In Egypt this weekend, the Coptic Orthodox Church will select its 118th pope. The new pope will succeed the late Shenouda III, who led the Coptic Church—a venerable and long-suffering communion, and the largest Christian church in the Middle East today—for forty years. The selection process, which is codified in Egyptian civil law, tracks ancient custom and is quite fascinating.
According to Eastern Christian practice, only monks—that is, celibate priests attached to a monastic brotherhood—may become pope. (In Eastern Christianity, parish priests, but not monks, may marry.) Candidates are nominated by clergy and lay leaders; a nominating committee of clergy and lay members vets the candidates and prepares a provisional list. There is a notice and comment period, during which an electoral committee made up of clergy and lay delegates from Coptic dioceses around the world—as well as “current and former Christian government ministers and members of the Egyptian parliament” and “Christian journalists who work for daily newspapers and are registered with the Egyptian Press Association”—considers the names presented. A final list of five to seven names is agreed on, and then the electoral committee votes. The three candidates who receive the highest number of ballots move to the final round.
As of today, the final list of three candidates is ready. The last step in the selection process will take place this coming Sunday, November 4. And here is where things get really interesting. On Sunday, the names of the three candidates will be placed in a box on the altar of the patriarchal cathedral. Following Liturgy, a blindfolded child will draw one of the names out of the box and show it to the assembled congregation: That candidate will be the new Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. (Just to be sure nothing funny has happened, the other two names in the box will be read out as well.)
From a Western perspective, this is an unusual way to select a pope. For one thing, the extensive participation of the laity will strike Catholics as strange and perhaps dangerous. But lay involvement in papal selection really is an ancient practice. Indeed—readers, please correct me if I’m wrong—formal lay participation was the practice in Catholicism until the Middle Ages, when the College of Cardinals was given exclusive right to elect the Pope. (Of course, informal lay participation continued long after that.) The ex officio participation of Christian parliamentarians and journalists is harder to explain. Most likely, it reflects the old Ottoman millet system, in which patriarchs were both spiritual and secular leaders, expected to represent their entire communities at the sultan’s court (though Copts did not, as far as I know, constitute a millet in Ottoman times). And what about the final step, the seemingly random choice of a blindfolded child? Is that a rational way to choose a leader for the church? Ah, well. Something has to be left to God.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s.