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Church leaders depart

19 March 2012

A couple of days after the announcement that the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was resigning came the news that the Coptic Pope of Alexandria, Shenouda III, had died.

Pope Shenouda III obituary | The Guardian:

Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, who has died aged 88 after suffering from prostate cancer, was for four decades the spiritual leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest Christian community in the Middle East. In his native Egypt he was patriarch to 7 to 11 million Copts – the government of the predominantly Muslim country giving a lower estimate than the church’s – and another 4 million worldwide.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is not retiring, but rather moving to an academic post. BBC News – Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to stand down:

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has announced he is to stand down in December.

He will take the position of Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge from January next year, his website says.

Dr Williams, 61, was appointed the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002.

Both have led their communions at a time when each was under great strains that have threatened to cause them to disintegrate: the Coptic Church suffering from pressures from without, the Anglican Communion suffering tensions from within.

I suspect that the Archbishop of Canterbury was in the more difficult position, presiding over a church composed of irreconcilable factions that were tearing it apart. I suspect that, faced with a lose-lose scenario, he preferred to spend the rest of his life doing something more productive, where there might be something to show for it at the end.

Pope Shenouda once told of the time that he had entered a monastery, and thought that that would be the last time that he rode on a bus or a train or car, or even walked along a road, and then he was elected as a bishop, and had to go back into the world. But even as a bishop he tried to spend at least half of each week in the monastery.  I have heard him speak ona few occasions, and got the impression that he was a wise teacher and leader.

For those non-Orthodox who are often confused about how many Popes there are, since the 6th century there have been two Popes and Patriarchs of Alexandria and All Africa. After the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 the Church in Egypt was divided, with Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian factions engaged in power struggles for the patriarchal throne for about a century, after which they split, and since then there have been two Popes in Alexandria. The non-Chalcedonian one, led until last week by Pope Shenouda, is called the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, while the Chalcedonian one is called the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, because it remained in communion with the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem. Today the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa is led by His Beatitude Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa under whose jurisdiction our church falls.

When the Muslim Arabs invaded 80 years after the schism, they found the church divided. The “Greek” Patriarchate had been supported by the former rulers, the Roman Empire, so the Arabs tended to support the “Coptic” Patriarchate more, through both groups of Christians were regarded as inferior by the conquerors.

In recent years the two Popes, Shenouda III and Theodoros II, enjoyed friendly relations. Though theological differences remain, they didn’t seem to be quite as big as they were in the 6th century.

Twenty-first centuy Anglicans, however, seem to be as deeply and bitterly divided as the Greek and the Copts were in the 5th and 6th centuries.  An Anglican friend on Facebook commented, “The resignation of the Archbishop of Canterbury could be the propelling of the English church fully into the 21st Century. Then it could be the catapulting of this church backwards into the Middle Ages.”

That gave me pause for thought.

One could say that for Western Christianity the 20th century was the “ecumenical century”, one in which the ecumenical vision or dream held sway. So if the English church is propelled fully into the 21st century would it mean leaving the ecumenical delusion behind, and fully embracing the notion that squabbling factions are the Christian norm?




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