Among the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Coptic Church is one of the outstanding. It is the Church of Alexandria, one of the five patriarchal churches and one of the churches founded by the Apostles, according to tradition, by St. Mark, who is its patron. It is predominantly the Church of Egypt, though it has many members from other parts of the world, including Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, as well as in the United States.
The Coptic Orthodox Church meets regularly with other Ancient Orthodox Churches in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church signed a Common Declaration on May 10, 1973 expressing the shared faith of Catholics and Copts especially in what concerns belief in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God in language that reflects the Apostolic faith.
The Coptic Church is very proud of its ancient culture and heritage. Its Catechetical School was one of the two outstanding schools of the ancient Christian world, the other being the school of Antioch in Syria. Alexandria was a center of learning, culture and scientific discovery; Antioch was characterized by its exploration of the world of ideas, and other characteristics of the Eastern world. Alexandria was part of the Orthodox tradition though its culture was distinct from Rome and Constantinople and its theological ties with Rome were very deep
Origen who wrote over 6, 000 commentaries of the bible in addition to his famous Hexapla had a profound influence on the Alexandrian school and was one of its most creative theologians. Many scholars such as St. Jerome visited the school of Alexandria to exchange ideas and to communicate directly with its scholars. The school of Alexandria was not limited to theological subjects, because science, mathematics and the humanities were also taught there. Among the great Egyptian fathers of the Church was Saint Anthony, the world’s first Christian monk. St. Athanasius was Pope of Alexandria for 46 years from 327 AD to 373 AD. He was the great light of the Council of Nicea in 325. St. Cyril of Alexandria was the leading theologian of the Council of Ephesus in 451 AD.)
During the Arab conquest by Islam, the Coptic Church flourished. This is due in large measure to the fact that the Prophet of Islam had an Egyptian wife, and Mohammed instructed the Muslims to be kind to the Copts.
The Coptic Church was separated from the Church of Rome in the 5th century by the debates at the Council of Chalcedon. The Coptic Church was accused of following the teachings of Eutyches, who believed in monophysitism. This doctrine maintains that the Lord Jesus Christ has only one nature, the divine, not two natures, the human as well as the divine. Copts clearly believe in two natures “human” and “divine” that are united in one “without mingling, without confusion and without alteration “(from the declaration of faith at the end of the Coptic divine liturgy). These two natures “did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye (also from the declaration of faith at the end of the Coptic divine liturgy.)
Catholic-Coptic Common Declaration (May 10, 1973)
In May 1973 Pope Paul VI and Pope of Alexandria Shenouda III signed a Common Declaration expressing together the common faith which Catholics and Copts share. It is a brief document incorporating common faith about God, Jesus Christ, the Church and the Sacraments, as well as traditions that have been preserved in both churches through centuries of history. There is a reconciliation and affirmation of the faith of both churches at the time of the Council of Chalcedon, though the wording of the declaration incorporates contemporary ecumenical understanding.
Pope Shenouda III has been a beacon of light for the Coptic Church and an important leader in the reconciliation of Christian Churches through the ecumenical movement and his participation in the work of the World Council of Churches as well as the Roman Catholic – Oriental Orthodox Dialogue. While Eucharistic sharing is a topic that remains an important consideration for separated Christians, the Coptic Church has not made any special overtures in this direction. It is my sense that such a move will be made jointly with the other Oriental Orthodox Churches.
(This article appeared in Bread Broken and Shared in March/April, 2011. It is reprinted because of deep interest in developments in Egypt at this time.)_____________________________________