The unexpected and nearly unprecedented resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the election of the first pope from the Americas, and new Pope Francis’s dramatic displays of humility captured the attention of Christians and non-Christians all over the world during the late winter and early spring of 2013.
Thanks to the explosion of electronic forms of communication, even since the election of Benedict in 2005, more people followed the speculation and politics surrounding a papal conclave than ever before.
Then Francis rapidly emerged as an international media star. His down-to-earth style, which included his washing the feet of two female juvenile inmates in a traditional Maundy Thursday ritual, contrasted vividly with the traditionally regal manner of Benedict. The dizzying combination of medieval ritual and pageantry with flashing cell phones and papal tweets provided the backdrop for Francis’s initial efforts to reconnect an ancient but troubled institution with its understandably wary modern flock.
But the Roman Catholic Church was not the only Christian Church to choose a new spiritual leader in 2012 and 2013; it was just the largest.
On November 4, 2012, the Coptic Orthodox Church (based in Cairo, Egypt) elected its new pope, Tawadros (Theodoros) II, to succeed Shenouda III, who had died seven months earlier.
And only five days later in the United Kingdom, on November 9, a press release announced that Queen Elizabeth II had approved the nomination of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeding Rowan Williams, who had announced his retirement the previous March. The Archbishop of Canterbury serves as the spiritual leader of the global Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States.
These new leaders did not receive nearly as much international attention as Francis did, although the selection of Tawadros became a minor YouTube sensation.
Still, the remarkable confluence of the elections of two popes and a primate allows us to reflect on the past and future of these diverse church bodies. Why, we might ask, are there so many different Christian churches, each with its own worldwide leader? Why do they choose their leaders and handle transitions of authority so differently? And what challenges do they face as we move into the twenty-first century?
The existence of these three churches with their contrasting styles can be traced to the two great moments of separation and reorganization in the global history of Christianity—the controversy over the nature(s) of Christ in the fifth-century Mediterranean and the Protestant Reformations in sixteenth-century Europe.
The challenges that today confront Francis, Tawadros, and Justin Welby may be symptomatic of a third great moment of separation and reorganization. The forces of globalization, the communications revolution, and the growing popularity of charismatic Christianity have combined with a range of other institutional, political, and doctrinal instabilities to make the future highly uncertain for these three new leaders.
Now people can travel across the world easily, and they can communicate quickly through electronic means. These developments have enabled Christians to form new alliances that do not correspond to traditional theological denominations.
“Liberal” and “conservative” Christians can network with like-minded believers, whether or not they share the same official creeds or denominations. Agreement on matters like the role of women and sexual ethics seems to many Christians more significant than the differences in doctrine or history that lie behind the current divisions of Christians into “Protestants,” “Catholics,” ”Orthodox,” and the many other Christian denominations.
Similarly, enthusiasm for charismatic gifts like divine healing and speaking in tongues has spread across national and continental boundaries, thanks to television and international evangelism “campaigns.” And champions of charismatic forms of Christianity are also forging ties across the traditional boundaries of Christian churches.
The economic changes that come with global markets have fostered new aspirations and anxieties among workers. Some forms of Pentecostal Christianity not only promise salvation after death, but also offer the hope for increased well-being in the here and now, in the form of physical health, economic security, or both.
These trends are threatening the stability of current denominational patterns. For example, Roman Catholics in Brazil may find that a Pentecostal church speaks more persuasively to their spiritual needs and material goals than does the traditional Church. Or Anglicans in Nigeria may decide that they no longer share the same values as Anglicans in North America.
The Coptic Orthodox Church and its Pope
Let’s start with the Coptic Orthodox Church, which today includes perhaps 18 million adherents in Egypt and around the world.
In 2012, following a mourning period for Pope Shenouda III in March, the Coptic community reflected on and discussed choosing a new leader. A nominating committee developed a slate of candidates and an electoral assembly of 2,400, which included lay people, then voted to select three finalists. The participation of a wide range of clergy and laymen is a remarkable and distinctive feature of the Coptic selection process.
On November 4, in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, a blindfolded boy, dressed in white, chose one of the three names from a chalice. It was Tawadros (the Arabic form of Theodoros) who became the next “Pope of Alexandria” (although he is based in Cairo) and “Patriarch of All Egypt.” The huge congregation erupted in applause. The striking video of a visibly nervous hooded boy choosing a new religious leader in an ornate cathedral became popular viewing on YouTube and news sites on the web. For Copts, however, it was God who made the final selection.
