The passing away of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III on 17 March has left the throne of the patriarch of Alexandria and the See of St Mark vacant. Coptic churches have been fervently
The passing away of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III on 17 March has left the throne of the patriarch of Alexandria and the See of St Mark vacant. Coptic churches have been fervently praying for the Lord to “grant to appoint for us a good shepherd to shepherd us in purity and righteousness.”
In two days time, Copts celebrate the arbaeen of their beloved Pope Shenouda; celebrations are expected to run for three days in churches all over Egypt, and mainly constitute prayer and commemoration services, as well as the acceptance of condolences. Celebrating arbaeen, literally forty, is a tradition that goes back to ancient Egypt and which is related to the mummification process the Egyptians were so skilled at. Today, the occasion has been Christianised by Egypt’s Copts who adamantly honour the tradition.
Following the arbaeen, the door will be open to nominations for the new patriarch. The nomination and selection of a new pope is governed by by-laws decreed by Egypt’s president in 1957, commonly known as the 1957 legal code.
The 1957 by-laws
Even though a significant number of Coptic intellectuals have long called for amending the 1957 legal code, Pope Shenouda III had been opposed to that. Whether because he thought the time was not right, or because he feared it may open the door for undue conflict, the legal code remained intact till today.
For their part, Acting Patriarch Anba Pachomeus, The Holy Synod, the Melli (Community) Council, and the Coptic Endowments Authority have jointly decided against any alterations or amendments to the 1957 by-laws at the moment. They said only interpretations of its clauses were allowed, and invited proposals in that regard. Several proposals were submitted to the Holy Synod, and have been referred for discussion.
The clauses most likely to cause controversy pertain to the eligibility of voters, the right of the Ethiopian patriarch and a number of Ethiopian clergy to vote—this clause had been put in at a time when the Ethiopian Church was affiliated to the Coptic Church—and the right of the bishops of dioceses to be nominated for the papacy.
An 18-member committee headed by Anba Pachomeus has been formed to manage the election procedure for the new pope. This will include the nominations for the post of patriarch, the registration of voters, the vetting of the nominees and voters and any claims.
All said, and according to Anba Pachomeus, the Coptic Orthodox Church may expect to have a new pope in five months time.
But what is the 1957 legal code for selecting the Coptic Orthodox patriarch all about?
The current by-laws determine the criteria for choosing candidates for the papacy on the vacancy of the See. The candidate must be a celibate monk who has led a monastic life for at least 15 years; he can be either a bishop, an archbishop or a simple monk. He must also conform to all the conditions specified in the laws, rules and traditions of the church.
It is important to note that all the popes, archbishops, and heads of the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches in the four corners of the world are usually chosen from among ordained bishops. Through the ages, popes of the Coptic Orthodox Church have emerged from heterogeneous backgrounds. No rule has ever been established correlating the background of anyone who filled this position to his reputation or performance.
Nominating an ordained bishop for the papacy has many advocates; they usually refer to a general bishop, but sometimes to a diocesan bishop (a bishop in charge of a diocese). They argue that the papacy involves much more than just religious leadership and congregational responsibility. In modern times more than ever before, it has become a multi-faceted task requiring social, political and cultural skills in addition to leadership and organisation ability.
The argument against the nomination of bishops, however, claims that moving a bishop from his diocese to another, even were this to be the papacy, is inadmissible. This would constitute a slippery slope in which bishops would aspire to higher ranks and bigger and wealthier dioceses and the spirit of service and devotion would consequently be lost. The main idea is that not only should the candidate be spiritual, pious and wise, but he should also be uninterested in high posts.
This practically leaves the door open only to monks and general bishops—those with no spatial dioceses, such as the bishops-general for youth, education, social services, and suchlike. Yet the idea was refuted jointly by the Holy Synod, the Melli Council, and the Coptic Endowments Authority, who said it contradicts old practices of the Church where the bishop-turned-pope would continue to foster his diocese while appointing someone to assist him. It was finally decided to allow bishops of dioceses to contend the elections.
The person who assumes the papacy must, therefore, be worthy of this position; the position should come to him rather than he to the position.
Once again, let us start with a reminder of the papal election procedure in other churches. Until the 10th century, the pope of the Catholic Church was chosen by consensus between the bishops (who were subsequently called cardinals) and the Roman noblemen. Later, the election procedure was amended and the College of Cardinals became the only body whose members played the double role of eligible candidates for the papacy and electorate. On the vacancy of the papal office, the College of Cardinals convenes in the Papal Conclave and remains in seclusion while each member votes by means of secret ballot for the cardinal he personally believes to be the best among them for the job. Several ballot rounds are needed, and after each all the ballot papers are burnt, until a unanimous decision is reached and the new pope is chosen. Only at that time, special chemicals are added to the burnt ballot papers to change the colour of the smoke to white. When the anticipated white smoke emerges from the chimney of the Vatican it is a signal to the world that a new pope has been chosen. The names of the competitors for the papacy are never revealed, even if guesses are circulated, in order to maintain the dignity of the position and its holder.
In the major Orthodox Churches of Greece and Russia, the selection of a patriarch follows a procedure essentially similar to the Catholic model. Anglican and other Protestant church leaders, however, are elected by a council of clergymen and laypersons involved in church administration.
For many generations papal elections in the Coptic Orthodox Church have been conducted by clergymen (the Holy Synod) in conjunction with laypersons who are considered the leaders of the congregation and who hold high social, political or administrative positions. The by-laws of the papal elections state that for a layperson to qualify for the electorate, he must hold a high academic degree, be a current or former State official, or be an employee in a bank, company or commercial establishment. Alternatively, the layperson must be a tax-payer and in this case must have good knowledge of reading and writing. The by-laws further specify some persons belonging to specific sectors, such as journalists and professionals who are members of professional syndicates, who are entitled to be enlisted as members of the electorate.
As a principle, the participation of laypersons in the election of the pope is a unique aspect of the Coptic Orthodox Church and must be preserved. Nevertheless, several conditions specified in the by-laws, such as the average annual income for the laypersons, are specified according to the standards of 1957 and may now need updating. However, this will have to wait for the new pope to get such a procedure in motion.
The elections should proceed in Egypt as specified in the current by-laws; eligible voters from inside and outside Egypt should vote.
After the elections are carried out, the electoral commission announces the names of the three highest scoring candidates; the final draw is then performed among these names as stated in the current by-laws. The draw is usually carried out during Holy Mass.
Although some Copts are calling for the abolition of the draw, the wide majority of Copts consider it an integral part of the election process because it is rooted in the practices of the first church, as mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Undoubtedly, electing the pope must be done in accordance with the people’s choice and approval. Nonetheless, the papacy is essentially the finest religious and spiritual position which, unlike political leadership, must not be left in its entirety to human will.
According to an important study by Saad Mikhail Saad published in Watani in March 2002, of the 90 instances of papal elections recorded in the history of the Church, the draw was implemented at least 10 times (Popes number 3, 48, 71, 102, 103, 104, 105, 108, 116 and 117). It ranks third in the methods of choosing a pope, after the general consensus between the clergy and the laypersons (35 instances) and the choice made solely by the clergy of Alexandria (16 instances, the last of which was Pope number 34). Other methods include the nomination of the Pope by his predecessor before his death (seven times until Pope number 88), pressure imposed by political rulers (six times until Pope number 78) and elections made solely by laypersons (five times).
22 April 2012