Egypt and the Altar Lot

It has been amusing over the last few months to read the media stories as to who might or might not be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. More interesting perhaps is who will succeed Pope Shenouda III as the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Church and the method by which he will be chosen.

What makes this appointment process all the more interesting is that it coincides with the campaign for the election of a new Egyptian president. The outcome of the Presidential elections will almost certainly have a major impact on the country’s Christians, who account for about a tenth of the population. When elected, the new Pope will have complex decisions to make politically to balance advocacy for the Christian minority with maintaining good relations between Muslims and Christians.

As far as I understand it, and this is a very much a short-hand version of what is I suspect a rather more complicated process, when a Coptic Pope dies, all 150 bishops of the Church’s Holy Council appoint an acting patriarch until a vote is conducted for a successor. Thousands of bishops, priests and monks then vote for a successor from a list drawn up by a Committee of 14 appointed by the Synod. The end vote results in a shortlist of 3 candidates.

The name of each of the final three candidates is written on separate pieces of paper. The three pieces of paper are then placed in a box on the altar of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo during a Sunday eucharistic liturgy. The acting patriarch presides over this liturgy and all members of the Holy Synod, General Congregation Council and the laity attend. A blind folded five year-old child is then selected from the congregation to draw from the box the name of the next Patriarch, the 118th successor of Saint Mark the Evangelist.

I find the rational mysticism of this selection process quite alluring and in terms of public theatre it is certainly more attractive than the closed bureaucratic process that surrounds the Crown Appointment’s process for the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

This overall selection procedure is relatively new and dates back to a set of bye laws drawn up in 1957 following disputed selections in 1928, 1942 and 1946. The process, however, whereby a blindfolded child randomly draws the winning ticket from a silver urn is centuries old and is known as the Altar Lot. It refers back to the Acts of the Apostles, when the eleven remaining Apostles sought to replace Judas Iscariot by chosing the new Apostle by lot.

The Altar Lot might not be a reliable ecclesiastical system, but the randomness of the final decision does negate personal interest and it does provide a space in which God’s will can shine through in an otherwise politicised process. It also makes for great theatre!

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