The Melkite Parish in London
The head of the Melkite Church is the Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, and his official residence is in Damascus, Syria. The current Patriarch is His Beatitude Youssef Absi, who visited our Melkite parish in London on 6-11 February 2019. The Melkites mainly consist of Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians and a small number of Egyptian people. In the West, however, there is an increasing number of non-Middle Eastern people joining the Melkite Church. Owing to emigration, there are now approximately as many Melkites in the West as there are in the home territories. Nonetheless, it is the largest Catholic community in Syria and Palestine, and the second largest in Lebanon. The Melkite Church is also called the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, because of its strong links with the Byzantine Greek tradition and the Roman Catholic Church.
2- The Beginning of the Saint John Chrysostom Parish – Melkite Church in London
During his visit to London in November 1989, His Beatitude Maximos V Hakim, the Melkite Patriarch, was urged by the Council of the Melkite Greek Catholic Association – UK to appoint Father Shafiq Abouzayd as a parish priest for the Melkites in London. The Patriarch’s immediate response to the suggestion was positive, and Father Shafiq Abouzayd celebrated his first Melkite mass for the Melkites in Greater London on Christmas Day 1989. Meanwhile, His Beatitude Maximos V Hakim, the Melkite Patriarch, informed the local Catholic authority in London about his appointment and requested their permission. His Excellency Cardinal Basil Hume was delighted at the Patriarch’s initiative, and so encouraged Father Shafiq in his mission to found a new Melkite parish in Greater London.
Father Shafiq named the new Melkite parish after Saint John Chrysostom, and his initiative was approved by His Beatitude Maximos V Hakim and His Beatitude Gregorius III Lahham. The initial work of foundation was difficult, for the number of the Melkites in London was very small – only about 50 people (including children). Celebrating the liturgy on Sunday gathered no more than 15 people. However, we were all aware that the number of the Melkites in London was much higher, with claims that there existed at least 200 Melkite people in Greater London. For Father Shafiq Abouzayd, the challenge was to find the lost sheep of his Melkite flock. He started by compiling statistics from his parish and visited each family at home, and from there people directed him to the other Melkite families.
In 1994, after four years of hard work, Father Shafiq gathered around him around 300 Melkites, including children: a huge increase from the 50 parishioners in 1989. The number of Melkites in London has started picking up since 1991, and since 1995 it is usual for more than 600 people to participate in the major events of our Melkite parish, such as Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. Moreover, more than 100 people have started to attend the Sunday liturgy regularly. While this is cause for celebration within the church, we must not forget the half-heartedness that the new Melkite parish Father Shafiq encountered. He spent a long time trying to encourage people to join their Melkite parish, especially considering that most of them have never been to any oriental or Roman Catholic churches before.
3- An Oriental Parish in London: The Diaspora
It is very difficult to establish a new oriental parish in a big city like London. The Melkite diaspora covers the whole of Greater London, and the parish priest is required to travel to every corner of the city in order to assemble his flock. An English priest in London — Anglican or Catholic — is free of these geographical difficulties, because his parish is confined to one small area. He is therefore able to visit most of his parishioners on foot, and the attendance of the Sunday mass is usually quite high. This is a privilege not afforded to our oriental diaspora, as the circumstances are completely different. As a result, none of the Eastern Christian priests is able to visit all of his parishioners in their homes on a regular basis. A dynamic Eastern priest is unable to visit more than two families a day because of the distance between different locations in Greater London, and most visits must take place in the evenings or at the weekends. Moreover, the priest has many other things to do in his parish: counselling, weddings, baptisms, funerals, administrative work,
and the parish activities for lay Christians.
Details of the number of our Melkite parishioners are almost complete in the parish archives. There are now 961 Melkites in Greater London, including children. This number represents at least 98% of Melkites within the area of Greater London.
4- The Multi-cultural Identity & the English Liturgy
The Melkite parish in London is a multi-cultural community, though Arabs still represent more than 85% of our parishioners.
Many of our parishioners are married to British people who represent 4% of our Melkite flock, and 7% are married to people from different countries, namely Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Lithuania, Ukraine, Croatia, Russia, USA, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, China, Korea, Japan, and India.
Given the international mixture of our Melkite community in London, English will become the main language of our liturgy before the end of the next decade. In order to prepare for this, we have already started the introduction of English language into our current liturgy, in order to
help non-Arabs take part in our liturgical celebrations. Moreover, Father Shafiq has already produced bilingual leaflets for the main liturgical events
such as Lent, Holy Thursday, Holy Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, Epiphany, and the feasts of the Holy Virgin. These leaflets supply the liturgical prayers in their original Arabic language with an English translation. Father Shafiq has also introduced a system of transliteration into hymns, in order to help non-Arab readers to sing our liturgical chants in Arabic. Most Melkites would like to keep the Arabic language in their liturgy, and therefore, the system of transliteration will help to protect one important pillar of the Melkite cultural identity: the Arabic language. It is a great help to most Melkites, who were obliged to flee the violence in the Middle East and feel at home when they pray in their mother tongue, Arabic.
