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.

As Pope Tawadros takes charge of his ancient Church, Coptic Christians face challenges both within Egypt and from worldwide changes in Christian and Muslim countries.

Since 2010, Egypt has been participating in the international movement called “the Arab spring,” which has overthrown authoritarian governments like that of Mubarak. Young Copts would prefer that Tawadros not act as their political spokesman, as Shenouda did, but instead limit his work to spiritual matters. They hope instead to express their views directly through the newly developing political process in Egypt.

However, the prospect that the Muslim Brotherhood may bring a more explicitly Islamist agenda to the governance of Egypt has increased feelings of alienation among some Copts. An attack on the Coptic cathedral in Cairo in early April, during which government security forces seemed to side with a Muslim crowd, seemed to bode ill.

In recent years, the Coptic Orthodox Church has experienced huge growth in North America and Europe, thanks primarily to immigration from Egypt (which events in Egypt may accelerate). The election of Tawadros took place so long after Shenouda’s death in part because officials had to find some way to include the numerous Copts outside Egypt in the process, unnecessary when Shenouda was elected in 1971.

Like so many Christian communities, the Coptic Church (despite its close associations with Egypt) is becoming a transnational religious community, one that crosses the boundaries of nations and even continents.

Copts in Europe and North America are exposed to a greater variety of Christian believers than is found in Egypt and do not live in a predominately Muslim culture. The issues that they face differ significantly from those confronting their brothers and sisters in Egypt, and some Copts are actively encouraging non-Egyptians to join the Church.

In the twentieth century, the Coptic Church made its “Egyptian” character a strong component of its identity; unlike the Muslims, the Church argued, the Copts represented continuity with the Egypt of antiquity. The growing number of Coptic Christians outside Egypt and the changing political scene within Egypt are now forcing the Church to express its identity in new ways that will likely be less nationalistic.

The Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Anglican Communion

The fifth-century debates over Christ led to the first great division of Christianity. The Church of the East held to a strong “two-natures” theology; the Coptic Orthodox (as well as Syrian and Ethiopian Orthodox) Church adhered to the “one-nature” teaching; and the followers of the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople followed the modified “two-natures” creed of Chalcedon.

And already in the fifth century the Latin-speaking Christians affiliated with Rome and the Greek-speaking Christians loyal to Constantinople were drifting apart, a separation seemingly sealed by mutual excommunications in 1054.

The second period of dramatic division in Christianity began in October 1517, when the German monk Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg.

During the following decades a series of reform movements resulted in new Christian communities in Europe, usually grouped together under the label “Protestant:” most prominently “evangelical” (Lutheran) churches in parts of Germany and Scandinavia and “reformed” (Calvinist) churches in Geneva, France, the Netherlands, and Scotland.

Among these “new” groups was the Church of England.

Of course, the Church of England was not really new, and in many ways not much about Christianity changed for English Christians. What did change was King Henry VIII’s declaration, ratified by Parliament, that he, not the Pope in Rome, was the Supreme Governor of the Church in England.

On the one hand, Henry’s assertion arose from very particular circumstances: he wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had not given him a son and heir, declared invalid, and the Pope refused to do so. Also, after first defending the Church against the criticisms of Luther and other reformers, Henry began to find attractive certain Protestant teachings, especially on worship and salvation.

On the other hand, Henry’s break with Rome (like those of other rulers in Europe) represented the culmination of a long struggle between the papacy and “secular” rulers over control of church offices and properties. Kings like Henry felt that they had their office from God and that they (not the Pope) were ultimately responsible for the salvation of their subjects.

In any event, after a period of turbulence, legislation under Elizabeth I institutionalized the subordination of the Church of England to the monarch, and the break with Rome became final. During Elizabeth’s reign and afterwards, distinctively Anglican (from the Latin for “English”) forms of theology, worship, and governance took shape.

As a colonizing power, England brought its version of Christianity to lands across the globe, including the Americas, Africa, Australia, and India. As these colonies became independent in the eighteenth and later centuries, their Anglican churches became independent of the Church of England, although they continued to share the basic elements of Anglican thought and practice.

As an association of such churches, the Anglican Communion is a Christian remnant, so to speak, of England’s past as a colonial power. Today it claims some 80 million Christians worldwide. Of these only about 30 percent live in the United Kingdom, while about half live in Africa.

