The newly appointed Archbishop of Alexandria and Bishop of the Diocese of Egypt says one of the secrets of growing churches in a multi faith context is through education and making the church open and welcome for all.
The Most Revd Samy Fawzy, who was inaugurated into his new role at All Saints’ Cathedral in Cairo last month (June), is the first Archbishop of the new Anglican Province of Alexandria, which extends across Egypt, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Due to its geography, the new province, covering 10 African countries, has been called the gateway between the global north and south and includes Gambella in Ethiopia, where the church has seen rapid growth.
Archbishop Samy talked about how he has seen the church in his area proclaiming the good news and steadily growing over the past 30 years.
“We started with one church in Addis Ababa. And over the last 20 to 30 years, the church grew gradually to become 145 churches in the area of Gambella. And then north of Ethiopia there are many other churches, and we grew in every part of the diocese. In Egypt, we grew tremendously, not as fast as the growth in Ethiopia, but we grew in number, in maturity and understanding through a new theological school we have in Cairo and Alexandria and Upper Egypt. In the north of Africa, we have congregations in several countries, including Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria, so we grew in number in many areas.”
What is the secret of growing churches in the Province?
“Church growth is different in every place. I think one of the secrets in Egypt is education. We have a theological school where we have many young people coming to learn and then going on to do mission and ministry in different parts of the church.” He said social work and cultural work also forms part of their outreach into communities. “What we do in Egypt is much more than the number of churches because we serve the whole community.”
“In western Ethiopia there was gradual growth when people met under a tree and worshipped the Lord. Then we created a small church. We would go to another place where there would be a few Anglicans and we’d build another church. We also had a bishop living in the medical school in Gambella, and through his leadership and other leaders and clergy, it grew tremendously.”
How has the church been reaching out to the young people?
“It is so difficult to reach the younger generation now with the pressure of time, the media and the internet and it’s so difficult to convince them to come to church. But when you really have something to say, you offer a high level of education, and people know that you respect their spirituality and their intellect, this all helps. Young people come and they enjoy studying, knowing our education is some of the best. Through their studies with us, the Lord is calling young people for full time ministry.”
Economic pressures with some young people working in two different jobs and making their lives so busy and pressured is one of the barriers for young people coming to faith, according to Archbishop Samy.
“I think young people would love to be in church more than once a week, and they want to do different ministries. But if you’re so busy with work, it’s difficult. We have a training centre where we teach young people different vocations so they can sustain themselves. And we recently ran workshops in a number of poor areas. When young people come and learn video editing and photography and different things, it gives them a good income. It’s good for the church as well, because we need to move from meeting person to person to virtual church. If you speak Arabic and you’re in the Middle East, there is actually an opportunity to reach millions of people, not only in Egypt, but within the whole of the Middle East and North Africa, with the good news of Christ. So, the challenge we faced in drawing in young people has become a great opportunity, to proclaim the good news.”
Positioned in such a strategic geographic place in the world, the new Province of Alexandria, which was formerly part of the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, forms a bridge between both the Middle East and Africa.
“We still have many connections with Jerusalem and the Middle East. For one thing we are speaking Arabic and our theological education is done in Arabic. Egypt is there in the middle of the Arab world, speaking the same language, so we have grown as Christians in an Islamic context. We have a very strong relation with the Islamic world. One of the visions we have for the church in Egypt is to have a Christian Islamic centre, where we teach people how to understand the context… We are like a ‘bridge church’, having this strong relationship with the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, with the Protestant churches, and as a member of the Egypt Council of Churches. So, we do our best to become a church which welcomes relationship with other churches, and which also welcomes relationship with the Islamic culture and community.”
Living out faith within another culture is always a challenge. The Archbishop said, “If you live in an Islamic culture, you will always be challenged. People will ask you all the time, about your faith and doctrines. Egypt is very religious country, so you have people challenging you all the time. You need to know what you believe in and to dig deep into the scripture and know where you stand. So, we love our neighbours and it’s very enriching to hear their views and to talk and discuss with them.”
“Our church is open. And when people come to the church from different faiths, or different backgrounds, they’re free to come and enter the church and hear. In the cathedrals in Cairo and in Alexandria we have cultural centres, and we have hundreds of Muslims coming to the church for workshops and activities where Muslims and Christians in government can meet together and do things. It’s not threatening for them, because they know we love them. And we are really helping to build the future, through this mutual sharing and mutual work together.”
The Archbishop said bringing understanding and reconciliation between the different faiths was the aim of one of their projects. The church in Upper Egypt became involved with communities where Christians had been forced to leave their villages because of the way they were being treated by the predominantly Muslim community.
“We took Muslim young people from this village to visit one of our hospitals and some to visit our schools, and we showed them that Muslims and Christians can be human beings living together and having real friendships and relationships. They don’t have to kill each other or be living in exclusive communities. And it’s possible for Muslims and Christians to live together in peace. After three weeks of this kind of mutual meeting, they went back to the villages with their minds completely changed. So, they can share this experience with their relatives and friends in their villages.”