Monday, 19 March 2012

The Other Pope

Pope Shenouda III, who died at the weekend, was leader of the X million strong Coptic Church of Egypt (X being a number anywhere between 7 and 13) and possessor of one of the most remarkable beards of any prelate, certainly putting our own dear Rowan Williams to shame. He was 88, to Rowan's 61. But Coptic Popes aren't allowed to retire. Indeed, Shenouda appears to still be in the job, his final duty being to appear, propped up and fully robed in his patriarchal throne in Cairo, looking it must be said livelier than John Paul II did during the last five or so years of his pontificate.

Shenouda's death has attracted warm tributes from, among others, the Archbishop of Canterbury who spoke of Shenouda's "exemplary and outstanding" leadership and his "depth of Christian love, welcome and wisdom." Less attention has been paid to his cosy relationship with Mubarak or his history of making nasty anti-semitic remarks.

The Coptic Pope rejoices in one of the most grandiose titles in the Christian world. So complex is it, indeed, that it's not entirely clear just what it is. But it goes something like this:


Pope and Lord Archbishop of the Great City of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Orthodox and Apostolic Throne of St Mark the Evangelist and Holy Apostle; Father of Fathers; Shepherd of Shepherds; Hierarch of all Hierarchs; Pillar and Defender of the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church and of the Orthodox faith; Dean of the Great Catechetical School of Alexadria; Ecumenical Judge of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church; Thirteenth among the Apostles.


Which is, I'm sure you'll agree, slightly over-the-top, even for a prelate so impressively bearded as the late Shenouda. The title "Pope", by the way, is older by a couple of centuries than that of his Roman equivalent. Strictly speaking, we should refer to the latter as "Pope of Rome" to avoid confusion.

Precisely where the Coptic Pope comes in the global Christian pecking order is complicated by the fact that (as a consequence of various splits and schisms down the centuries) there are both Greek Orthodox and Latin claimants to the Holy Throne of St Mark, though neither have large numbers of followers. But traditionally Alexandria ranks at number three after Rome and Constantinople. To complicate matters, although the head of the church is patriarch of Alexandria his cathedral, as well as his official residence, is in Cairo. And has been since the eleventh century. But I suppose that when you've got a title as long as that one you're better off leaving well alone.


In recent decades the Coptic Pope has been considered the top-ranking member of the Oriental Orthodox communion, a somewhat ad hoc group of churches that does not form a clade but which is united by a reluctance to accept the conclusions of the Council of Chalcedon of 451 AD. It's a long story; let's just say that it had something to do with the vexed question of precisely how Christ could be both God and man. It was to the fifth century church what the argument over gay clergy is to the 21st: divisive, unresolveable and ultimately a bit daft. About twenty years ago a high-powered group of theologians came up with a form of words that seemed to satisfy everybody (except the few remaining Nestorians). But the fifteen hundred odd years of mutual anathemas should stand as a warning to anyone who thinks that the current rows over sexuality and gender will be patched up any time soon.

Perhaps the dispute would have been patched up earlier had Egypt not fallen to the Muslims in 639AD, an event positively welcomed by many Egyptians as it meant seeing the back of the hated Byzantines with their inaccurate Christology. The history of the church thereafter was one of slow decline, however, as the Egyptian population slowly went over to Islam. The process took centuries and (arguably) is still going on. Egypt probably had a Christian majority well into the thirteenth century, and in the eighteenth there were still parts of the country speaking Coptic (the language of the Pharaoahs and still of the church's liturgy). Many observers detect signs of revival in recent years - an increase in recruitment to the monasteries, for example. On the other hand, Copts have faced increasing discrimination, attacks on churches and rising hostility from Islamists. It's reported that hundreds of thousands are now considering emigration.

I was intrigued to learn about the process that will be used to select Shenouda's successor. In some ways it's more open and democratic than the system used to choose the Archbishop of Canterbury (though even the Roman conclave is more democratic, if not necessarily more open, than that) but is also satisfyingly weird. The Synod of the Coptic Church (which corresponds to the House of Bishops in the Church of England General Synod) and a body representing the laity both take part in elections to discover three potential candidates. But the final choice is made by a boy who is led blindfold to the altar and invited to pull one of the names out of a hat. Well probably not a hat, but the same principle applies.

I suppose this vaguely resembles the former system in the Church of England, where two candidates for a vacant bishopric were presented to the Prime Minister to choose between.