The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Its History, Doctrine and Spiritual Cultural (Part X)

St. Nicetas the Bishop of Chalcedon

St. Nicetas the Bishop of Chalcedon

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

By Father John Anthony McGuckin

The Patriarchate of Alexandria

Second after Constantinople in the order of precedence of the Orthodox world is the Patriarchate of Alexandria. This Church was once the glory of the Christian world. The city was founded by the Ptolemies around the tomb of Alexander the Great, in whose honor it was built. After the fall of the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra, it became of the richest and most important of the Roman imperial provinces. From two centuries before the time of Christ the city was active as the real center of world Judaism, and several of the later parts of the Old Testament were written here, as well as the massively influential Greek translation of the Scripture known as the Septuagint (LXX) which has always been the Bible used in the services of the Greek Christians. In the 3rd century the famous Alexandrian Academy, with the Museion that attempted to gather together all the greatest literature of the world, served as an inspiration to the Christian school located there that had among its earliest and brightest luminaries the theologians Clement, Origen, Heracles, and Dionysios. In the 4th century the Church of Alexandria was racked by the Arian crisis. Arius was one of its city priests who defied his bishop, Alexander, to teach the doctrine of the temporal origination (and creaturely status) of the Divine Logos/Word. Saint Athanasios, Alexander's deacon in attendance at the Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, who became his successor and one of the Church's greatest defenders of the Nicene faith, stands out as one of the most significant theologians in the history of Christianity. The same can be said of Saint Cyril, the 5th century Archbishop of Alexandria, the intellectual disciple of Saint Athanasios who brought his work to perfection in Christology.

At the time of Saint Cyril in the mid 5th century, Alexandria was probably the most important city in the Christian world. Its intellectual and cultural record was outstanding. It was the Patriarchate that nurtured the phenomenal rise to glory of the early desert monasteries that gave to the Church so many Saints. But after that point its fortunes as a Church have suffered constant decline. The first major setback was the Christological controversy of the later 5th century. After the death of Cyril of Alexandria in 444 AD the Synodical settlement he had agreed to (under Constantinopolitan guidance) with the Church of Antioch, was set aside by his successor Dioscorus. This precipitated a reopening of the Christological crisis that had been thought to have been resolved at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. As a result, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD censured Dioscorus for his actions and deposed him from office. At that juncture the entire Egyptian episcopate disconnected itself from affairs on the grounds that it was 'headless' and could not take further part. The discontent caused by this, as well as the continuing protests in Egypt against the settlement of the Council of Chalcedon, led to a period of many generations when pro-Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian bishops revolved on the episcopal throne of the Alexandrian Church; deeply dividing it, and weakening its cohesion and prestige.

The second great fissure happened in the 7th century when Islamic armies under the Caliph conquered Jerusalem, then Alexandria in 639 AD, and severed them from Byzantine imperial control. From that time onwards the Christian life of the city moved further and further away from the Byzantine orbit. Opposition to the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon eventually caused the radical separation of the Christians of Egypt into Melkites and the Copts. The political importance of the Byzantine rulers in Islamic Egypt meant that neither by compulsive means nor by cultural or intellectual influence could the schism be effectively addressed, or healed. It was, in fact, one of the first great schisms to scar Christianity in such a long-lasting manner, and no one at the time probably ever felt that it would endure so extensively. That it did (and of course because of the political isolation imposed on it by the Islamic conquest) is one of the reasons the once great Patriarchate of Alexandria fell into a long and deep-seated decline.

The Orthodox Patriarchs of Alexandria, in times past, used to spend many years on exile in Constantinople. The majority of the local Christians having become adherents of the anti-Chalcedonian settlement, the appointment of the Patriarch came to be largely a matter of election from among the select cadre of senior Phanariot clergy, not any longer from the indigenous clergy of the province. By the end of the 13th century the specifically Alexandrian Christian Orthodox culture, and its liturgical practices, were more or less entirely supplanted by the Byzantine norms and Alexandrian Orthodoxy (once so fiercely independent of the imperial capital) became an outpost of Constantinople. Today this is still the case, and the Patriarch and almost all of the serving Orthodox clergy are Greek, introducing the peculiar modern position of the division of the Orthodox from the Copts, in Egypt, along ethnic lines, whereas in the past the genius of Alexandria in the culture of the Byzantine Empire, had made a distinct and powerful synthesis of the Egyptian and Greek cultures, at least among the Christians.

The Patriarch himself is known as His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Judge, the Pope and Patriarch of the Great City of Alexandria, of Libya, the Pentapolis, Ethiopia, all Egypt and all Africa. From antiquity he had precedence over Egypt, Libya, Arabia, and Nubia (Sudan). Now all of the African continent falls under his jurisdiction the with exception of the tiny Church of Sinai. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Patriarch removed his residence to Cairo, but the chancery subsequently returned to Alexandria, where the monastery of Saint Savas became the residence. While there are approximately 5.5 million Copts there are fewer than 15,000 Orthodox Christians in the whole of Egypt (four times that number at the turn of the 20th century), and perhaps 300,000 in the rest of Africa. Alexandria, like Constantinople itself, was a truly cosmopolitan city at the end of the 19th century. The active Greek population in both places served as its leaven. Since then, there has been a constant leaching away of Greeks and the other Christian merchant classes. Nasser's process of Arabization only served to hasten the end of Alexandria's ancient identity as a 'city of the world,' though the decline in Christian fortunes has served to draw the Orthodox communities closer to the Copts than was in times prior to the mid 20th century. There were, however, a growing number of African Orthodox missions in the course of the latter part of the last century, and in sub-Saharan Africa parish life is now taking root in a small but lively growth of indigenous Orthodox faithful and clergy, especially centered around Uganda and Kenya. This infant Church has been taken under the Alexandrian Patriarch's Omophorion and has excited much interest and enthusiasm in other parts of the Orthodox world, where missionary activity had for so long seemed to have lain dormant.

(Next: The Patriarchate of Antioch)



With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George