A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sunday's Coptic "Altar Lot": A Recent Revival of an Ancient Tradition

The Altar Lot Electing Shenouda III in 1971

At the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Abbasiyya, Cairo, on Sunday, the 118th successor of Saint Mark the Evangelist, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Preaching of Saint Mark, will be chosen — by a blindfolded child drawing one of three pieces of paper from a sealed jar. Of course, the three candidates were chosen through a complex process that involved the Holy Synod (the Coptic bishops), the lay leadership of the church, and a narrowing vote by an electorate of prominent Copts in politics, society, and civil office. The final three names, however, are not chosen by vote. Copts believe they will be chosen by God's will.

Many commentators are treating this process, called by Copts the "Altar Lot" (Al-Qur‘a al-Haykaliyya), or "Altar lottery" or "Altar  ballot." is the ancient manner of electing Coptic Popes. It both is and it isn't. It has been used occasionally throughout the history of the Egyptian Church, but was only formally established in 1957, and was used for the election of the late Pope Shenouda III in 1971.

As The Egypt Independent notes, the process this Sunday will go like this:
During the altar lottery scheduled for Sunday, the names of the three final candidates will be written on slips of paper and presented to a blindfolded young Coptic boy, who will pick one name out of a glass receptacle.
[Election Committee Spokesman Bishop] Paula told Al-Masry Al-Youm that acting Pope Pachomius will choose 12 boys between 5 and 8 years old. The deadline for Coptic families who want to nominate their children will be 12 pm on Friday, Paula added.
"The acting pope will be solely responsible for the selection of the child, and the names of candidates will be clearly written on the papers before the cameras, and will be placed in a transparent glass vase, sealed with red wax. The vase will be put on the altar during mass prayer," Paula said.
Following the prayer the vase will be taken off the altar and one of the 12 boys will be blindfolded to choose a paper that bears the name of the new pope.
Since the Altar Lot process began to be publicized I've seen suggestions that the Egyptian President, the American President, the Catholic Pope, or the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to be elected in such away. The first two ideas are frivolous, but for religious leaders, why shouldn't religious leaders be chosen by God rather than humans, by random lot?

But the process, though long known in the Church, was until the middle of the last century the exception rather than the rule; an ancient method used, usually, to decide matters when an election was in dispute. It only became the formal rule in 1957.

The origins, at least as claimed, are indeed ancient. Egyptians point to the fact that, according to the Acts of the Apostles, after the suicide of the traitor Judas, the surviving 11 Apostles chose his successor by lot (Acts 1, 23-26, King James Version): 
23 And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias.24 And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen,25 That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.26 And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
The idea of election by lot was only one way of choosing the Pope; as The Coptic Encyclopedia article on the Popes notes:
Traditionally the popes of Alexandria were chosen from among the monks of the Coptic monasteries by a council composed of the chiefs of the clergy and the ARCHONS (chiefs of the Coptic laity). The election was then confirmed by a synod of bishops, and their choice was ratified by the civil authority.  Immediately after the death of a pontiff, news of his decease was circulated by letters from Alexandria to all bishops, abbots, and archons. It called for an assembly, first for the appointment of a senior archbishop to serve as patriarch after securing sanction from the temporal sovereign of the country. Subsequently the faithful prepared for the election by praying, fasting, and holding vigils. Habitually in olden times the problem was solved by the will and testament of the deceased pontiff, who recommended a specific person to follow him. In case of disagreement among the living, a protracted method of selection and elimination was pursued until a final decision was reached.

