Religious reform and renewal of the Coptic Church

The present Coptic revival is a result of a long internal development, tending to reinforce both the religious link, which binds the religious community together, and the position of the community in relation to the Muslim majority. To understand the nature of the current Coptic renewal, it is necessary to go back some decades, for in certain aspects this renewal is an internal reaction to developments within the community itself. In fact, renewal was carried out in two phases, very different in nature if not opposed, one 'lay' and the other 'monastic'. Most observers of the Coptic scene divide the recent history of the community into several distinct phases within the overall renewal of the Coptic Church: a period of lay reform and in particular the formation of the Majilis al-Milli (community council) in 1874, which emerged from within the Coptic elite; the monastic revival and the 'Sunday' School Movement - 1930-50; the time of Patriarch Kyrillos VI (1959-71) and the election of Anba Shenuda in 1971, as patriarch of the Coptic Church until the present.

In the first period, about the end of the reign of Khedive Isma'il (1863-79), the Copts not only participated in, but were also sometimes in the forefront of Egypt's modernisation, which allowed them to regroup as a structured community. In 1874, a number of lay Copts formed a society to press for communal reform and for a better supervision of communal affairs, financial as well as juridical. The formation of the Majilis al-Milli, the lay council of the community, was to have a profound and long-lasting influence. In 1875, the council's scheme to form a theological college, the first attempt at a systematic religious training of the (mostly hereditary) clergy, was approved by the patriarch. The Majilis al-Milli consolidated and fostered the emergence ofthe great Coptic families, many ofwhom hadbeen formed in the missionary schools and especially the Protestant school at Asiut.

They fostered a liberal spirit among the laity and were prone to mild anti-clericalism towards a still culturally 'backward clergy'; they were nearly always in conflict with the patriarch. Most of those supporting reform were drawn from the educated middle and landed class. They had been exposed to a certain type of western thinking and a few had even abandoned Egyptian ways in favour of European culture. Their aim seemed to be to redesign the church as some kind of western parliamentary system with all decisions and offices subject to the will of the people. This reveals the influence of American Presbyterian missionaries whose own church functioned along similar lines, but it was an odd model to choose for a church whose very survival says something

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