Monday, 19 March 2012

An ecumenical proposal

The Holy Spirit is clearly speaking to the churches, with the heaven-sent opportunity this week of vacancies (or impending vacancies) in two worldwide communions.

Anglican readers may not be aware that the Coptic Orthodox Church, though essentially a national church in Egypt, has dioceses and parishes on all continents. The Pope of Alexandria has jurisdiction over perhaps 9 million members in Egypt and the same number elsewhere, with a further 50 million members of daughter churches, mainly in Ethiopia and Eritrea, with historic links to his church.

Clearly the Coptic and Anglican communions have a great deal in common: roughly equal in size, with their mainly African membership and their perverse doctrinal differences with the mainstream of Christianity. Both share a current experience of repression by governments who took power under dubious circumstances, and now pretend to conservatism while attacking the historic traditions of their peoples. And crucially, both communions have vacancies for their spiritual leaders.

Is there now a critical ecumenical opportunity: to appoint the same person to be both Pope of Alexandria and Archbishop of Canterbury?

The advantages are obvious. Doubtless the Church Commissioners would be very glad to save one archepiscopal stipend, although there might have to be extra money for travelling expenses, with diocesan duties in Cairo and at Lambeth. And with half-time appointments now increasingly common on the ground, the new pope-archbishop could demonstrate from the top how it is possible to be effective in such a ministry. Meanwhile, at a national level, the Coptic Pope, being a member of the English House of Bishops, might persuade the Church of England to a stronger voice condemning the persecution of Egyptian Christians, and as a member of the House of Lords might sting the British Government into doing the same.

In church affairs, too, this would be a great step forward in the ecumenical journey. It would demonstrate our longing for unity; or at least, of our willingness to pretend to be united, which is as much as anyone attempts, these days. In negotiations with Rome, Canterbury's hand would undoubtedly by strengthened by his assuming the title of Pope, and likewise by the title of Patriarch of All Africa in his dealings with the mere Archbishop Akinola. Whether the errant dioceses of North America will set much store by this authority is more doubtful, but as the Coptic Archdiocese there will outnumber ECUSA before the decade is out it will probably not much matter.

Of course there would be obstacles. The selection process for the Coptic Pope involves a shortlist of three selected by the bishops followed by a final choice made by a blindfolded child; but this is near enough to the procedure of the Crown Nominations Commission as makes no difference. More troubling to some will be the dissent of Coptic Orthodoxy from the definitions of Chalcedon, but Anglican traditionalists (if there are any left) should reflect that any likely Anglican candidate is unlikely to believe in them either, and at least Coptic candidates will probably understand them. Concerned Copts should be reassured that Anglican candidates for the post will all be quite used to wearing vestments they don't know the names of, and to teaching contradictory doctrines in different churches.

A more practical difficulty may be the ministry of women. Although the Coptic Church, like the Church of England, revived the order of deaconesses after a long hiatus, there remains a bar on women in the priesthood. Surely, however, a compromise could be reached, whereby women could be admitted to Holy Orders so long as they wore beards. This would be sure to find synodical approval, and, indeed, it is surprising that it has not been tried before. As a last resort, of course, the Ordinariate would become open to ex-Copts, and we await with bated breath word from the Vatican about which elements of their patrimony they would be allowed to pretend to keep.

Set against these minor difficulties, the spiritual gains of appointing the first pope-archbishop would be immense. Traditional Anglo-Catholics would have the option of adding even more exotic lines of apostolic succession to their doubtful orders, while liberal ones would rejoice in making up a lot of liturgical practices and claiming a Coptic origin. With Ethiopian scarves from Camden Market over dust-coloured cassock-albs, it could be the new "Celtic". 

Meanwhile, there is much for Evangelicals, too. The mission-shaped will be able to point to an immediate near-doubling of our numbers, transfer growth of seventy million pre-catechised Christians (by far the best kind) needing only to join a home group and learn about worship songs to become real Christians.

Indeed, with Coptic congregations in the USA inceasing fifty times, from four churches to over 200 during Pope Shenouda's ministry, with this joint appointment the Coptic Liturgy would become, at a stroke, the largest and fastest-growing Fresh Expression in the Anglican Communion. And who would not want to see that?

1 comment:

  1. There is a Coptic Catholic Church, and that unlike the Ordinariate it is not made up of people who have only ever used the Roman Rite.

    Other than that, though, you should send this as a letter to the Church Times.