For the last 50 years, the Coptic Cathedral in Abbassia, Cairo has been the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch. The partial relics of two past patriarchs, St. Mark and St. Athanasius, are housed there and continue to hold significant symbolism. St. Mark introduced Christianity to Egypt and he was the Coptic Church’s first patriarch and martyr. St. Athanasius lived a life of resistance, struggling to keep the traditional Orthodox Trinitarian theology alive in a world that “found itself Arian.” St. Mark’s legacy is cemented as the founder of the Church in Egypt, its first Martyr, and a model for living a life of Christian holy suffering. Yet, what exactly is St. Athanasius’ legacy, and is it still relevant today?
In the traditional telling of the life of St. Athanasius, the heretical priest Arius claimed that the Son in the Trinity was created. In response, Pope Alexander, and then St. Athanasius as his successor and protégé, opposed and excommunicated Arius. The Council of Nicaea then took place to settle the matter and Orthodoxy emerged victorious, with most attendees subscribing to the Nicaean creed: that the Son is of “the same essence” as the Father. The Creed promulgated in Nicaea was just the start of a long theological debate on the relationship of the Trinity persons and the Godhead. Arius’ position was that the Son is of a different essence than the Father. In other words, the Son was a created being, as opposed to the Father, the creator. The controversy changed many times, with geopolitical factors playing a large role, until at least the Council of Constantinople some 56 years later. Between the two great Councils, successive Arian (and briefly, pagan) imperial regimes emerged and those emperors persecuted and exiled St. Athanasius five times, resulting in his absence from Alexandria for seventeen years of his 45 year episcopate.
On the surface, St. Athanasius comes across as a figure of resistance, keeping the faith against unfaithful emperors and heretical Christians. Yet, much of his legacy is missing from such accounts and may be revealed in the nuances of his story. One piece of his legacy that I aim to highlight and to show as relevant to Copts today is his responses to calls for unity; when he chose to join hands and when he chose to walk away.
The Council of Nicaea was a significant event in St. Athanasius’ ecclesiastical career. Constantine the Great began the council with a moving speech calling for unity. Unity and harmony in the Church was the stated political goal for Constantine and what drove him to call the Council in the first place. At the time, the fourth century Church played a large role in Constantine’s world order, and the theological debates threatened the political stability of the Empire. As a soldier-emperor, Constantine didn’t appreciate the complexity of the theological debate and was more interested in achieving unity than refining the theology behind that union. As such, he started the Council by the symbolically significant move of throwing the written accusations and counter-accusations of Arian and Orthodox bishops in a burning brazier. The Council itself was a result of failed informal efforts to get the Alexandrian Church to readmit Arius. One would think that with this intense effort at reconciliation, a compromise would be reached that satisfied the Arian and the Orthodox camps. However, compromise was nowhere to be found on the theological front. The Orthodox bishops, led by Pope Alexander and St. Athanasius, got exactly what they wanted from the Council with little compromise. Nonetheless, they were happy to talk unity when the divisions were not theological in nature, as their dealings with a schismatic group named the Meletians show.
Rivalry between the Church in Alexandria and a Church in Egypt, founded during the Great Persecution (303–313 AD) by Melitus, the Bishop of Lycopolis (Asyut), highlights how St. Athanasius responded to calls for unity. Initially, the split was purely about who was allowed to ordain bishops in Egypt. Once the persecution ended, the split became about the conditions under which an apostate could be readmitted to the church. Either way, the theological differences between the two churches remained somewhat minor, at least when compared to the challenges posed by Arian theology. Thus, during the proceedings of the Council of Nicaea, St. Athanasius and Pope Alexander were happy to support unity initiatives, and compromised on many points with the Melitians. Melitius was able to keep his seat and the clergy he ordained mostly stayed in their position. This pattern of resistance on theological grounds and working toward unity and compromise would persist. For example, when the Melitians made common cause with the Arians, they were fiercely resisted. Yet later, after his return from a fourth exile, St. Athanasius took the position of an “elder statesman” and urged reconciliation to the Nicene Creed regardless of faction. He did this in spite of the existence of many factions that opposed him personally.
As Copts in the diaspora living in a world of many factions, remembering that legacy of St. Athanasius would serve us well. The miaphysite Orthodox faith we received is the result of two millennia of negotiation and sacrifice. This forms the core of our Coptic identities. Yet, faith doesn’t preclude us from collaborating and uniting with other institutions to achieve a common cause. The legacy that St. Athanasius left to his children is not to refuse compromise and continuously raise the banners of resistance, but to know when to join hands and when to walk away.
That collaboration with other institutions can take various forms and shapes depending on local circumstances. It can be recruiting the help of the politically active Evangelical community to ensure freedom of worship in Egypt and the wider Middle East. Naturally, true unity and collaboration must be between equal partners working together with common goals. Unilateral western intervention in the Middle East to protect minorities is not collaboration or unity, and often backfires. Collaboration may also take the form of using academic institutions in the West to modernize the preservation of Coptic identity and community (See: the Coptic Canadian History Project, Fordham University Christian Studies Center, and St. Athanasius College, Melbourne). I am particularly inspired and comforted by the Coptic Canadian History Project’s ability to document and preserve the Coptic heritage as it moves beyond its historical home in Egypt.
I have personally witnessed the transformative power of Western resources combined with the active participation of the Coptic Church to transform Coptic communities in Egypt. My father was close to anba Athanasius, former bishop of Beni Suef and a visionary leader from the Sunday School reform movement – the subject of a recent talk at the “Copts in Modernity” international symposium in Australia. One of the hundreds of projects Anba Athanasius established was an orphanage house, “Beit El Shamamsa” (the deacons’ house). My father was recruited by anba Athanasius to lead and manage this project until his death in 2001, and our immigration to the United States shortly after. I remember vividly as a child, how the project grew from a small house with 10-15 boys, to a large complex housing hundreds of boys and an extension for girls. Also, I remember that several times a year a group of foreigners would pay the orphanage a visit and distribute bags of American candy that me and the other kids would otherwise never see.
They were not there just to distribute candy though. As I grew older, I understood the significance of their visits and the courage and the vision of anba Athanasius to both allow their visits and encourage and bless that kind of collaboration and true unity. In discussions with my father, I confirmed that the visitors came from different churches and backgrounds. One group that was particularly energetic was a part of a Mennonite mission in Egypt that is still active to this day. This social relief project grew and transformed the local community in part due to the organizational support of such missionaries as the Mennonite Central Committee. The boys and girls in Beit El-Shamamsa grew up to be doctors, teachers, and priests whose positive impact is clearly evident today in the small community of Beni Suef and its rural surroundings. Walking in the steps of St. Athanasius, bishop Athanasius understood when to join hands and when to walk away.
The legacy of selective unity is far from the only thing that we can learn from St. Athanasius’ journey. We can also learn a lot from his cultivation of monasticism, his charismatic ability to build popular support, and his skill at inspiring internal loyalty and building external coalitions. In my account of the legacy of St. Athanasius, I sought to specifically make such a history of selective unity relevant to our modern world.
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Jonathan Adly writes and produces the History of the Copts Podcast, a weekly narrative series on the history of the Copts from a geopolitical perspective. He is a clinical pharmacist by training and is based in Delaware, USA. The Podcast can be found on ITunes and most other Podcast players under the title “History of the Copts.”
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