Monasticism in Egypt: Images and Words of the Desert Fathers / Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity / among the Copts

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Monasticism in Egypt: Images and Words of the Desert Fathers. By Michael W McClellan. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998. ix + 101 pp. illus. $27.50 (cloth).

Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity. By Otto F. A. Meinardus. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. viii + 344 pp. illus. $24.50 (cloth).

Among the Copts. By John H. Watson. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2000. xi + 176 pp. illus. $50.00 (cloth).

A good friend of mine, a member of the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, was once asked his denomination by a Greek Orthodox. When my friend replied that he was Coptic Orthodox, the Greek retorted, "You may be Copt, but you're not Orthodox." Some Christians, apparently, are still scratching at the self-inflicted wounds caused in 451 by the Council of Chalcedon, whose decisions on the nature of Christ bifurcated the ancient Christian world; theological scabs, unlike biological ones, can itch for more than 1500 years. At least the Greek knew, even if sourly, who the Copts are. When another friend of mine was telling someone about her recent trip to Egypt to work and study with the Coptic Christians, the other person replied, "I didn't know there were any Christians in Egypt!" The three books under review here-all by Westerners: one Orthodox, one Protestant, and one Anglican-will, I hope, go a long way to dispel Western prejudice and ignorance about the Copts, descendents of the Pharaohs and children of Christ.

In Among the Copts John H. Watson points out that "the largest and most influential of the ancient churches is the Coptic Orthodox Church" (p. 2). Coptic Church tradition-which can be neither proved nor disproved by Western historiography-holds that the Church in Egypt was founded by Saint Mark the Apostle and anteriorly blessed by the long sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt; dozens of sites where they stayed are holy places today in Egypt. The Copts, after more than 1300 years of "deadly, daily discrimination" (p. 60), make up about 10% of Egypt's population. "It is believed," Watson reports, "that an average of one hundred Copts per annum have been martyred in the last decade" (p. 146), a fact grossly underreported in the Western press and scandalously unnoted by the West in general. It will strike many Westerners as odd that the Coptic Church begins its calendar not with the birth of Christ (Anno Domini) but with the accession of Emperor Diocletian, the great persecutor, in 284 (Anno Martyrorum); the Coptic Church long ago saw itself as the "Church of the Martyrs" and perhaps in that seeing also foresaw its long troubled history as persecuted witness to Christ.

Among the Copts is the best English-language introduction to the Copts and their Church that I know of This is because Watson, an Anglican priest, both knows the Copts well (during four decades) and is not afraid to speak his mind. His blunter assessments ("Spiritually the liturgy is too often weakened by the fact that ambitious men become monks solely because it is the only route to the episcopate," p. 29) raise the ticklish question of what right a Westerner and non-Copt has to make judgments about the Coptic Church, and I have no doubts that he will offend many Copts, but I found him to be knowledgeable, sympathetic, insightful, and honest. His book is impressionistic rather than systematic, spiritual rather than scholarly. Rather than overwhelming the reader with masses of (Arabic) names, dates, and details, in each of the book's nine chapters he chooses two or three subjects that illumine key aspects about the Copts and their Church. As a student and friend of the Copts, I found him especially enlightening on the struggle over the Coptic papacy (chapter seven), the Coptic Church in Africa (chapter six), and the surprising influence of Protestant thought on modern Coptic theology (chapter eight).

Otto Meinardus is a different sort of guide. Probably no Westerner knows the Coptic Church as he does. …