We will probably know the name of the 118th Patriarch of Alexandria within a couple of hours. Copts around the world are huddled around televisions and laptops or congregated around projectors, as though we were all attending one gigantic liturgy (and there’s a very real sense in which we all are).
Whatever the outcome, it’s worth noting that a beautiful spirit has descended quietly upon the Coptic Church over the past few months, and with particular potency over the past few days. Copts have a range of perspectives on the upcoming selection. Many of us are entirely unfussed (which is not unwise, given the amazing quality of all three candidates). Others have strong feelings about the sort of person required to lead the Coptic Church into the 21st Century. And the three candidates themselves present a definite range of potential avenues for the Church to go down over the next few years. There can be no doubt that the rapidly approaching announcement will be of great consequence for the Church. The late Pope Shenouda III is a powerful example of how much good can be achieved by the right person. It is no coincidence that although Copts are among the smallest Orthodox youth communities in Western countries, we are easily one of the most active. The right person in the right position can do wonders for the Church.
So the stakes are high. So much rests on the pieces of paper in that container. But the Church’s incessant calls for world-wide fasting and prayer from all Copts in all countries over the last few weeks have resulted in a stunning, and surprisingly potent spirit of calm. Copts of all bents have surrendered their own strong opinions on where the Church needs to go. Instead of the selection of a particular candidate, the overwhelming sentiment of our collective prayers has been for Christ to select His own, chosen servant. As one of Sydney’s youth priests put it recently, we are praying a ‘spirit-filled shepherd.’ No more, and no less. Collectively, as far as possible, we have all surrendered our own individual desires for the Church’s future, and placed them upon the altar; the very altar upon which this worldwide liturgy is being prayed now. There, those desires will be broken with Christ’s Body and shed with His Blood; and resurrected in perfect accordance with His will.
The use of a lot to make such momentous decisions is thoroughly apostolic; it goes back to the earliest days of the Church. When the early Church had to decide who would take Judas’ place among the twelve:
“… they proposed two: Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, O Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two You have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.” And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
It is a brave, but powerful gesture of faith in the reality of Christ’s resurrection to surrender such a powerful decision to Him. It would be hard to understate the incredible achievement our Church has made, in expressing such genuine submission on such an important choice. Whatever grievances anyone has with the Coptic Orthodox Church, it cannot be accused of insincerity. We are either incredibly brave, or in St. Paul’s words, ‘the most pitiable of all men‘ (1 Cor 15:19).
As the final few moments close in on us, we need to pray harder than ever for the three candidates, and that Christ choose the right man; a spirit-filled shepherd who will inspire the Church of Egypt to serve the world and each other in love, sincerity and humility.
“Graciousy appoint for us a good shepherd to shepherd Your people in purity and righteousness.”