Middle Eastern Christianity is complicated

His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III (d. 2012), Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Egypt

I am giving a talk in a few days about the relevance of Leo the Great’s letters for the modern Middle East. The basic argument is: the Oriental Orthodox still reject Leo’s theology and the Council of Chalcedon, however nuanced their official positions may be, based upon ecumenical joint declarations about Christology. The root of the schism between the Miaphysites and the imperial church (whose descendants are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) is the acceptance of Leo’s Christology at Chalcedon in 451.

What I want to find are stats on the different churches of the Middle East. Naively, I imagined that it was not necessarily so bad. There are the main focus of my investigation, the Oriental Orthodox: Coptic Orthodox, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox (“Jacobites”), Armenian Apostolic, as well as the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox. They are also in communion with the Indian Orthodox Church. And I knew there was also the Church of the East, formerly misleadingly called “Nestorian”. The other main churches I knew about are the Eastern Orthodox, particularly the Antiochene Orthodox and Georgian Orthodox, although I did visit an Eastern Orthodox church in Cairo that was under their own patriarch in Alexandria.

The destabilising element, however, is the West. First: the Church of Rome. I knew there were so-called “Melkites” in communion with Rome as the result of a simultaneous union with Rome and schism within the Antiochene Orthodox Church. I also knew about the Chaldean Catholics in Iraq, themselves of a similar event in the Church of the East. And I knew that the Maronites are in communion with Rome. Plus, of course, western Rite Roman Catholics. The Church of Rome’s attempts at reunion in the 17th and 18th centuries seem to have resulted in some members of most of the historic churches of the Middle East joining them, but some not.

It gets more complicated, of course, because Anglicans have tried similar things as the Roman Catholics, seeking to enter into full communion with indigenous churches that are of apostolic origin with episcopal structure. And some of them go for Anglicanism, others don’t. So even more schism. This is not to bring in the many splinters of Protestantism familiar to any of us from the West.

I have to admit at this point that it has grown vaguer because I found it very hard keeping all of the different historic churches of the Middle East in order. Many of them have very similar names, for one thing. Others I had never heard of. But they exist, and they seek to live out the Christian life faithfully in often trying circumstances, whether we think of Daesh/ISIS in Iraq or civil war in Syria or non-government-sanctioned moments of persecution in Egypt or the memory of attempted genocide on Armenian and Assyrian Christians by the Ottomans.

What all of these faithful followers of Jesus have in common is an apostolic lineage. All of them can trace their bishops through succession back to the apostles, just like the Bishop of Rome or of Canterbury — mind you, Archbishop Welby can trace his succession back to Augustine of Canterbury, and from him to Gregory the Great of Rome. But that sort of thing is how it works for most of these churches as well — they can trace their bishops back to a missionary bishop who was connected with an older church, and the chain goes back to the apostles.

When I think about this, the apostolic succession argument, even if I were to fully embrace it, it clearly not quite strong enough to convert me out of Anglicanism. First, we tend to think that we have apostolic succession, certain denials thereof by the Church of Rome notwithstanding. Second, whose apostolic succession to choose? Roman Catholicism? Eastern Orthodoxy? Oriental Orthodoxy? The Church of the East? All of them have a tendency to say that their own form of Christianity is nothing but the pure tradition handed down by the apostles. This is actually an important point I want to consider in a later post.

Anyway, the Middle East is complicated, not only for the above but also because we Protestants are there bringing new and different approaches to the faith, from Anglicanism and Methodism to Pentecostalism. Perhaps the saddest part of this is the fact that so much of the complication arose from attempts by the Roman Catholic Church to restore Christian unity centuries ago.

How might we do better today?

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