African Christianity has apostolic roots. St. Mark the Evangelist brought the Gospel to the Egyptian city of Alexandria — second only to Rome in the ancient world — and established a church there as early as A.D. 42.
Mark sowed the Christian seed on fertile ground, extending his evangelical reach beyond Alexandrias prosperous Jewish community. He called for the citys Greeks and Copts (a derivative of the Greek word Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian) to adopt the way, the early Christian description for discipleship in Jesus Christ.
Though sporadically persecuted by the Romans — Mark died a martyrs death around A.D. 67 — the Alexandrian church blossomed. It provided the universal church with the philosophical foundation and theological vocabulary responsible for its explosive expansion, introduced the cenobitic and hermitic variants of monastic life and peopled the universal church with some of its greatest saints and scholars.
By the early third century, its reputation as the primary center of learning, biblical scholarship and theological exploration was unchallenged in the Christian world. Founded by Pantaenus around 180, the Catechetical School of Alexandria included studies in philosophy, science and mathematics. It was led by such influential thinkers as St. Clement (died 211), Origen (died 251), Didymus the Blind (whose life spanned most of the fourth century) and St. Jerome (died 420), who studied under Didymus.
The Alexandrian church was not confined to the cosmopolitan environment of Alexandria. Its bishops, who still hold the title of pope and patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa, had jurisdiction throughout the African continent. Many Alexandrian Christians, seeking solitary lives of prayer, fled to the desert and the hinterlands south of the Nile Delta. Some, such as St. Anthony the Great (251–356) and St. Macarius (300–390), inspired hundreds of followers who eagerly pursued lives of constant prayer. One such follower, St. Pachomius (died 345), grouped these hermits into communities, forming the first Christian monasteries. This Christian tradition later spread from the African continent to Asia Minor, the Middle East and Europe.
Christological controversies. The great debates of the early church, particularly those centered on the person and nature of Jesus, began long before Emperor Constantine I issued his edict of toleration in 313. As Christianity grew throughout the Mediterranean, it embraced converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic cultures, each of which had its own history, language, philosophy, vocabulary and world view. Typically, the various understandings of Jesus — or Christologies — reflected the culture and language that shaped them.
The Alexandrian church, led by St. Athanasius (298–373), vehemently contested the teachings of one of its influential priests, Arius, who questioned whether Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father. Athanasius understanding of Jesus as both true God and true man became the basis for the creed formulated at the ecumenical councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381.
Despite the formulation of the Nicene Creed, however, Christological debates continued. They assumed an increasing ethnic, linguistic and political tone, disturbing the unity of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire. The indefatigable pope and patriarch of Alexandria, St. Cyril (376–444), took the lead in stirring debate. He irritated the emperor Theodosius II, who resented the reach and influence of the prelate even in the imperial capital of Constantinople.
To restore peace and unity within the church and empire, Theodosius successor called another ecumenical council. The Christological formulations of the Council of Chalcedon — which in 451 asserted that in Jesus two natures exist, perfect in Godhead, perfect in humanity … like us in all things but sin — suggest a victory for the Alexandrian churchs position. But the emperor deposed and exiled the champion of Cyrils theology, Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria (who succeeded Cyril after his death in 444), for an alleged breach of canon law and for his political opposition.
Significant portions of the church of Alexandria, particularly the Coptic–speaking communities of Egypts rural interior, supported the exiled Dioscorus. Led by monks, they opposed the decrees of the council and resented the heavy–handedness of the emperor, who attempted to wipe out all forms of dissent.
For more than a century after Chalcedon, Egypts Coptic and Greek Christian parties struggled to secure the papal see of Alexandria. Finally, in 567, the Byzantine emperor recognized two claimants: the Copt, to whom the vast majority of Egypts Christians owed allegiance, and the Melkite (from the Syriac, meaning of the king), who led the Greek–speaking minority in Egypts cities.
Imperial recognition institutionalized the schism in the Alexandrian church and encouraged the creation of other non–Chalcedonian churches. Commonly known today as Oriental Orthodox, these groups include the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Malankara Syrian and Syriac Orthodox churches. Theologians generally agree this schism reflected cultural, linguistic and philosophic differences more than differences in matters of faith.
