The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church

The Holy Synod is the highest ecclesiastical body in the church and is responsible for the church's spiritual, ecclesiastical, structural, organizational, and economic affairs. From the beginning of the fourth century, the Holy Synod, made up of all the members of the Coptic episcopate, attended the important ecumenical councils and synods. The members of the Holy Synod are always expected to be present at the coction and consecration of the holy myron.

The historical data of the Holy Synod reflect both the spiritual and numerical strength of the church at any given time. When ninety-four bishops under the jurisdiction of Saint Athanasius attended the Council of Alexandria in 320, this number included not only the dioceses in the Nile Delta and the Nile Valley, but also those of Libya and the Pentapolis. At the time of the reign of Constantine the Great, the Egyptian episcopacy consisted of seventy sees. The First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 325 was attended by a total of 318 bishops. There Saint Athanasius and fifteen bishops represented the Egyptian Church. In the following century, the Third Ecumenical Council convened in Ephesus in 431 and was attended by two hundred bishops under the chairmanship of Cyril I, the twenty-fourth patriarch of Alexandria, who was accompanied by forty Egyptian bishops. Eighteen years later, the Emperor Theodosius II called another council at Ephesus, in which fifteen bishops from Egypt participated. A total of five hundred bishops attended the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451, which led to the tragic schism with the Imperial Church. At the first session, Dioscorus, the twenty-fifth patriarch of Alexandria, was accompanied by sixteen bishops from Lower Egypt. At the fourth session on October 17, 451, thirteen Egyptian bishops presented their profession of faith to the Emperor Marcianus.

We do not know whether all bishops attended every local episcopal synod. For the election of Kha'il I in 744 as the forty-sixth patriarch of Alexandria, the episcopal synod was represented by merely eleven bishops. Thirteen bishops selected Cyril II (1078-92) to be the sixty-seventh patriarch of Alexandria.

When Badr al-Gamali, the commander of the armies, called an episcopal council in 1086 to settle certain ecclesiastical affairs, a total of forty-seven bishops attended, twenty-two each from Lower and Upper Egypt as well as those from Cairo, Giza, and al-Khandaq.

It is doubtful that the whole hierarchy of the Coptic Church participated in the ceremony of the consecration of the holy myron (tabikh al-mayrun), which took place either in the Monastery of Saint Macarius or in Cairo. In 1257, twelve bishops, eight from Lower and four from Upper Egypt, were present, while in 1299 the same number of bishops, this time five from Lower and seven from Upper Egypt, gathered for the ceremony of the consecration of the holy myron in the Church of Abu Saifain in Old Cairo. In 1305, the consecration of the holy myron took place again at the Monastery of Saint Macarius with eighteen bishops in attendance, while in 1320, one metropolitan, from Damietta, and twenty-four bishops were present at the ceremony.

In this respect it is noteworthy that Abu al-Makarim, known as Abu Salih the Armenian, mentions in the thirteenth century "sixty bishops in the two provinces of Northern and Southern Egypt." The Coptic manuscript 53 of the John Rylands Library, Manchester (fourteenth century), goes beyond that and enumerates ninety-five dioceses. This represented the height of medieval Coptic church life.

By the seventeenth century, however, the number of bishoprics had considerably decreased. In his History of the Church of Alexandria of 1672/73, Johann Michael Wansleben lists a mere seventeen dioceses, and in 1714 the Jesuit C. Sicard refers to fifteen diocesan bishops, including the bishop of Alexandria, who served as grand vicar of the patriarchate and whose jurisdiction included the provinces of Sharqiya and Buhayra and the towns of Mahalla, Mansura, Damietta, Rosetta, and Damanhur. Throughout the following years the number of dioceses remained more or less stable. R. Strothmann, writing in 1932, lists eighteen bishoprics, including Jerusalem and the Sudan. My own list of Coptic bishops in Egypt as of 1964 mentions thirty-one episcopal sees, including the monasteries, six of which were temporarily vacant. In my list of Coptic bishops in Egypt as of 1977 I provide the names of thirty-two bishops and their respective diocesan sees.

Today, the Holy Synod includes seventy-eight metropolitans, bishops, and the wakil al-batrakiya, an archpriest representing the married clergy. In 1985 a constitution for the Holy Synod was drafted, setting out its objectives, policies, and procedures. To facilitate more effective functioning, Pope Shenuda III divided the Holy Synod into seven subcommittees dealing with pastoral affairs, liturgical affairs, ecumenical relations, monastic affairs, faith and ethics, and diocesan affairs. The Holy Synod convenes annually on the Saturday prior to Pentecost Sunday in the Chapel of Saint Antony in the Pontifical Residence in Cairo. In 1994 Pope Shenuda III conducted the inaugural seminar for the members of the Holy Synod.

The Members of the Holy Synod of 1998

The consecration date represents the most recent ordination. Abbreviations: M=Metropolitan, DB=Diocesan Bishop, MB=Monastic Bishop or Abbot, GB=General Bishop





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