If you are like me – not so good in the Arabic language – you are probably finding it hard to get any information about how things are progressing in Egypt in the lead up to the papal elections. A huge thanks to HG Bishop Angaelos in the UK for posting a comprehensive and authoritative summary of what is happening, and what is going to happen over the coming months. You can find it here.
On the other hand, it is always interesting to see how non-Copts view us. Here and here are two such sites, but they come with a warning: Coptic readers might not like everything they read on these sites, and I certainly cannot vouch for their accuracy. The view from a distance can provide an interesting perspective, but it also often ends up being somewhat incorrect.
We continue to pray for our Lord to guide all those involved in the process, that His will may be done and not that of any human being. I will take this opportunity to express just one personal observation I feel very strongly about.
The role of a clergyman is critical in our Coptic culture. Bishops and priests have the opportunity to do both great good, but also to do great harm. In the years that I have lived in the Coptic Church, there has always been a closely followed principle that has stood the Church in good stead: those who covet ordination are excluded from consideration.
There are excellent reasons for this. A person who sees ordination as some kind of “promotion” or honour is thinking of himself, and in true Christian service, there is simply no room for that. Once the ‘ego’ gets involved, the Holy Spirit steps back, and all you have left is merely human service, with all its faults and failings and weaknesses. No one benefits from that, neither servant nor the served. You only have to look around to other Christian Churches where clergymen “volunteer” for “promotion” to see the kinds of disasters that eventually follow. I am not saying that everyone who wishes to be ordained is unsuitable, but the percentage that are unsuitable is much, much higher than it is among those who don’t desire this.
Our late and much missed Pope Shenouda III was a great believer in this principle. In his classic spiritual work, The Release of the Spirit, he wrote a moving exposition on how anyone who had the least understanding of the responsibilities of ordained service would run a thousand miles to escape them. This is reflected in the time-honoured tradition at the beginning of the rite of consecration of a Coptic bishop where the soon-to-be-ordained monk is brought into the church firmly clenched by the arms between two other bishops. Today, this is mostly symbolic, but there were many occasions in the past where without such measures, the humble and frightened monk would have fled the scene and disappeared into the desert.
His Holiness often said, “Those who are willing to be ordained are not worthy, and those who are worthy are not willing”. Our current system where the congregation chooses its own shepherd, and chooses him not through a political system of lobbying, but through mature and objective consideration of their suitability for the service, has resulted in an excellent standard of Coptic clergymen in general over the past fifty years or so. What it means is that you end up with people who see the role as humble, self-sacrificial service and not as a position of power. They serve by giving up all they have, surrendering ego and personal comfort and pouring themselves out for their flock (as Pope Shenouda did) and rarely abuse the respect and honour in which they are held by others.
I have very little access to information about what is going on in Egypt, but I sincerely hope and pray that our Church is not giving up this profound and effective principle. I sincerely hope and pray that reports in English language newspapers that say things like “fourteen bishops and priests have put their names forward for the election” have simply got it wrong, and are just reading secular political attitudes into a scenario they can’t really understand. I sincerely hope and pray that none of our blessed clergy is coveting this position, and that if they are, that God will protect His Church from the difficulties that might well follow should such a person become pope. I wrote some years ago about just such a situation in our church that occurred a mere sixty years ago. Let us remember those wise words:
“Those who ignore the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them”.