"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Monday, October 22, 2012

Choosing a Coptic Pope

The recent news that the Coptic Church will choose a new pope next month has raised questions about the method for doing so. There are no cardinals, no Sistine Chapel, no chemicals to produce white smoke. The Copts, whose patriarchal head has been styled "pope" longer than the bishop of Rome has (the word simply means "father" in Greek, and thus is not necessarily or particularly attached to any bishop but can and has been used more widely) use a very different, much simpler, and much more clearly biblical method for chosing their pope. I detail some of this process in a wide examination I give to the overall polity of the Coptic Church in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, a book which, if you have not read yet, you will want to rush out and do so--and, while you are at it, consider ordering 4920 copies for your closest friends as thoughtful Christmas gifts this year.

Those desirous of a deeper understanding of the Coptic papacy are very much in luck these days. In 2005, we had the first volume of a trilogy devoted to this very question: Stephen J. Davis, The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity (American University of Cairo Press), 224pp. This book, which I favorably reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, i described by the publisher thus:
The Copts, adherents of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, today represent the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and their presiding bishops have been accorded the title of pope since the third century A.D. This major new three-volume study of the popes of Egypt covers the history of the Alexandrian patriarchate from its origins to the present-day leadership of Pope Shenouda III. The first volume analyzes the development of the Egyptian papacy from its origins to the rise of Islam. How did the papal office in Egypt evolve as a social and religious institution during the first six and a half centuries A.D.? How do the developments in the Alexandrian patriarchate reflect larger developments in the Egyptian church as a whole - in its structures of authority and lines of communication, as well as in its social and religious practices? In addressing such questions, Stephen J. Davis examines a wide range of evidence - letters, sermons, theological treatises, and church histories, as well as art, artifacts, and archaeological remains - to discover what the patriarchs did as leaders, how their leadership was represented in public discourses, and how those representations definitively shaped the Egyptian Christian identity in late antiquity. 
This was followed, in 2010, by Mark Swanson's second volume in the series, The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt: The Popes of Egypt: A History of the Coptic Church and Its Patriarchs Volume 2 (American University in Cairo Press).


The final volume of the trilogy recently appeared, co-authored by Magdi Guirguis and Nelly van Doorn-Harder, The Emergence of the Modern Coptic Papacy: The Popes of Egypt: A History of the Coptic Church and Its Patriarchs, Volume 3 (AUC Press, 2011). About this final volume the publisher tells us:
This third and final volume of The Popes of Egypt spans the five centuries from the arrival of the Ottomans in 1517 to the present era. Hardly any scholarly work has been written about the Copts during the Ottoman Period. Using court, financial, and building records, as well as archives from the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate and monasteries, Magdi Guirguis has reconstructed the authority of the popes and the organization of the Coptic community during this time. He reveals that the popes held complete authority over their flock at the beginning of Ottoman rule, deciding over questions ranging from marriage and concubines to civil disputes. As the fortunes of Coptic notables rose, they gradually took over the pope's role and it was not until the time of Muhammad Ali that the popes regained their former authority. With the dawning of the modern era in the nineteenth century, the leadership style of the Coptic popes necessarily changed drastically. As Egypt's social, political, and religious landscape underwent dramatic changes, the Coptic Church experienced a virtual renaissance, and expanded from a local to a global institution. In the second part of the book, Nelly van Doorn-Harder addresses the political, religious, and cultural issues faced by the patriarchs that led the Coptic community into the twenty-first century.

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