Another move towards the use of English is carried out by Fr. Robert Gibbons, who fulfils his role within the Arabic liturgy mainly in English. Also, Father Shafiq, who preaches in Arabic, makes a brief summary of his homily in English for the sake of the non-Arabs who are attending the Arabic liturgy and occasionally gives a homily in English to the Arabic Melkite flock, in order to remind them of the presence of non-Arabs in our church.
Finally, we organise several social meetings for different cultural groups in our Melkite parish, in order to help each nationality of our Melkite flock to get together and to celebrate its own folklore and cultural tradition.
5- The Visit of His Royal Highness Prince Charles
Our Melkite parish was greatly honoured by the visit from His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, on 19th December 2017 at 1:30pm, and we are very grateful for his care and attention to our Melkite Community in London.
The letter of Abouna Shafiq to HRH Prince Charles on 21st December 2017:
Your Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, The Clergy and Parishioners of the Melkite Parish of St Barnabas would like to thank you for your wonderful visit to our parish. Our people were delighted that you had come to us and we have had many words of thanks for such a special occasion. It was and will always remain an historical and truly memorable day in the life of our parish and for this we are very grateful to you and for the care and concern you have shown to us all. We will continue to remember you and the Royal family in our prayers.
Our parishioners were moved by your uplifting words, many people have telephoned to express their gratitude but also to say that your support and presence has given them both hope in the situations our Middle Eastern Christian communities find themselves and a sense that they though they are immigrants they are wanted and respected.
We are aware that many of our people came to the United Kingdom because of persecution and violence, many have now settled and try to integrate themselves into British life, whilst keeping alive the love of their own homeland by their traditional religious observances. Your visit
has done much to help them feel they are not forgotten but a part of our society in Great Britain! Our Melkite Church is a sign of the origins of Christianity and a witness to the suffering of the Eastern Churches which continues today. It is also a reminder that the three great faiths of
Abraham have not always been enemies, but neighbours and friends. Your presence and supporting words have helped remind our people they aren’t forgotten, you have made them feel protected, that are not alone and have a valuable part to play in witnessing to our Christian faith
in this country.
Your visit has strengthened our relationship with our Anglican communities, but also re-committed us to continue bridge building between the various Christian groups and also with Islam. It has also been an important sign for Christians and peoples of good will in our countries of the Middle East particularly in Syria. We will continue to pray for you and for your work as Prince of Wales, and we wish you a blessed Christmas and a peaceful 2018.
6- The Elevation of Fr. Shafiq to the Rank of an Archimandrite
His Beatitude Patriarch Yousef Absi bestowed on Abouna Shafiq the title of an Archimandrite (Monsignor), and his representative Archbishop Issam Darwish, the Metropolitan of Zahle (Lebanon), elevated Fr. Shafiq Abouzayd to the rank of an Archimandrite during the Melkite liturgy at St Barnabas (London) at 12 noon on Sunday 16th September, 2018. 7- Visits of our Melkite Families Father Shafiq visits his parishioners every week at their homes, especially on weekends. However,it is impossible to make more than five visits every week, because of other duties and activities in the parish and so Father Shafiq is quite selective in his visits, and usually chooses those most in need of a visit, that they may be able to discuss their problems, or to celebrate a special event in their homes, such as a birthday, or a family gathering. He also pays special attention to any new families in the parish, who receive an immediate visit from him in order that he may greet their family members, and welcome them to the parish, adding them to the list of parishioners.
8- Social Media Role
Much of our pastoral work is carried out through electronic communication. We have collected all the mobile numbers and email addresses of all parishioners, and use these to send them weekly updates. We have also created a monthly electronic Newsletter, which details all parish events and is sent to our parishioners at the beginning of each month. These forms of communication are permitting us to send out weekly readings of the Bible and different chants and prayers from our Byzantine liturgy.
Needless to say that this has greatly contributed to the unity of our scattered flock all over Greater London, and it is one of the best ways to keep our people connected to their Melkite priests.
9- Sunday Liturgy
The Sunday liturgy, or simply the Sunday mass, is always celebrated at St. Barnabas church at 12 noon. The Sunday liturgy is the focal point of our weekly activities. It is like a thermometer, which measures the level of our parishioners’ commitment to their parish in London. Although some people who are committed to the Melkite parish activities do not attend the Sunday mass regularly, most attend at least once a month.
10- Choirs and Music
There are four different choirs in our parish.
– Abouna Shafiq has taught the Melkite parishioners Byzantine chants every Sunday since the beginning of our parish in London to sing the Melkite liturgy at Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and other important feasts for the Holy Virgin, the Holy Cross, and several important saints.