Scholars believe that by the eve of the Muslim Arab invasion in 641, Alexandrian Christians included up to 18 million Copts and some 200,000 Melkites, mostly Greek–speaking bureaucrats, merchants and soldiers. Both churches used the distinctive rites of the Alexandrian church. The Copts, however, adapted these liturgies for monastic use, which survive to this day. Eventually, the Greek–speaking church of Alexandria replaced these ancient rites with those from the Byzantine tradition.
Decline and progress. Egypts Coptic majority by and large welcomed the Arabs, preferring their rule to that of the Byzantines, who remained hostile to Coptic Christianity. For centuries, Egypt remained primarily Christian. Conversion to Islam was gradual. The Arabs retained the civil structures set up by the Byzantines; employed Coptic bureaucrats; sanctioned the development of a Coptic code of civil law and later a code of canon law; and approved the construction and refurbishment of churches and monasteries.
But Egypts Greek–speaking Christians suffered for their loyalty to Byzantium and their numbers declined. Until the middle of the 19th century, most of the Greek Orthodox men who held the title of pope and patriarch of Alexandria lived in Constantinople and were appointed by the ecumenical patriarch who resided there.
In the 19th century, the situation changed as Orthodox Christians from Greece, Lebanon and Syria began to settle in cities throughout the African continent. There, they built churches as their communities grew in size and wealth. The port city of Alexandria drew tens of thousands of Orthodox emigrants, particularly as Egypt won a form of autonomy from Great Britain. By the 20th century, the British estimated that nearly 200,000 Greeks lived in Egypt. Flush with assets, the Greek Orthodox popes and patriarchs of Alexandria gained considerable influence in Egypt and beyond.
The controversial Meletios II (1926–1935), who once served as ecumenical patriarch before his resignation in 1923, compiled the bylaws of the patriarchate of Alexandria and submitted them to the Egyptian government. Politically astute, he secured government protection and asserted jurisdiction throughout the continent, introducing All Africa as an official part of his title. Modernizing the patriarchal church, he founded the seminary of St. Athanasius the Great in Alexandria, systematized the churchs courts, regulated church laws governing the order of marriage and divorce and organized patriarchal eparchies.
New growth. Until the 20th century, Orthodoxys reach throughout All Africa ended at the Sahara. The story of how it penetrated the continent, to Kenya and Uganda in particular, is not the familiar one of European missionaries and colonizers. Rather, it began as a spontaneous movement by African Christians seeking a form of Christianity untainted by European colonization with roots in the early church.
Reuben Spartas was an Anglican Ugandan who discovered Orthodoxy through the Back to Africa movement of Marcus Garvey, an influential West Indian who backed the creation of an African Orthodox Church. Frustrated with the Anglican Communions subservience to the British Empire, he joined Garveys church as a priest and began a mission in his native country. Learning later that his orders were invalid, he appealed to the patriarchate in Alexandria to have them regularized. In 1946, Pope Christophoros II received the cleric into the Alexandrian church and ordained him to the priesthood.
The reception of Reuben Spartas opened the entire continent to the ancient church. The synod of the patriarchate extended full communion to those parish communities associated with him, staffed parishes with priests from Egypt and set up eparchies for their pastoral care in Congo, Cameroon, Kenya and Tanzania. In 1981, under the patronage of Archbishop Makarios III of Cyprus, a seminary was established in Nairobi for the training of priests. Since the seminary opened its doors, more than 500 African men have graduated from its three–year program. Graduates, most of whom are subsequently ordained to the priesthood, include men from Burundi, Cameroon, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In 1994, the synod erected an eparchy for Uganda and elected the auxiliary bishop of Irinoupolis as its first hierarch. Theodore Nagiama was the first black man elected to head an eparchy in the Orthodox world. Jurisdictions have also been created in Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Today, an estimated 300,000 people belong to the Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Alexandria — the highest number since the Byzantine emperors recognized the de facto split of the patriarchate in 567. The present pope and patriarch, Theodoros II, leads a dynamic church that honors its Greek past and celebrates its African future.
Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.