Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lion of the See of St. Mark

Shenouda III, the 117th Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, Pope of Alexandria, died on March 17th at the age of 88. He was the leader of the Coptic Orthodox, and had the very difficult task of protecting his people in a time of extraordinary tension. The Coptic Orthodox are a form of Oriental Orthodoxy. The easiest way to grasp what Oriental Orthodoxy is, is to look at the first four Ecumenical Councils. Catholics and (Eastern) Orthodox accept all four (and, indeed, the fifth, sixth, and seventh). The Oriental churches, like the Coptic Orthodox, accept the first three (First Council of Nicaea, First Council of Constantinople, Council of Ephesus), but rejected the Council of Chalcedon. The Church of the East accept the first and, I think, the second, but rejected the Council of Ephesus. All three can be called Orthodox in a broad sense, insofar as that name came out of the dispute over Arian Christianity, and all three reject Arianism and accept the teaching of Nicaea. In neither of these latter cases are the rejections necessarily absolute; differences in language and difficulties of communicating across political barriers were often at least as much an issue as genuine doctrinal disagreement. One of the things Pope Shenouda worked for was to clarify how the Oriental position in Christology, which is usually called Miaphysitism, related to the Chalcedonian Christology of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox; miaphysite terminology is usually seen as interpretable in Chalcedonian terms, and thus not necessarily heretical (from the Chalcedonian perspective) in the way that the stronger monophysitism position is, but there has always been a problem of determining just how much the Oriental Churches actually interpret it in terms that (from a Chalcedonian perspective) would be monophysite. Clarifying it was important. Pope Shenouda, while a theological conservative, was strongly committed to ecumenism, and in 1973 he met with Pope Paul VI and became the first Pope of Alexandria to meet with a Pope of Rome in over 1500 years, and they issued a joint declaration of things in common between the two churches.

The current procedure for electing a new Coptic Patriarch is extraordinarily complicated, since it requires voting by both the Holy Synod and the General Congregation Council of the Church to narrow down the possibilities to three candidates; the actual successor is chosen literally by having his name picked out of a hat (to prevent bias it has to be done by a blindfolded child). So it may well be a while before there is anyone to replace him, especially since there are rumors that it will be postponed until after elections for the Egyptian president.

Incidentally, I always like to know the 'mother church' for a Church. For instance, for Roman Catholics it's St. John Lateran (St. Peter's is larger and more famous, but St. John Lateran is the Pope's own cathedral), while for Eastern Orthodox of Byzantine persuasion it's the Church of St. George in the Fener district of Istanbul. It turns out that the equivalent church for the Coptic Orthodox, the Coptic Pope's own cathedral, is the Church of Holy Virgin Mary in Cairo, but it is almost universally called The Hanging Church because it was literally built up high and hangs over an entryway into the Babylon Fortress of Old Cairo. Since the time it was built the ground has risen several feet, but when it was originally built it must have given the sense of almost soaring into the air.

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