Each member of the church of the Anglican Communion is independent and has its own leading bishop or primate. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as the primate of England, serves as the spiritual leader of the entire Communion, but he lacks the direct institutional authority of the Roman Catholic or Coptic Popes. Still, Anglicans look to him to articulate and foster unity and harmony within the Communion.

Even if the Anglican Communion is a global Christian community, the selection of a new Archbishop reflects the Church of England’s status as a state church. The Prime Minister nominates someone from a short list prepared by a committee made up of prominent clergy and laypersons. And, ultimately, the Queen, as the Supreme Governor of the Church, approves the appointment.

When Justin Welby was chosen in November 2012, the public learned of his appointment through a press release, which was followed by a press conference with Welby. It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast with the dramatic selection of Pope Tawadros in Cairo by the hand of an ordinary boy just days earlier.

The relatively secretive process, under the auspices of the political leaders of the United Kingdom, appears at odds with the global character of the Anglican Communion, over 60 present of whose adherents live in Africa, Oceania, and Asia.

Indeed, it is the diversity of global Anglicanism that poses the greatest challenge for Archbishop Welby.

While Anglican churches in the northern hemisphere (Britain, the United States) experience declining attendance and grow more liberal in matters of gender and sexuality, those in the southern hemisphere (especially Africa) evince great spiritual energy and remain committed to more conservative views.

In recent years homosexuality in particular has divided the Anglican Communion. The election of openly gay Gene Robinson as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in 2004 shocked conservative Anglicans.

Bishops from Africa, led by Peter Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria (2002-2010), have boycotted official meetings of the Anglican Communion and organized alternative events for themselves and other disgruntled bishops from around the world. Some African bishops and their allies have ordained bishops in the United States to lead more conservative Anglicans here. U.S. Episcopalians are chafing at what they see as interference from outsiders in their religious community.

Globalization has affected the Anglican Communion in complex ways. Electronic forms of communication, rapid travel, and Christian growth in the former “Third World” have diversified the Communion and enabled closer relationships among Anglicans across the world.

At the same time, now the election of the bishop in a relatively small diocese in New England gets the attention of and provokes action by the Primate of Nigeria. It is uncertain whether and in what form the Anglican Communion can survive in the years ahead.

The Roman Catholic Church and its Pope

The Roman Catholic Church remains by far the largest community of Christians in the world, with over one billion adherents. And much like the Anglicans, it owes its expansion in no small measure to the expansion of European colonial power from the 1500s on.

Globalization presents challenges for it as well. Europeans and North Americans may be more aware of the problems associated with clerical sexual abuse, but on a larger scale the Church faces some profound questions raised by its changing global demographics.

Only about 25 percent of Catholics today live in the Church’s traditional homeland of Europe, with most growth in Africa and Asia. How much should the Church in these areas remain loyal to European modes of worship and practice? When does adaptation to local culture become theologically problematic?

Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in the traditional stronghold of Latin America is declining as believers defect to Protestant churches, especially Pentecostal or “charismatic” movements that emphasize dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, such as divine healing, speaking in tongues, and exorcism.

The procedure for electing the bishop of Rome—that is, the Pope—may not have seemed the most promising way to find a leader who could confront all these problems. Its basic features reflect the nature of the papacy in the Middle Ages, when the Pope was not only a spiritual leader, but also the ruler of his own kingdom (the Papal States) with a vast fortune in land, buildings, art, and cash.

The electors are cardinals, known as “princes of the Church,” all appointed by the Pope. Today nearly all the cardinals are or have been bishops or archbishops (leaders of Catholics in a specific city or region), but this is not a requirement to be a cardinal. The renowned American theologian Avery Dulles is a recent example of a cardinal who was not a bishop.

Cardinals were originally clergy from Rome set aside to assist the Pope. During the Middle Ages, however, cardinals came to be seen as the equivalent of royal princes in hereditary monarchies. Indeed, the election of a monarch by a small group of “princes” resembles how the Holy Roman Emperor was chosen in the medieval and early modern periods.

