The goal of the Ecclesiastical Choir is to encourage girls and female youth to learn and memorize church hymns, and to participate in the liturgical life of the Church.
The Development of the Ecclesiastical Choir
From the beginning of my service in Los Angeles, I noticed that church choirs, as a service, were made up primarily of females who focused on singing Western songs, avoiding learning Coptic hymns as families paid more attention to their sons who were ordained as Psaltos (Chanters) in the Church. This affected the psychology of many girls who were in a sensitive age.
Thus, the idea of the Ecclesiastical Choir developed with the following goals:
- Encouraging girls and female youth to learn, memorize and chant the hymns of the Church
- Encouraging girls and female youth to attend Church services early and participate with the rest of the congregation in praise and the recitation of congregational responses
- Encourage girls and female youth to dress appropriately in a special uniform that conforms to the ethics and spirit of the Church. Thus, ecclesiastical choir members cover their heads and wear white (symbolizing purity and holiness) and red (symbolizing the Holy Cross and the work of our Lord’s gift of salvation in our lives)
I presented the idea of the Ecclesiastical Choir to the Thrice-Blessed Pope Shenouda III who accepted it and added additional requirements for them, such as the following:
- Their participation in praise should be with the rest of the congregation and not in a separate manner
- They should not publicly read the Scriptural readings or have any service related to the Holy Altar
- Their uniform should not look like the garments of consecrated deaconesses
- They should not be ordained into the choir, but rather, receive a blessing to participate
- In 2004, we designed their uniform and presented it to His Holiness for his approval, and the service of the Ecclesiastical Choir came into existence from then until the present day.
The parishes, through the hymns classes, teach boys and girls alike at an early stage of their development the hymns recited by the congregation. Now, through the activities of the summer spiritual competitions, such as “Mahragan Elkeraza,” children and youth are more interested in church hymns than ever before. Girls are tested in groups for their memorization of congregational hymns, and when they pass, they are able to join the Ecclesiastical Choir after receiving a blessing.
Questions and Answers about the Ecclesiastical Choir
Now, I want to present some questions and answers related to the service of the Ecclesiastical Choir.
Q: Some consider the members of the Ecclesiastical Choir as ordained deaconesses. Is that true?
This is a wrong idea. Although the system of ordaining deaconesses in the Church existed from the early centuries — and still exists in some sister Churches, such as the Syrian and Armenian Orthodox Churches — our Coptic Orthodox Church has a specific guideline for the ordination of deaconesses ever since the revival of that rank under the Thrice-Blessed Pope Shenouda III. There are rules concerning age, celibacy and/or marriage, and more. It is not permissible to ordain deaconesses outside of those guidelines. For this reason, members of the Ecclesiastical Choir are not ordained, but rather, simply blessed after completing an examination in congregational hymns. Although this entire process takes place outside the narthex of a parish, some mistakenly believe that this is an ordination.
Q: Do the girls receive a special uniform from the bishop in the liturgical prayers?
We do not put a special uniform on them, but rather, they wear it themselves. The girl puts on her uniform with or without the help of her mother. The fact that they put the uniform on themselves is a good thing, because it reminds girls to wear clothing that is appropriate for the Church from a young age along with the importance of the head covering (1 Cor 11).
Wearing a special uniform and head covering is a good thing to be encouraged, as it follows the teaching of the Holy Scripture concerning appropriateness and covering the head of women during times of prayer.
Moreover, there is no canonical prohibition in the Holy Scripture or ecclesiastical teaching that prevents women from wearing a special uniform during prayer so long as it is appropriate and covers the head. Those who denounce this practice must be ready to prove their point from the perspective of the Holy Scripture and canonical tradition of the Church; otherwise, they will find themselves in a difficult position to defend the following practices:
- Nuns and deaconesses who were their special uniforms during liturgical worship
- Mourning women who wear a special uniform and sit in a specific place at funerals and commemorations of the departed. Many women now choose to wear white at the departure of a loved one. What is wrong with that?
- Young girls who wear white clothing and a red girdle (Arabic zennar) after their Baptism into the Church and during an elaborate procession at the end of the Divine Liturgy.
Are these practices against the teaching of the Church?!