The nominee was required to fulfill certain conditions. He had to be a person of free birth, the son of a "crowned" mother, that is, of a woman in her first marriage (widows remarrying were never crowned at a second ceremony). He also had to be of sound body and mind, unmarried, over fifty years of age, never tarnished by bloodshed, a man of learning with a blameless life and pure doctrine, a dweller in the desert, but no bishop. This last limitation was enforced with unwavering rigor from the beginning until the reign of the seventy-fifth patriarch, CYRIL III, in 1235.
Oddly, the choice of lots is said to come from a Muslim recommendation that the Copts adopt a Nestorian practice:

It is said that under Muhammadan rule in the eleventh century, a vizier recommended that the Copts use the Nestorian custom of elimination from a hundred candidates until they arrived at a list of three names that were inscribed on three slips of paper. These were to be placed with a fourth, bearing the name of Jesus Christ, in an envelope on the altar. After the celebration of the liturgical offices, an innocent child was asked to draw the winning name. If it happened to be Jesus, all three candidates were rejected as unworthy, and the procedure was repeated until a name was found. This method was first adopted by the Copts in the election of the sixty-fifth patriarch, Sanutius or SHENUTE II (1032-1046), and afterward was used only occasionally in doubtful cases until the election of the present pope, SHENOUDA III, in 1971. The only difference from the Nestorian system was that the Copts placed the names under rather than on the altar. Subsequently the acting archbishop proclaimed the selected name in church, and the congregation confirmed the selection by acclamation, shouting agios, agios (holy, holy).
So the tradition is ancient (nearly 1000 years) in its origin, but only sporadically used thereafter. Shenute II (the name is the same as Shenouda) was not a very well-regarded Pope, accused of corruption and Simony (the selling of bishoprics). The issue came up again, in the 1145 election of Pope Michael V

When his predecessor, GABRIEL II, died and the bishops and archons began their arduous search for a worthy successor, a monk of Anba Maqar by the name of Wanas or Yunus ibn Kadran came forth and requested the nomination for himself. This automatically rendered him unworthy of consideration in the eyes of the majority of the congregation, despite the support that he secured from a few members of the community. Thus, it was decided in the absence of a clear choice to write three names on three cards and a fourth with the name of Jesus Christ and place them on the altar. After praying for three successive days and nights, they asked an innocent child to pick up the winning name. Michael's name emerged from the lot as the Lord's candidate. Michael was made a deacon,
Michael, though his reign was short, is remembered as a positive figure, though he died after only eight months in office. As noted in both quotes, in these days, it was apparently the practice to write a fourth slip of paper with the name "Jesus Christ Our Savior," and if that slip was chosen it was interpreted as a sign that the Holy Spirit did not approve of any of the three names.

Some sources note that the process was used "occasionally," generally when there was no consensus among the monks, the Holy Synod, or a will of the previous Pope stating his preference for a successor. Without time to go to a major research library that's about as specific as I can get; I haven't come up with a list of how many times the process was used. But as the official and canonical means of election, it was really only officially revived with the 1957 canonical rules.

I should perhaps note that the prominent Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal, in his 1983 book Autumn of Fury, an object lesson of why politicians shouldn't jail writers since it is a virulent hatchet job on Anwar Sadat after his assassination (Sadat jailed Heikal), devotes considerable space to the clashes between Sadat and the late Pope Shenouda, and in the process claims that Sadat knew, before the Altar Lot, that Shenouda would win, implying that the process was somehow rigged.

I don't give much credence to this; I've talked to many people who were present at events where Heikal was not, but later claimed inside knowledge, who claim he's completely full of ... unreliability. His description of the altar lot process is wrong (he says it occurs in a darkened room) and he gives no explanation of how the process could be fixed. (The Government does have some role in deciding who the final candidates can be, and must approve the election after the fact. But we've already seen that potentially controversial candidates were excluded long before the final three.)

Ironically (or perhaps appropriately), Mohamed Heikal's family name is the same word as the Arabic word Copts use for "altar" and which appears in the term for altar lot: haykal. A little Divine irony perhaps?

I'd ignore Heikal, not just here but in many other areas, but the Church may be sensitive about this since it has said that a television camera will be trained on the container with the lots, to guarantee there is no interference.

So the altar lot is both ancient and modern, an old means of breaking deadlocks introduced half a century ago to guarantee a lack of chicanery.

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