A Nineteenth Century Anglican Christmas in Egypt.

Edmund Winder mounted the steps of his modest pulpit on Christmas Day, 1854. Christmas Day fell on Monday but the congregation gathered anyway. A British bishop gave Winder special license to preach; he wasn’t a rector, or even a curate; he was just a simple chaplain. But his sermon was an important one, especially to his small but enthusiastic flock. Protestant worship was hard to come by in their city, and a Protestant church was even harder to find. Winder and his parishioners lived in Alexandria, Egypt. That ancient port had by 1854 enjoyed half a century of commercial resurrection and prosperity. The Khedives—Muhammad Ali Pasha and then his son Ibrahim—ruled Egypt wisely and offered some toleration to Christian to worship. In Alexandria this was a social necessity; the city’s population was a mixture of Muslim Arabs, Orthodox Greeks, and Jews. But worship for Protestants usually took place in embassies or private homes. If the city’s Muslims or Orthodox citizens protested, they did so quietly. The guns of Royal Navy battleships offered very visible protection to Protestants, largely British and American merchants.

            The cosmopolitan atmosphere that pervaded Alexandria did not flatten cultures into a homogenized unitary urban milieu. Each community largely kept to themselves. British merchants and diplomats formed a Protestant society within a larger society but never lost their national self-awareness. In fact, Winder’s sermon is interesting because he saw Christmas as inaugurating a reign of Christ whereby nations would be saved by Jesus Christ, not obliterated. Had Christ not come “into this world of sin and sorrow, we should have remained under the curse of the broken law of God.” Had Christ not come, “no gladdening sense of pardoning mercy would then ever have been felt; and no blessed hope of everlasting life would have then cheered us on our way to the tomb.” Christ, noted Winder, “commanded His disciples to preach in all the world, and to every creature.”

            Winder told the Protestants of Alexandria that the Great Commission’s roots lay in Christmas. “The tidings which the heavenly host so rapturously extolled at Bethlehem, they must have regarded as precious in the extreme.” The motive power of Christianity was “first sensibly realized in this part of the world” but it eventually reached “in its onward course, the shores of our own country, so that Britain became a part of the Redeemer’s Kingdom.” Although Britons in Alexandria came “from a land afar off” they came “as a Christian people: professedly, moreover, receiving and holding the tenets of the Gospel in their original purity.” The construction of the Protestant chapel in the heart of Egypt’s great port city was “one consequence of a desire that was felt by many, that British residents, and others of our fellow-countrymen, who might happen to be here, should appear, in the midst of other people, as Christians of that better stamp and character.” Protestant Britons could not simply go to church and leave; they had to appear different in every way possible to their Muslim, Jewish, and Orthodox neighbors.

            Differentiation, and not accommodation and engagement, were priorities for Winder. This was not an appeal to sensationalistic or rancorous opposition to the majority. “Ostentatious talk, my brethren, and affected superiority, will not answer the purpose of convincing those who are in error, that we are a more enlightened, and a more Christianized people than themselves.” Alexandrians had to be “enabled to see by our walk and conversation, that our fellowship is, truly, with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” Christianizing the nation and nations was certainly a mission for British Anglicans in 1850s Egypt, but it was a process that began at the parish level. In this way Winder and his parishioners avoided the rhetorical binaries foisted on Protestants in the early Twenty-First Century that posit an individualized faith versus a national or social one.

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