Article For Universe by David Alton
During my recent trip to Egypt, I had the privilege of meeting with the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, 117th Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and the See of St. Mark. He leads a church whose origins go back to St. Mark, who is well known as the writer of one of the Gospels.To the Copts he is the Bearer of the Good News, the Founder of their Church, and the first Pope of Alexandria in Egypt.
The majority of Egypt’s Christians adhere to this church. Coptic simply means Egyptian in the pre-Arabic language of the country. This ancient church became ecclesiastically isolated from the church in Europe in 451 A.D when political differences with Rome led to an irrevocable split at the Council of Chalcedon. The conflict was over theology. The Copts maintained that the natures of God and Man are united in Christ, while the majority at the Council claimed that the two natures coexisted in Him. This theological difference distinguishes the Coptic Orthodox Church and other non-Chalcedonian churches-i.e the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church – from most other Christian churches. The Coptic Orthodox Church is characterized by a strict adherence to its ancient creeds and liturgy and a strong monastic tradition. In fact one of the most sweeping influences of the Coptic Orthodox Church on the whole of Christendom is monasticism for it is in Egypt that Christian monasticism first began.
According to Pope Shenouda III, who lived the life of a solitary for many years, there are five stages or grades through which the solitary must pass before he reaches the stage of absolute isolation from the world. They are as follows: 1. As a member of a coenibitic community. 2. As a beginner in the solitary life within the monastery itself. The beginner observes complete silence, performing his work quietly, while remaining in his cell. He thereby develops a feeling of alienation from the community, so that he becomes “a stranger” among his brethren. 3. Perservering in this solitude for several weeks. At this stage, the monk still lives in the monastery, but leaves his cell only once a week on Sunday to attend the celebration of the divine Liturgy. 4. The fourth stage is his transference from the monastery to the cave, so as to be removed from all people. 5. The final stage is that of the itinerant anchorite, who lives in caves, unknown to anyone save God. Should, by chance, a solitary pay a temporary visit to his fellow monks or for some other reason be forced to leave his cave, he must on his return go through the above mentioned stages of preparation again before he can resume his solitary life.
In his seventies and with his flowing white beard, Pope Shenouda exudes the air of a wise patriarch but the twinkle in his eye reveals a man with a mischievous sense of humour. His appearance reminds one of Padre Pio and perhaps not surprisingly as both share the same kind of deep spirituality and commitment to an orthodox interpretation of the Scriptures. He has also suffered for his faith having spent four years under house arrest for criticising President Sadat’s Islamicisation policies. Pope Shenouda was very concerned about the wave of apostasy which is sweeping the church in the West today. He singled out the American Bishop, Shelby Spong, who claimed in a controversial book that the Virgin Birth did not occur and launched a vicious attack on St. Paul. He rightly pointed out that some people wanted to make the Bible surrender to their own minds. Dogma was not a matter for voting. Furthermore, such books could mislead Christians in countries like Egypt where the teachings of Bishops are usually assumed to reflect the official stance of the church unlike in the West where lax discipline allows Bishops and priests to make statements attacking the very foundations of the Church they purport to serve. He even expressed his concern to the Archbishop of Canterbury at the apostate teachings espoused by some leaders in the Anglican Church.
He emphasised the important role families played in the church. Pastoral care was not only the church’s responsibility. Every family should have Bible study and worship. The mother is the first teacher of the child in religion. It is the mother who spends 167 hours with the child whereas the child only spends one day in Sunday School. Pope Shenouda added that when we have problems with our youth, that probably means we did not care for them enough when they were young. If there is a good friendship between the youth and his parents, even if there is a bad influence in society, he will return to them to be taught the correct way. Sometimes a child could not see in his parents the correct example. His hope was that the child would see a Christian example in his parents and imitate them.
There appears to be an important message in this for the ills of our own hedonistic and materialistic society. What an irony that many in the West are looking to the false mysticism of Far Eastern religions when so much real spirituality exists in Christianity and the rich spirituality of the Coptic Church is only one aspect of it. In the face of the increasing subversion of Biblical truths from within the Church, there is an urgent need for orthodox Christians across the denominations to unite in challenging this assault.