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The Whole Disposing Thereof is of the Lord

An address given by Abba Seraphim, Metropolitan of Glastonbury at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church, Winton, Bournemouth, on Sunday, 15 November 2009

On 14 November the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates the 38th anniversary of the enthronement of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III as the 117th successor of Saint Mark.

We are probably familiar with the process of electing a Catholic Pope; with the gathering of cardinals in conclave, the sealing-up of them into the Sistine Chapel for as long as it takes for them to make a selection and the burning of the ballot papers with the signal to the outside world of black smoke – no selection made – or white smoke Habemus Papam – we have a Pope! Throughout the Church there are similar electoral procedures for choosing bishops and religious leaders, though not as colourful and dramatic; but the Coptic Church – true to her fidelity to apostolic tradition – uses a biblical but rarely used method: the casting of the lot.

For most of us the idea of a lottery has a rather distasteful and secular connotation. In common parlance we dismiss the randomness of some process and stigmatise it as chaotic and ill-considered by idioms like, ‘it’s nothing but a lottery’ so we don’t expect such a process to be used in the solemn and sacred selection of the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

In fact the Coptic Church has a lengthy process of selection of its Pope. There is input by all the dioceses, by the Maglis Milli (which is the general lay council), by the Holy Synod (comprising all the bishops) and there are certain requirements, such as the age of the candidate, his nationality, the length of time he has served as a monk as well as certain impediments. Again the Coptic Church is alone in observing the canon of the first œcumenical council of Nicaea which forbade the translation of bishops from one see to another[1] – a measure intended to prevent ambitious clerics progressing to richer and more powerful sees as well as a recognition that there is a permanency about the bishop and his see, like the bonds of marriage. This means that a diocesan bishop is not eligible for selection as Pope although a general bishop, one not possessing a see, is not debarred. Having applied themselves to the selection of suitable candidates, the Holy Synod compiles a final short-list of three names. These are then placed into a small box, which is placed upon the altar of the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Cairo and, following the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, one name is drawn out by a randomly-selected Coptic boy and handed to the locum tenens, who declares it to the assembled multitude. This method is appropriately called in Arabic al-Qur’ah al-Haykaliyyah, the choice from the altar.

The model for this method of selection is to be found in the Acts of the Apostles (I: 21-26) where, following the apostasy and suicide of Judas, the disciples – numbering 120 – met together to fill the vacancy among the XII. They established the requirement,

“Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

We might note here that the Authorised version translates this as be ordained but the Greek verb here is genesthai, more accurately meaning to become, and that the Authorised version used it in its earlier sense of setting forth or ordering. It is important that we understand that the choice was God’s, not that of the other apostles or disciples.[2] There were only two eligible candidates: Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus and Matthias and over these they prayed,

“Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over the apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.”

After this prayer we are told, “They cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.” God’s approval of this method of choice is demonstrated by the fact that shortly after this the XII Apostles, who now included Matthias, received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

As the reference to the lot here is clearly not to an election by the assembled Christians it was probably done by the candidates themselves or by one of the gathered disciples selecting either a white or black stone, a method which many scholars believe was how the Jewish High Priest determined the will of God.[3] There is one inaccurate translation of this text[4] which renders it, “they put it to the decision of chance, and the decision was given for Matthias.” Of course that must be how the secular world views the procedure, but for the Church it is anything but a “decision of chance.”

The lot has a long biblical tradition. There are some seventy Old Testament references to it and seven in the New Testament. It is used by the priests to separate the scapegoat from the one to be sacrificed, “He is to cast lots for the two goats – one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat.” (Leviticus XVI: 8); it was used for the apportionment of the promised land among the Israelites, “Be sure that the land is distributed by lot” (Numbers XXVI: 55). The duties attached to the Temple were determined by lot, “They divided them impartially by drawing lots” (1 Chronicles XXIV:5) whilst even the sailors of Tarshish – determined to find out who was responsible for arousing the wrath of God in the form of a great tempest – “Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’ They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.” (Jonah I: 7).

None of these biblical illustrations were seen as decisions of chance – like the National Lottery – but all resorted to it as a means of determining the will of God. The Book of Proverbs exemplifies the purpose of the lot, “The lot is cast into the lap; but its every decision is from the Lord”, or as the Authorised version renders it, “the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (XVI: 33) with the desired result being, “Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart.” (XVIII: 18).

