kenya, etc. are accepting Orthodox Christianity. The joy that one sees in their liturgical celebrations is something quite different from the solemnity that tends to overwhelm congregations in other Orthodox contexts. You get the sense that the Africans are experiencing communion with Christ immediately, here and now, and that's a powerful experience we more ‘hereditary’ Orthodox should perhaps learn from."