Watching the pomp and ceremony of this very public selection of a pope through the lens of the internet leaves us to ask about the origins of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and why it’s separated from the Roman Catholic Church and such Orthodox churches as the Greek and Russian Orthodox.
The answer lies in the Roman empire of the fifth century, as Latin- and Greek-speaking churches began to grow apart and Christian leaders engaged in prolonged and bitter conflicts over the nature(s) of Christ.
By the end of the fourth century, most Christians (although not all) had agreed that the Son of God should be understood to be the second person in a Trinity—equal in divinity and honor to the Father and the Holy Spirit. There is one God in three persons.
The Roman emperor (or emperors, for sometimes there were two) enforced this official doctrine, as it was expressed in the so-called Nicene Creed. But, some people asked at the time, if the Son of God is fully God, just as divine as the Father, what does that make of the human being Jesus? How did the Son’s incarnation as Jesus make sense?
In the eastern Roman Empire, Christian leaders developed two basic answers to these questions. One group, based primarily in Syria, argued that Christ had two natures: a human nature (Jesus), who did such human things as be born, suffer, and die; and a divine nature (the Son of God), who did such divine things as heal people, walk on water, and rise from the dead. These two natures were “conjoined” in Christ, who was both fully divine and fully human.
Another group, led by the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, opposed this “two natures” view because it seemed to make Christ two people, awkwardly inhabiting the same space. Instead, they claimed that the single divine nature of the Son of God united with humanity in Jesus and performed everything Christ did (be born, heal people, die, and so on).
These two views of Christ first came into conflict in the 420s over the question of whether the Virgin Mary could be called “the Mother of God.” The “two natures” group argued no: God cannot be born. Rather, Mary was the mother of the human Jesus, with whom the Son of God came into some kind of union.
But this position offended even many ordinary Christians, who were used to honoring Mary as God’s Mother and to thinking of even the baby Jesus as divine. The Council of Ephesus in 430 affirmed that Mary is the Mother of God, a victory for the “one nature” view, and the Roman Empire enforced this position.
A large number of dissenting “two-nature” Christians, however, persisted outside the empire, in Persia, and they became known as the Church of the East. The Church of the East became the major form of Christianity in Asia, spreading eventually to China, until the rise of Islam led to its gradual diminishment. A small but significant group of Christians survive today from this ancient branch of Christianity, most notably the Assyrian Church of the East.
Meanwhile, back in the Roman Empire, conflict between the “one-nature” and “two-nature” schools continued. Increasing numbers of leaders, including the bishop of Rome, worried that the “one-nature” view did not affirm strongly enough the humanity of Jesus.
Finally, after bitter debates, in 451 the Council of Chalcedon adopted a compromise statement: Christ is “one person in two natures” (divine and human); the two natures are clearly distinguished, but they are so closely united in one person that it is still right to say that God was born and the human Jesus walked on water.
This modified “two-natures” position became the official policy of the Roman and then Byzantine Empire, and it is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches (as well as churches that descended from these groups, like the Protestants).
The vast majority of Christians in Egypt (and in other areas like Palestine), however, refused to accept the Council of Chalcedon and remained faithful to their traditional “one-nature” theology. They left fellowship with the pro-Chalcedon churches.
Through the fifth and sixth centuries, Coptic Christians (“Copt” comes from the word “Egypt”) resisted the attempts of the Byzantine emperors to force them to adhere to Chalcedon. When the Muslims completed their conquest of Egypt in 641, the Copts became free from such Byzantine harassment, but during the following centuries, the number of Christians declined, to the point that today they are estimated to make up only about ten percent of Egypt’s population.
For most of its existence, the Coptic Orthodox Church has represented a minority religious community, whether in contrast to the “two-natures” doctrine of the Byzantine Empire or to the Islam of the governments that followed.
Especially in recent years, the Church’s Pope has represented the Coptic community in dealings with the government, which under former Egyptian presidents like Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak did not operate through democratic processes.
This minority identity has given the Church a strong sense of communal solidarity and reliance on divine protection and providence, both of which were seen in how they chose their new leader. On the one hand, a wide range of believers, both lay and clergy, had a voice in choosing the three finalists. On the other hand, the ultimate choice remained in the hands of God.