The Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, the Revd Canon Dr Stephen Spencer, experiences Arabic-speaking Anglicans while on a visit to Egypt.
Cairo is dusty and energetic with cars and buses endlessly interweaving on the roads pushing each other out of the way. It’s alarming to see pedestrians walk into the middle of this free-for-all, but somehow they seem to get to the other side. The number of unfinished buildings is astonishing, of crumbling concrete and brick, jammed together with no greenery between, but the open spaces around the edge of the city have water pumped into them from the Nile and are green and fruitful.
Hazy sunshine beats down all through the day, the haze no doubt from the unrelenting traffic (Cairo never sleeps, according to my driver), but the dust is a reminder that the Sahara desert is not far away with its vast emptiness.
As I arrive and see Arabic on every road sign and advert I assume I am in a Muslim country. Minarets break up the sky line of the city confirming this impression. But crosses are also visible, on Coptic churches dotted throughout the city, and they are a reminder that Egypt has greater diversity and tolerance than most other Muslim countries in the Middle East.
But the Coptic Church is still exotic compared to European Christianity, and its visibility in Cairo does not prepare me for the shock I am about to experience at the Alexandria School of Theology.
This is a non-residential theological college that meets at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Cairo and at a couple of other venues. Its students are male ordinands (women are not ordained in the Diocese of Egypt) and other female and male students. It has a small staff and draws on a range of outside speakers.
In many ways it reminds me of St Hild College, Mirfield, my previous employer, because of its size and non-residential nature. Students have to balance studies with jobs and home life and do not find it an easy option.
Bishop Samy Shehata the principal runs a flexible and high quality institution that sits firmly at the Evangelical end of Anglicanism. When I arrived and was welcomed by him I was made to feel at home, and I began my lecture with some questions for discussion with the students.
My shock came when the discussion began. For here were Christian men and women, clergy as well as others, talking about their faith in Arabic. This is a language I had assumed was linked with Islam but here it was being used as a medium for Christianity. I was confused because they were referring to God as Allah, but it became clear that Allah was the Father of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit.
My parochialism was laid bare: I had not been prepared for the way they were using Arabic to discuss the Bible and the creeds and the sacraments and what it means to belong to the Anglican Communion and to be the inheritors of a tradition coming from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Tudor England! How bizarre it all seemed.
Here was the Christian faith within the distinctive and quirky Anglican tradition being embraced and promoted by Arabic speaking Egyptians. What a wondrous thing the Anglican Communion can be! But it is wondrous because members of one part of it like me could be so unaware and ignorant of how Anglicans in other parts of the world embrace it in their own cultures and languages.
And, as I think forwards to the Lambeth Conference – and beyond – I am struck by how important it is to hear voices from right across the Anglican Communion – north, south, east and west. The diversity of experience and wisdom is a wonderful resource for our global family – strengthening, encouraging and deepening our faith.
Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS), October 16, 2018