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Ancient Roots Modern Church: The Orthodox Copts

The Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt strives to renew its bonds of faith with the churches of the East and West.

According to tradition, Christianity was brought to Egypt in 48 A.D. when St. Mark the Evangelist came to Alexandria to convert the Egyptians and establish a Church there.

St. Mark’s first convert is said to be a Jewish shoemaker named Annianus. After Mark miraculously healed him of a wound, Annianus and his family accepted the faith and were baptized shortly afterwards. Others in Alexandria were soon converted, and Annianus’ house became the first church in the city. The Egyptian Christians came to be called “Copts,” from the Greek word aigyptos, meaning “Egypt.”

St. Mark established the Catechetical School in Alexandria which became the intellectual and spiritual center of the Christian world. Among its great scholars and saints were Clement, Origen, Cyril and Athanasius. The Church in Alexandria, however, separated from the Roman Church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The disagreement centered upon the person and natures of Jesus Christ. Catholics accepted the statement of the Council that Christ has two natures, human and divine, but the Church of Alexandria disputed the wording of the statement. Misunderstanding flared into argument. At first the problem was one of semantics and not of faith; the Copts believe that Jesus Christ is both human and divine. But the problem was not resolved; instead, it grew into a controversy over doctrine. As a result, a schism took place between the Coptic and other Oriental Churches and the Church of Rome.

After the schism the Copts were persecuted, especially by the Melkite Catholics, until the Muslims conquered Egypt in 627. Copts enjoyed only a brief period of religious freedom under the Muslims, who eventually tried to convert them to Islam. Even in the face of persecution, however, the Copts held tenaciously to their faith.

During the Crusades, the Franciscans established a house in Alexandria and in Old Cairo and the Copts again had contact with the Holy See. Some Coptic Church members signed an act of union at the Council of Florence (1438-1445) acknowledging the primacy of the Pope, but the act was never effective. The separation remained between the Church in Rome and the Copts.

There is, however, a Coptic Catholic Church with approximately 76,000 members. Catholic Copts are united to Rome in faith, acknowledging the authority of the Pope, but they follow the customs and ritual of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Traditional Coptic church architecture is similar to the Byzantine style. The interior of the church is divided into four sections: the sanctuary (separated from the rest of the church by a wooden screen called the iconostasis), the choir, the nave, and the narthex, or vestibule. An altar covered with a silken cloth stands in the middle of the sanctuary; some churches also have one or two altars in the side sanctuaries. In some Coptic churches, men and women may sit together in one part of the nave, but another section is reserved exclusively for women.

Coptic churches do not use statues. They are decorated instead with colorful icons on the iconostasis and on the walls.

The Coptic liturgy is stately and proceeds very slowly. Hymns and chants are sung in Arabic or Coptic, sometimes accompanied by cymbals and triangles. The priest’s vestments are very colorful.

Some are the same as those used in the Latin rite, such as the alb, cincture, stole and chasuble, but the priest also wears a silk headdress, similar to a turban and decorated with a cross.

The liturgy followed for most days of the year is that of St. Basil. In preparation for the sacrifice, the priest selects one loaf from the three, five or seven that are offered to him by a deacon. He then places it on the altar. The bread, or “kurbana,” is leavened, round, thick and marked with twelve crosses. It must be newly baked for every Mass, and the baking of the bread itself is a ritual.

The Mass, or Divine Liturgy, is divided into the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament. Throughout the ceremony there is much incensing of the altar and the congregation. Readings from the Psalms, Epistles, and Gospels comprise the first part of the service, and the prayers of consecration follow. The faithful acknowledge the presence of Jesus on the altar when they sing, “I believe, I believe, I believe that this bread and this wine are the true Flesh and the true Blood of Christ who was the Son of the Virgin blessed.” Then they partake of the sacrament, and receive the body of Christ under both species.

At the end of the service, the priest distributes the loaves of bread which were not selected at the preparation, and blesses each person individually.

Other sacraments in the Coptic rite are equally elaborate. Baptism is a long ceremony composed of blessings, prayers, anointing with oil, and the consecration of the water and Holy Chrism. There are two parts of the sacrament of marriage: the betrothal and the crowning. At the betrothal the bride’s dowry of clothing and jewelry is blessed, and at the crowning, the hands and wrists of the bride and bridegroom are anointed, followed by the crowning of both.

The deacon and the priest receive their orders by the imposition of the bishop’s hands on the head. For the consecration of a bishop, the patriarch delivers the pastoral staff to the new bishop and places the Book of the Gospel on his breast.

The Coptic laity are very active in the life of the church. Each church has a parish council with various subcommittees, which work with the clergy to minister to the pastoral and social needs of the community. In every diocese there is also a local Coptic Community Council composed of elected laymen who assist the bishop of the diocese in church affairs.

The present head of the Coptic Church is Pope Shenouda III, the 117th successor of St. Mark and the spiritual leader of all the world’s Coptic Orthodox Christians. He was consecrated “Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark” in 1971, elected by his fellow bishops and clergy who consulted the laity.

Since his election, Pope Shenouda has been making efforts to rebuild old monasteries and establish new seminaries. He has founded over 60 new churches in Egypt, and many in the United States and Canada. He has strong support among Copts, and is considered the leader of the Age of Renaissance of the Coptic Church.

Pope Shenouda is also a concerned participant in the ecumenical movement. He met with Catholic theologians in 1971, and he is the first Alexandrian Pope to visit the Vatican since the schism. In 1973 he and Pope Paul VI signed a declaration stating their oneness in the essence of faith and expressing their concern for the unity of the Church. Pope Shenouda also visited church leaders in the United States and Canada in 1977.

Pope Shenouda III hopes that through his meetings with Church leaders all over the world, there can be a renewal of the bonds of faith between the Coptic Church of Egypt and the other Christian Churches, East and West.

Elena Serocki is an editor and a freelance writer with a special interest in Church history.

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