Today, as part of my work on my university’s research committee, I attended admissions and scholarship meetings in St. Athanasius College, Melbourne. St. Athanasius (www.sac.edu.au) is a Coptic community in diaspora and a very vibrant part of the ecumenical scene in which I work. The college has recently relocated to stunning new facilities in a downtown Melbourne skyscraper, Eporo Tower. After our meeting, my colleague Glen O’Brien, a Uniting Church minister who teaches at the Salvation Army’s Eva Burrows College—and who is author of the notable Christian Worship: A Theological and Historical Introduction (Melbourne: Uniting Academic Press, 2013)—and I were pleased to visit the college chapel, where we were shown around and engaged in conversation by Fr. Guirguis (George), a priest in the community.
SAC’s chapel space is lavish: focused by stunning icons, foregrounding key scriptural texts, surrounded by vivid glasswork, incorporating woodwork imported from the community’s beloved Egypt, and—somewhat to my surprise—filled with pews. Guirguis explained that though pews are not a longstanding feature of Orthodox worship, and the divine liturgy involves for those who can, long periods of standing (and bowing), pews became commonplace in many Coptic churches through the twentieth century. More striking again than the seats for the assembly was the presider’s chair: in a community with affinity to the Evangelist Mark, the presider’s seat is marked by magnificent carvings of lions.
The chapel is open for liturgical celebrations at least three times a week, and Guirguis spoke movingly of its vocation to be “a place where God’s name is remembered” in the heart of the city.
Photos of the chapel, Glen O’Brien and Fr. Guirgus by Stephen Burns. Photos including Stephen Burns by Fr. Guirguis.