How the Copts Pick a Pope

How the Copts Pick a Pope May 30, 2012

Kevin Hargaden works for a small church in the suburbs of Dublin and is preparing for ordination with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He blogs at Creideamh and is a board member of the IBI.

One of the most interesting aspects of observing the uprising in Egypt last year from Dublin was the way in which the Egyptian Christians of the Coptic Church (a stream of the church that split off from Catholicism after their refusal to adhere to the Council of Chalcedon in 451CE) sought to contribute to peace. In the face of some considerable persecution, Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the population, did not withdraw from the public square.

Kevin’s questions: The first is how does the Coptic selection process affect our theological understanding of leadership? The second is what kind of practices would local churches have to foster to be able to trust such momentous decisions to a blindfolded 7 year old? Could you trust this process in your group?

Last month, the Coptic Church’s leader, Pope Shenouda III died. The process that the Coptic Church is now initiating, after observing a 40-day mourning period to find a replacement, the 118th successor to the Gospel author Mark, who it is claimed founded the church, is one that might seem bizarre to Western evangelical Christians. 74 bishops and 12 respected lay people will constitute the synod that selects three candidates who are over 40, have never been married and who have been monks for at least 15 years. That process may take months but when it is finalised, the church meets for mass, shares communion and then they will select a child from their midst. The child will be blindfolded. They will put their hand into a silver urn carrying three pieces of paper bearing the names of the candidates. The name that the child selects will become the next Coptic Pope.

This system, very different from how a typical church in America (or indeed here in Ireland) goes about selecting leadership was last revised as recently as 1957. We might all too easily slip into attributing this process to the curiosity of ancient traditions maintained too long but that would be a profound mistake. The aim of the Coptic Church in allowing the selection of their supreme leader to fall into the hands of a child below the age of reason is that no one can forget that it is God and not men who raise up our shepherds.

As against simply enjoying the exotic peculiarities of other cultures, I think the Coptics raise two questions for how we live as Christians here in the West. The first is how does the Coptic selection process affect our theological understanding of leadership? The second is what kind of practices would local churches have to foster to be able to trust such momentous decisions to a blindfolded 7 year old?


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  • Very interesting. Even with a close friend who’s Coptic, I had never heard of this process. Thanks for sharing.

    It reminds me of the disciples picking a new twelfth. They chose wisely from among their midst, but between two options, they late God direct them through what the world would call “fate.” So I would push back in response to your second question: should we really see it as “trusting” a blindfolded 7 year old? Should we not, instead, see it as human choice in picking three good candidates, then God’s providence in choosing among those three?

  • Rick

    I like it better how many churches here do it: who is the best, most entertaining speaker and has an outgoing personality. ;^)

  • DRT

    We all could learn a lot from this. Certainly all three of the candidates would make a good leader so they are freely acknowledging that and are humble enough to know that they probably could not know the future well enough to know who would be the best.

    This is also good because this will not leave as many divisions within the synod who would have had to fight it out to the end. And, isn’t that how the apostles pick a replacement apostle? Chance?

    I find it refreshing.

  • Jayflm

    What a coincidence! I read the account of the selection of Judas Iscariot’s replacement in my quiet time this morning. It struck me as I read it that the casting of lots between two qualified men was a wonderful way to avoid bitterness and recriminations about politicking and choosing favorites. All could walk away from that event in peace and harmony. Not to mention that this sort of process does allow God to move in mysterious freedom if He so chooses.

  • Terry

    Jayflm, a good mention in all of this; I do find this worthy of reflection. Interestingly, Jayflm, in my tradition that passage in Acts is regularly expounded upon as “what not to do” in choosing leaders. Followed closely by a reminder that we never hear Matthias’ name ever mentioned again (nevermind how many other apostles are never mentioned again. 🙂 It’s worth pondering what the Scriptures do say, and was has been raised up among God’s people as a result. Very interesting.

  • The method for picking a new Coptic Pope reminds me of how my son and daughter-in-law chose a name for their firstborn. They had narrowed the choices down to three names (Zachary, Benjamin, Matthew) but could not decide. They liked them all. When they told us that the baby would name himself and let them know his name when he was born, we were more than a bit confused. Later, when they presented us with Matthew they told us that they had assigned the three names to different colors of hair. Matthew was born with blond hair.

    I suppose it was as good a method as any. If you disagree, please give me scriptural references.

  • John G

    An interesting and seemingly unbiased process (except for the fact that the three candidates have been screened and selected from a larger pool). But I struggle with using the example of choosing Matthias in Acts 1 as a paradigm for our decision making. Not that I think it was the wrong method for the time (and I think Matthias was God’s replacement for Judas). But I struggle with it because it comes before Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and there are no examples of casting lots after Acts 2, even when there’s a potential use for the practice in choosing the seven in Acts 6. And then there’s the explicit influence of the Spirit in decision making in setting apart Saul and Barnabas for missionary work in Acts 13:2. Of course this kind of decision making can be exploited (saying “the Spirit told us to do this” to justify doing something that’s wrong). But I guess I just wrestle with the practice of casting lots in our post-Pentecost age.

  • gingoro

    I wonder how the Ethiopian Oriental Church chooses their primate from among the other abunas? Abuna means father but often refers to a priest or especially a bishop and the primate.

    Our local congregation (CRC) chooses a group of potential office bearers and then a chance procedure is used to select among them.
    Dave W

  • Ana Mullan

    The choice is obviously shaped by the culture. Many of the comments above referred about how Matthias was chosen. Choosing lots was a cultural thing. In our western world, where we look quite a lot at the outward giftings, and we have loads of procedures on how to choose, their way of doing things seem very strange, almost naiive. At the same time we could learn from them. They did have three men that they considered worthy of the position, so there was some discernment being done beforehand.I would said these men were “known” by the people, they had certain characteristics that were valued, and it might not have been their preaching. In a small community like this the reputation of these men would have travelled. On the other side the final decision is acknowledging that the choice is led by God and accepted.
    The way of choosing seems to be a combination of human discernment and God’s intervention. In our churches we tend to want to have everything sort it before a person takes their position, or we invite somebody into leadership for what they can do. The biggest mistake I have seen in churches is to put people in leadership positions because they are managers of Microsoft or Ebay, etc. because the type of leadership at church level demands a different understanding of people.
    So we should be looking for people who are capable at the same time leave it up to God how is that he wants to use them, and we should walk with them as they make mistakes and celebrate their progress.

  • nathan

    when we lived in Nashville our parish selected vestry members from a large pool. The candidates were all prescreened. There were 7 slots to fill and at least 12 possible candidates.

    we were handed a piece of paper with random numbers on it and you circled 7 of the numbers.
    it was a blind “vote” and that way it broke the cycle of the vestry being the same set of people alternating with their spouses, removed the popularity vote dimension from the membership, and protected the congregation from itself.

    I thought it was great.