– The Byzantine choir, which sings the Byzantine liturgy every Sunday together with the whole congregation, is led by Fr. Shafiq and Mr. Marc Younan.
– The small choir led by Mrs. Manal Barakat-Bahri occasionally sings the new chants composed by the different Christian groups in Lebanon.
– The children choir aims to teach our children the Church chants in Arabic, in order to teach them the Arabic language through song. It is led by the musicologist George Dargham and the Arabic teacher Mrs. Najwa Banna. The children choir forms an integral part of our Sunday School, and it rehearses every Sunday at our church at 1pm after the mass.
11- Children’s Birthdays
The special focus on children’s birthdays forms an important part of our Sunday assembly. Each child is informed prior to his/her birthday, and the parents are invited to bring a birthday cake with them to the church. After mass, all the parishioners go the church hall for coffee, and at that time we celebrate the birthday. The priest offers a present to the child, which is normally a religious book suitable for his/her age-group. Almost every Sunday there is more than one birthday in our parish. This activity has increased attendance by parishioners at the Sunday mass, and has also increased interest in the parish among the children.
12- Exhibition of Icons
Our Melkite parish hosts the exhibition of Byzantine icons, which is organised by the British Association of Iconographers, on the first Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, at St. Barnabas church. Most iconographers exhibit their icons at St. Barnabas church for one day, and they end their exhibition with the celebration of the Melkite vespers. Also, our parishioners, as well as the iconographers, are invited to share a lunch in the church hall after the liturgy. Fr. Robert Gibbons is in charge of this activity.
13- Home Agape Prayer Group
The Fraternity of Our Lady was launched during 1999, and its aim is to pray the rosary at home. People get together once a week in different areas of London to perform the rosary in front of the Byzantine icon of Our Lady. After the prayer, the presiding priest begins a new spiritual lesson to teach them some important elements of our Christian faith. Finally, the meeting ends up with a simple Agape meal to conclude our gathering in joy and brotherly love.
This kind of religious activity is very popular in the Middle East, which intends to encourage Christians to dedicate their families to the Holy Virgin, and it has become one of our most important spiritual activities in London.
Our Melkite parish priest is committed to visiting each of our Melkite homes in Greater London, and the Home Agape Prayer Group is an important activity for our Melkite priest to visit our families and to pray with them. However, it takes about two years for a priest to go around all
our homes in Greater London.
14- Fraternity of Our Lady of Walsingham
On 8th December 2018 a new group was formed known as the Fraternity of Our Lady of Walsingham, in conjunction with the Catholic Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham in Walsingham. The inauguration opening started with a divine liturgy on Sunday 9th December presided over by Archimandrite Shafiq and Mgr. John Armitage, the Roman Catholic priest of the Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham. During the mass, Mgr. Armitage blessed the new statue of Our Lady of Walsingham made by one of our parishioners, Prof. Dr. Nady Hakim, and it is kept in the underground chapel (the Crypt) of St Barnabas.
The aim of the Fraternity of Our Lady of Walsingham is to honour Our Lady of Walsingham in our Melkite parish in London, and to foster the spirituality and the role of the Theotokos in our Melkite community in London. The Fraternity of Our Lady of Walsingham meets once a week at the church at 11:30am to pray the Rosary before our Sunday mass, and their monthly meeting for discussion and activity planning is conducted at the homes of its members. The person in charge is Mrs. Joumana Hardan. On July 13th 2013 Fr. Shafiq launched the first Middle Eastern pilgrimage to Our Lady of
Walsingham, and it is organised together with the different Middle Eastern parishes in London. The Middle Eastern Pilgrimage aims to bring British people back to their England’s Nazareth in Walsingham, and to promote awareness among Middle Eastern Christians of the importance of
the message of Our Lady of Walsingham to our humanity.
15- Travel & Pilgrimages
Pilgrimages are a permanent activity of our Melkite parish. Many members of our parish have already made spiritual trips to Lourdes, Assisi and Cascia (St Rita), Fatima, Santiago de Compostela, Medjugorje, Rome, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Ephesus and the Cappadocia in Turkey, Paray le Monial in France, Notre Dame de la Salette and Notre Dame de Laus in France, Ars (France), St Antony of Padua-Venice-Verona-Lake Garda, Marseille-Avignon, St Mary Magdalen and Provence. Travel and Pilgrimages are not only a spiritual opportunity for spiritual renewal, but are also opportunities for a social trip, which strengthens our friendships, contributing to our inner and physical rejuvenation.
16- Bible Study
The Bible study was launched in 2001 during the home prayer meetings of our Melkite families in London. Since 2011, the meeting has become an independent regular activity of our parish, organized every Wednesday at our church at 8pm with Archimandrite Shafiq. The Bible study aims to discover the spiritual wealth of the Bible as we apply it to our life, for the Bible is the Holy Book and source of our Christian life. Our group gathers around 15 people every Wednesday, and it is open to every person seeking a deeper Christian commitment with our Lord Jesus Christ.