Before the eleventh century the Pope, as bishop of Rome, was elected much as other bishops were, in a process that involved local clergy, influential lay people, and other bishops. However, the extraordinary power of the Roman bishop enticed dying popes, politicians (such as the Holy Roman Emperor), and wealthy Italian families to manipulate the process in favor of their favorite candidates. Bribery and violence were common.

Pope Nicholas II (1059-1061) reduced the influence of politicians and lay people by restricting the process to certain clergy, with the cardinals as the final electors. Reforms in subsequent centuries eventually placed the power of election completely in the hands of the cardinals.

As the world just witnessed, the cardinals (now only those under the age of 80) meet in a conclave in the Sistine Chapel. They are shut off completely from the rest of humanity, without communication to or from outsiders—except for the black or white smoke that signals whether a Pope has been elected. This extreme secrecy reflects continued concern about the influence of political and secular people on the deliberations of the electors.

The seclusion of the conclave protects the cardinals from such external influence, and it encourages them not to take too long to reach the two-thirds majority required for election. A senior cardinal reveals the name of the elected candidate to the waiting crowd outside the Basilica of St. Peter in Latin: “Habemus Papam!” (“We have a Pope!”)

The election of a Pope is overtly political, with relatively frank discussions of leading candidates before the conclave begins. At the same time, Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit guides the process. For believers there is no real contradiction between these two statements. To their minds, God works through human institutions like the Church and through fallen human beings.

The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Begoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, suggests that the cardinal electors were eager to meet the challenges of an ever more diverse and global Church. Even though more than half the cardinals in the conclave came from Europe, they chose the first Pope from the southern hemisphere and from the Americas.

The German Benedict XVI had made “re-evangelization” of an increasingly secular Europe his major theme, but the sexual abuse scandal and his failure to get firm control of the Vatican bureaucracy (the Curia) undermined this project. The cardinals may have reasoned that revitalization of the Church in areas like Europe may require a Pope who comes from the southern world, where the Church is growing despite competition, and who is experienced with the energy of both Pentecostalism and secularism (evident in his native Argentina).

Moreover, as an outsider to the often clubby world of the Vatican and European Christianity, he may be able to undertake the serious reform of the bureaucracy and the clerical ranks that Benedict did not achieve.

The Global Future of Christianity

In late 2012 and early 2013 the world saw three major Christian communities choose their spiritual leaders in strikingly different ways. Each of these communities has a long history, and the differing ways that they select their leaders reflect that history and each church’s unique social and religious circumstances.

We have seen that two periods of intense debate and division (in the fifth and sixteenth centuries) resulted in these varied forms of Christianity. As different as they are, however, these churches and their new leaders all face the challenges that contemporary globalization poses to Christianity.

Christianity is now a religion primarily of the southern hemisphere, where political movements like the Arab Spring and religious movements like Pentecostalism are unsettling longstanding patterns of religious life.

It may be that we are in the midst of a third great period of realignment, in which Christians will divide and coalesce over social and political issues like gender and sexuality and over religious practices like spiritual healing and exorcism.

Since the sixteenth century Christians have seen themselves as grouped into three major traditions: Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, with further divisions within these (“Coptic Orthodox,” “Russian Orthodox,” “Methodist,” “Presbyterian,” etc.).

But these identities, based on nationality and/or doctrinal commitments, seem today increasingly less significant than, say, shared commitments on matters like gay marriage and abortion or shared experiences of spiritual gifts. Moreover, Pentecostalism does not fit easily into any of these three broad categories and perhaps represents a new, fourth major Christian tradition.

Such longstanding Christian identities as the Roman Catholic Church or the Lutherans or the Greek Orthodox are not going away, even if some of them (like the Anglican Communion) are in danger of further division. They are, however, becoming less important to many Christians.

In today’s global environment, shared political views, agreement on sexual ethics, and participation in charismatic revivals tie many believers together more strongly than ethnic origin or doctrines like the nature(s) of Christ.

Innovative Christian leaders are forming new networks—media groups, political advocacy organizations, charismatic healing movements, and the like—that cross geographical and denominational boundaries and that compete with older churches for the time, energy, and money of believers.

Pope Tawadros, Archbishop Justin Welby, and Pope Francis will have crucial roles to play in whether and how their traditional churches remain relevant in the emerging global Christianity.