The Orthodox Church is rooted in the great revelation of God in Jesus Christ. By His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ opened the way for human beings to be reconciled to God. And by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Christ were formed into a living Body that was filled with His Spirit and was to preach the Gospel – or good news – of His salvation to people throughout the world.
Within a few decades of Christ’s death and resurrection, this Gospel had spread to the major centres of the Roman Empire, and also to areas outside the empire. In 42 A.D. Saint Mark the Evangelist preached the Gospel in Alexandria, where an established Jewish community had already existed for centuries. Through the preaching and example of Saint Mark, many people turned to Christ and were baptised and a flourishing Christian community soon developed and spread to other areas in Egypt and beyond. This marked the beginning of the African Church.
From its earliest days, the Church in Alexandria made a major contribution to the life of the universal Church. The famous Catechetical School of Alexandria made an important contribution to the developing understanding of the Christian faith. The Egyptian deserts became home to a rapidly growing monastic movement in the third and fourth centuries that was to have a major influence on Christian monasticism throughout the world. And when the truth of the Christian faith was under threat from heresy, it was the great Alexandrian Fathers of the Church, such as Saint Athanasius the Great and Saint Cyril of Alexandria, who proved themselves to be defenders of the truth through their writings and their witness.
The early centuries saw missionary activity into sub-Saharan Africa with, for example, Saint Athanasius sending Saint Frumentius to evangelize Ethiopia in the fourth century. However, this was largely curtailed by the rise of Islam. It was only in the nineteenth century that Orthodox Christianity was brought to South Africa with the arrival of Greek and Cypriot immigrants, who brought a priest to come to this country at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the first church being built in Cape Town in 1904.
During the course of the twentieth century, and especially since the Patriarchate of His Beatitude Pope Petros VII (1997-2004), the missionary work of the Church has continued with increasing vigour, particularly in East and Central Africa and continues to be a priority for the current patriarch, His Beatitude Pope Theodoros II.
This faith, which we have received from the Church, which we preserve carefully, because, through the action of the Spirit of God, like a deposit of great price enclosed in a pure vessel, it rejuvenates ceaselessly, and makes the vessel that contains it to be rejuvenated. It is to the Church herself that the gift of God has been imparted, as the breath had been to the created man, so that all the members may partake of it and be vivified thereby; it is in her that the communion with Christ, that is, the Holy Spirit has been deposited, the Earnest-money of incorruption, a confirmation of our faith, and the ladder of our ascent to God […]. For where the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace. And the Spirit is Truth.
St Irenaeus of Lyons