17- Nour Family Prayer Meeting
The Nour Family was founded by Fr. Shafiq in 2001 in Lebanon to praise God and to study the Bible, and it was launched in London in 2010. There are now three groups of the Nour Family in London, two in West London, and one at St Barnabas church. The Nour Family has its own book compiled by Fr. Shafiq, and it is mainly a collection of prayers from the Bible and the Church liturgies. Nour Family has already gathered 52 members in London, and it is still expanding and planning to reach different parts of Greater London.
18- Parties & Social Gatherings
The social parties of our Melkite Parish in London are undoubtedly the most popular Arab social events in London. They are very successful and are considered by most people to be simple and well organised. Although each party gathers around 250 people, everything remains under control from the beginning to the end. One important aspect of their success is the ticket price of £30.
Our social parties are of great importance to the revival of our Melkite Parish. They help to gather together more than 60% of our parishioners throughout the year, and they have already fostered friendship and strong social bonds among our Melkite people in London. Moreover, they help the parish priest tremendously in his pastoral work, as they are a wonderful opportunity for him to meet his parishioners. As stated above, it is quite impossible for the parish priest to meet all of his parishioners in their own homes, so the only way to meet them regularly is to create religious and social activities such as these. Each social party, usually lasting at least 5 hours, offers the parish priest a golden opportunity to meet about 200 members of our Melkite Parish.
Moreover, we have discovered that the social parties contribute greatly to the unity of our parishioners – many have already made friends through these functions.
Finally, the social parties are an opportunity for our Middle Eastern parishioners to enjoy their own cultural and folk traditions. They are, as many believe, a school to train new generations in our Middle Eastern cultures. It is quite clear that our traditions can be easily erased from our children’s memories if we do not act now. The social parties are important tools to save our culture. If our Middle Eastern culture collapses completely, then the spiritual side will also collapse. The two aspects of the Melkite Parish, social and spiritual, must work together in order for its unique spiritual and social identity to flourish.
The social parties of the Melkite parish include the celebration of the Family Parties, St. John’s Dinner, Easter lunch, Christmas lunch, and Youth parties.
19- Family Parties
The story of the Family Parties began in December 1994, when Father Shafiq Abouzayd discovered that about 100 parishioners used to organise their own family gathering for the Feast of St. Barbara on 4th December. These parishioners approached Father Shafiq and asked him to invite more people from the Parish to the Feast. He then suggested to them that they should make their Feast open to everybody. It was a successful effort, as more than 200 people attended the subsequent gathering. There were no fees to pay, nor tickets to buy, as it was simply a sharing of foods. Everybody brought their own food, and came to the hall to eat it with friends. While they ate, music was played. This manner of gathering was repeated on New Year’s Eve. Afterwards, everybody agreed that this kind of gathering should be encouraged to take place every two or three months.
The Family Party is a spontaneous family gathering, which does not cost the Parish any money. Music is entirely from CDs and tapes, and food is prepared at home. However, we intend to impose a symbolic financial contribution of £15 per person, in order to cover the rent and the decoration of the hall. This kind of party helps to remove the heavy burden on the other major Parish parties, Easter Lunch and St. John’s Dinner, as members who are unable to afford the £30, will still feel able to join in the Family Party. In this way, we will keep a good balance in our social events, as both people encountering financial difficulty, and the wealthy alike will be able to take part in our different social functions.
20- St. John’s Dinner
St. John’s Dinner is another family gathering involving our parishioners, and is organised yearly on the second Saturday of November. Its main aim is to celebrate the Feast of our patron saint, Saint John Chrysostom, which occurs on 13th November. As it is a dinner, the number of children is relatively small, which allows more adults to attend our party. Again, there is no fund-raising element. All that is required is attendance and a joyous spirit.
21- Easter & Christmas Lunches
Easter & Christmas Lunches are the most important celebrations of our Christian Oriental tradition. The first celebration of this kind took place on Easter Day 1994. The gathering at that time was small, around 60 people. The number quickly rose to 100 for the next year and, since 1997, the number has been around 270 people.
Easter Lunch is a family gathering at which children and adults can rejoice together with the risen Christ. This tradition is now rooted deeply in the hearts of our Melkite parishioners.
22- Youth Club
The Youth Club is for teenagers between 13 and 17 years of age. We know quite well that our young people don’t meet as much as they would like, and if they do, it is only in small groups. Thus, we feel that is important to organise some activities for them so that they can meet not only for dancing, but also for friendship, in order to create a much-needed sense of community. The Youth activities include church activities with singing and Bible study, and an occasional outing every two or three months. The person in charge is Miss. Christelle Choueiry.