The use of the lot was first employed in the selection of Coptic Popes at the election of John IV (777-799), the 48th Patriarch, although before that a variety of procedures had been adopted including nomination and appointment of a candidate by his predecessor; nomination by consultation and election by members of the clergy and laity, sometimes in conjunction with the ruler and even nomination or election following a dream or a vision by a devout Christian. The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church records that following the death of Pope Zachariah (1004-1032) the Wazir[5] proposed the use of the lot to resolve the impasse over agreeing  a successor. His suggestion was based on the example of the practise currently in use among the Nestorians in Baghdad[6], but as emulating heretics was unlikely to appeal to the heirs of Saint Cyril, the bishops and abbots of the Wadi Natrun rejected this proposal and elected Shenouda II, whose fifteen year reign was characterised by rampant simony.

It is recorded, however, that the lot was also used in the selection of the Bishop of Cairo during the pontificate of Pope Makarios II (1102-1128), 69th Patriarch. Shortly afterwards the lot was reintroduced for the election of Pope Michael V (1145-1146), the 71st Patriarch, when we are told that the names of three candidates as well as of the Lord Jesus Christ were placed upon the altar and, after three days of prayer, the draw was made by a child. If the fourth slip with the Saviour’s name was drawn it was understood to signify that none of the candidates were chosen and others should be sought. This method remained in use for the election of two more thirteenth century popes: John VII (1262-1268), the 77th Patriarch and Gabriel III (1268-1271), the 78th Patriarch, after which it fell into disuse. It was not used again until the election of Pope Mark VIII (1796-1809), the 108th Patriarch.[7]

During the latter half of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century the Coptic Church was riddled by unedifying internal conflict.[8] In 1946 the Metropolitan of Girga, Anba Yusab became Pope Yusab II. It was suggested that his election had followed a vigorous but unseemly campaign to promote his candidature and his opponents claimed that on the day of the papal elections, which coincided with a strike by public transport workers, his partisans were transported to the election by army vehicles procured on his behalf by an influential army colonel.[9] He had been a monk of St. Antony’s monastery since he was seventeen, he was well educated (having studied at the Theological College in Athens), had been sent on diplomatic missions to Ethiopia, had long pastoral experience as Abbot of St. Anthony’s and as Metropolitan of Girga and had twice served as acting Patriarch. He appeared to be the ideal candidate but instead his pontificate marked a nadir in the modern history of the Coptic Church and in 1955 he was suspended from office and exiled to a monastery.

It was a dark moment for the Coptic Church and for two and a half years the throne of St. Mark remained vacant while the views of the whole community were widely canvassed. Such was the conflict among the Copts that the government intervened after three months to halt the electoral process. Bitter experience had shown the fallacy of departing from the tradition of electing only simple monks but the Maglis Milli still favoured an experienced bishop, whilst the Holy Synod wished to return to the former practise. Eventually three candidates, all simple priest-monks, were selected and the biblical custom of selection by lot was revived, the ultimate testimony of faith in the choice of the Holy Spirit. The fidelity of the Coptic Orthodox Church was duly rewarded by the election in 1959 of Abuna Minâ Muttawahid El-Baramousy, who as Pope Kyrillos VI was to herald the dawning of the long-awaited renewal.

Following the death of Pope Kyrillos VI in 1971 the same electoral process was followed and Pope Shenouda, formerly General Bishop for Education, was selected as his successor. There can be no doubt that in the last half century the Coptic Church, faced with the challenges of living with the young Egyptian Republic, the rise of militant Islam, the growth of the Coptic diaspora and Christian ecumenism, has been well served by its popes and although quite different in style, their pontificates have been a time or spiritual renewal and significant witness, both ecumenically and internationally.

It is interesting that the lot was also used in 1917 for selecting a Patriarch of Moscow when the Russian Orthodox Church regained its freedom after almost two centuries of state control. The lot was drawn from an urn placed before the Vladimir Ikon of the Virgin by a saintly starez from the strict Zossimov monastery and fell upon the mild but staunch Archbishop Tikhon of Moscow. Like Pope Kyrillos VI, of the three candidates he had received the lowest number of votes, but the use of the lot united all parties. Faced with the growing challenge of fiercely atheistic Communism, he likened his election to the scroll eaten by the prophet Ezekiel on which were written words of lament and mourning and woe (Ezekiel II: 10) but he submitted to the will of God,

“From now on I am entrusted with the care for all the Russian churches, and what awaits me is the gradual dying for them all my days. Who is content with this even amongst those who are firmer than I ! But let the will of the Lord be done, I am strengthened by the fact that I have not sought this election. It came to me without my wish, even without the wish of men, according to the lot of God.”[10]

Soon to be persecuted and imprisoned by the Soviets, he was undoubtedly driven to an early grave. Today, however, the Russian Church has been restored to its central place in Russian society and Patriarch Tikhon has become a model for Christians under oppression and formally canonised as foremost confessor among the thousands who suffered and died under the Soviet yoke.

