Drinking spiritual, theological and cultural traditions from their source

John Stayne, who was one of the first successful applicants to The Bill Snelson Young Ecumenists Fund, reflects on his ecumenical experience in Egypt.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is a Christian tradition which has greatly blessed me over the years. Be it the beautiful neo-Coptic iconography, or certain critical elements of their theology. The inspiring figure of Pope St. Kyrillos VI, and the tremendously moving witness of their martyrs. It was, indeed, during a Coptic liturgy in London some seven years ago that an ecumenical vocation first awoke within me. All this being the case, when a friend and fellow doctoral student at Durham University (who, not inconsequentially, happened to be a Coptic monk) suggested a visit to Egypt, I immediately seized upon the idea. This was able to be realised in December 2023, both thanks to my friend’s contacts and thanks to the support given by The Bill Snelson Young Ecumenists Fund.

It was a rather short visit – only two full days – yet it remains difficult to adequately sum up. There were key moments, of course: the visiting of two monasteries and some key sites related to the life of St Kyrillos. Spending some time with a centre run by the charity Stephen’s Children. Attending a New Year’s Eve celebration in the Cathedral of St. Mark presided over by Pope Tawadros II. And meeting with (the noted spiritual figure) Fr Raphael Ava Mina. This event was a personal highlight. Hearing him speak of St Kyrillos (who had been his spiritual father) and having him pray with me and for me. But it was also surprisingly affecting to just be around someone who has lived prayer so deeply and for so long.

Fr Raphael Ava Mina and John Stayne
Fr Raphael Ava Mina and John Stayne

There are other moments still less easy to quantify. The sense gained across the days through conversations. Hearing about the country, and what life is like for the Christian community today. But not just hearing but also seeing. Seeing children show the cross tattoo adorning their wrists to armed police so as to be let into a church. And through it all, the expectant faith of the people, and the stories of provision and miracles that they regularly share.

‘These days will stay with me for the rest of my life’

The visit was a pilgrimage. It was a time of ecumenical learning. It was an opportunity to establish new inter-church relationships and to strengthen those already present. And, it was a privilege. It genuinely felt (and still feels) as though I was allowed to drink, so to speak, of the respective spiritual, theological, and cultural traditions from their source. To get to know the Coptic Orthodox church almost as closely as one could, given the limits imposed by time and denomination, from the inside. These days will stay with me for the rest of my life.

It was a privilege for which I am deeply grateful to members of the Egyptian Coptic community for allowing me to experience and to the Bill Snelson Fund for its financial support. I look forward to seeing all the fruits, both personal and (hopefully) academic and institutional that the trip will help bring – and even more so, those from all the other trips this Fund will support.

John Stayne is completing a doctoral thesis in theology at Durham University supervised by Profs Paul D. Murray and Karen Kilby. The thesis seeks to articulate a more charismatic Catholic ecclesiology in part by engaging the pneumatological critiques offered by Pentecostal and Orthodox theologians. John is a former teaching assistant at Durham and has also taught on the (Roman Catholic) Northern Diaconal Formation Program. He was on the coordinating committees of the Society for Ecumenical Studies (2022-23) and currently serves on a number of different ecumenical bodies and steering groups related to either Pentecostals and charismatics, or the Christian East. 

Photo credits: All photos © John Stayne