In youth conventions, when male and female youth wear special attire for the convention, or in the spiritual competitions, when children wear matching shirts, is there any problem with this? Would it be wrong for a mother to dress her three daughters in the same dress and ask them to stand in a specific place next to her in the Divine Liturgy? Would the Church possibly ask the mother to spread her daughters throughout the pews just so they couldn’t stand together wearing a special uniform?
In the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, all women wear a similar white garment during the Divine Liturgy. The practice exists in Egypt, as well, in the village women who wear similar clothes to church. Is this wrong?
It is clear from these examples that those who advocate preventing girls and female youth from wearing a special uniform in the Church not only lack a Scriptural or ecclesiastical proof for their opinion, but also have a difficulty in denouncing many similar practices that already exist in the Church, practices that the Church has no reason to forbid.
We wish to focus on the teaching of the Holy Scripture and Church Canons concerning women’s dress, that they be decent and appropriate along with a head covering during prayers. The uniform of the Ecclesiastical Choir is a pioneering example of how we can conform ourselves to the teaching of the Holy Scripture.
Q: Does the Ecclesiastical Choir praise with the congregation or individually?
The girls of the Ecclesiastic choir abide with the order of the church and praise with the congregation through the hymns recited by the congregation, participating with all the people, men and women, in praise.
Q: Has the Holy Synod issued a decree/decision concerning the Ecclesiastical Choir?
The official Church magazine, El Keraza, in its May 28, 2010 issue, published the decision made by the Holy Synod on May 22, 2010 stating,
Concerning the rites, the Holy Synod emphasized that the uniform of the choirs which chant hymns or songs should not resemble the liturgical uniform of deacons or of the clergy…
Notice that the decision of the Holy Synod focuses on preventing similarity between choral uniforms and deacons’ vestments in the Divine Liturgy. This coincides with the rules set forth by the Thrice-Blessed Pope Shenouda who originally agreed to the idea of the Ecclesiastical choir and himself supervised the design of the uniform of the Ecclesiastical choir and agreed to its final design.
Q: Does the idea of the Ecclesiastical Choir have Scriptural and ecclesiastical roots?
Participation of women with men in praise is confirmed in the Holy Scripture, as for example, the participation of women in praise with men during the crossing of the Red Sea. The Holy Scripture also records many praises uttered by women, such as the Magnificat or praise of the Holy Virgin Mary in Luke 1. Similarly, the history of the Holy Church tells us that St. Ephrem the Syrian paid much attention to the preparation of female choirs for praises.
In the meantime, we find our sister Churches, like the Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches utilizing Ecclesiastical Choirs of girls who wear a special uniform during the liturgical prayers as they participate in praise with the congregation.
Thus, the idea of an Ecclesiastical Choir is in harmony with the Scriptural and ecclesiastical tradition as well as the practice of our sister Orthodox Churches with Whom we are in full communion.
Q: Will the idea of the Ecclesiastical Choir lead to the ordination of women in priesthood?
As mentioned earlier, this idea is a return to the original Scriptural and ecclesiastical tradition of the Church concerning the participation of women in praises within the Church. Our sister Churches preserved this tradition for 2,000 years; did it lead to the ordination of women to the priesthood there?
We began this idea in 2004 with the blessing of the Thrice-Blessed Pope Shenouda, the same hierarch who wrote and taught against the ordination of women to the priesthood. Was he not aware of this matter then?
Also, I find no correlation between encouraging girls and young women to learn the hymns of the Church, attending Church early, making a commitment to dress appropriately and covering their heads on the one hand, and ordaining them to the priesthood on the other. On the contrary, a young girl who learns from her early childhood the respect of the liturgical and ecclesiastical manner of life will never contradict the teachings of the Church later.
Q: Is the idea of the Ecclesiastical Choir good everywhere?
This depends on the circumstances of the place. What is most important to understand is that the idea of the Ecclesiastical Choir is in harmony with the teachings of the Holy Scripture and the Holy Church. As for application, it is left for every place according to its circumstances. For example, in the Diocese of Los Angeles, the service of the Ecclesiastical Choir is not found in every parish, similar to the differences in many other pastoral matters. We do not, for example, have archdeacons in every parish.
Q: What is your evaluation to the idea after ten years of application?
The idea of the Ecclesiastical Choir has had positive effects. It should always be governed by clear rules, as we mentioned earlier, and we should monitor its adherence to those rules.