In 1990 the Serbian Orthodox Church elected Bishop Pavle of Raska-Prizren as Patriarch of Serbia. The lot had only been introduced in 1967 as a means of curbing the influence of the Communist authorities, who were believed to have intervened decisively in the election of Patriarch German (Dorić) in 1958. During the Holy Synod’s deliberations, the Interior Minister, Aleksander Ranković (1909-1983), entered with Bishop German and announced “This is your new Patriarch”. Patriarch Pavle was not the leading candidate but once again the Holy Spirit’s choice was for a deeply spiritual leader to lead the Church through a time of transition and crisis for the Serbs.

Inextricably linked in the whole selection process used in the Coptic Church is the issue of the XVth Nicene canon, debarring the candidature of diocesan bishops, and whether this should be retained. It can be argued that the Holy Spirit should be able to choose from the bishops as well as simple monks.  The translation of bishops had been discouraged by the Apostolic Canons (XIV) but with the increase and prestige of the church having been enhanced by the Emperor Constantine’s support, the problem of ambitious courtier bishops seeking preferment had led the Nicene fathers to specifically forbid episcopal translations. St. Athanasius the Apostolic refers to the diocese in a spiritual sense as the bishop’s bride and to desert it and take another would be an unjustifiable divorce and subsequent adultery. Later, when bishops held more than one see in plurality they were accused of committing a form of spiritual adultery. It would, therefore, be naïve to assume that when the time comes to choose a new Pope there will no element of human ambition. Ecclesiastical ambition may not be naked, but it exists nevertheless. Of course, many will be ambitious for the best of reasons, desiring to use the papacy for the good of the Church rather than self-aggrandisement, but the creation of factions and parties which the selection of candidates engenders will be divisive, when what the Church needs most is unity.

There are some today in the Church who would argue for the lot to be discontinued and for Pope Shenouda’s successor to be selected by a more modern process. Others might prefer something more democratic although the use of the lot, or sortition, was an essential tool in Athenian democracy in the sixth century BC.  Indeed there are some Christians who would contend that it is no longer the way to determine God’s will.

In such an important process all will acknowledge the need to discern the will of God but if one group desires one candidate and a second group desires another, how may we be sure which is God’s choice ? It would be foolish and contradictory of scripture and history to assert that God is always on the side of the majority – remember Athanasius contra mundum – so how can we know who He would choose ?  The lot seems to be the surest way to determine this matter. Having deliberated, conferred and consulted about candidates from the widest possible ‘electorate’ a consensus is reached in the selection of three worthy candidates. The Church has now faithfully discharged her duty and allows the Lord to make the final selection. Confidant that the providential hand of God has brought us thus far in the long history of the Church and of His promise to sustain and uphold her through history, we submit ourselves humbly to His will. Only God knows the future and what it holds for us and He will select one to serve the Church through the trials ahead.

In his first broadcast after the outbreak of war in 1939, King George VI – a man of simple but firm Christian faith – wanted to encourage his listeners to trust in God. He chose a little-known poem, “God Knows” but it expressed a profound truth which should direct us too,

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”[11]


[1] Canon XV, Council of Nicaea, 325.

[2] The Mormons teach that Matthias was both chosen and ordained by the apostles.

[3] Some authorities suggest that Psalm XLII: 3 (Septuagint) “O send out Thy light and Thy truth” refers to the stones used in divination, the urim & thummim, translated as ‘revelation’ and ‘truth’.

[4] The Bible in Basic English

[5] Najib al-Dawl-ab Abu al-Qasim Ali ibn Ahmad al-Jurjani.

[6] Dr. Meinardus states that the Church of the East adopted this method in 884.

[7] Otto F.A. Meinardus, Christian Egypt, Faith and Life (American University Press, Cairo: 1970), pp. 89-144.

[8] Abba Seraphim, ‘The Renewal of Coptic Orthodoxy in the Twentieth Century’, Glastonbury Bulletin No. 92 (March 1996)

[9] Iris Habib el Masri, The Story of the Copts: The true story of Christianity in Egypt (California: 1982), Book II, p. 418.

[10] Jane Swan, A Biography of Patriarch Tikhon (1964),  pp. 17-20.

[11] Minnie Louisa Haskins (1875-1957), The Desert (1908).

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