Coptic Christianity

As part of my training for Ministry I studied religions. The academic study of religion is very different than learning religion from a faith point of view. The academic study is not biased in favour of or against any particular faith. I believe that this neutrality allows me to see threads that connect religions; those things that are common to faiths as well as the differences in beliefs and practice.
          Very early in my studies I noticed that there is a common pattern in religions; the pattern is repeated in political organisations. Like Irish political parties; the first item on the agenda is “the split”.
          Most religions originated from the inspiration of a charismatic leader for example the Buddha, Abraham, Jesus, the prophet Muhammad. The leader attracts followers. Some time after the death of the leader disputes arise about the interpretation of the teaching. There is a split. All parties to the split believe that their interpretation is the correct version of that faith.
          This is particularly true in the case of Christianity We who grew up in the Christian tradition were told that our version is the correct one. Christianity is somewhat unique in that from its earliest years beliefs about Jesus were of paramount importance. The disputes were about the nature of Jesus; was Jesus human or was he divine or a mixture of both. No one disputes the teachings of Jesus; Christians are willing to die for what they believe about Jesus.
          From its inception there were many different forms of the Christian faith. We know this because as early as the second century, C.E. Ireneaus, the Bishop of Lyons, wrote an account of all the incorrect versions of Christianity. Christianity is diverse it always has been.
          The Coptic Christian church of Egypt is one of the earliest forms of Christianity and it still survives. Its headquarters is in Egypt it has churches in Africa, Ireland, United States, Canada and Australia. The estimated membership is between 5 – 20 Million. Coptic Christianity is not commonly known in the west; it has influenced some of the great movements within the Christian faith. Coptic Christianity may have unexpected connections with Ireland.
          We are familiar with the major divisions within Christianity. There is Eastern Orthodox Christianity that arose from a split from Rome in 1054 and the further split from Rome at the Protestant Reformation. We are less familiar with Oriental Christianity, Oriental Christianity has its roots in the Coptic Church. Like Roman Christianity Coptic Christianity experienced splits.
          Tradition says that the apostle Mark established the Christian Church in Alexandria Egypt in the year 42CE. This predates the earliest writings in the New Testament; it is a mere decade after the crucifixion. The Coptic Church traces its lineage in an unbroken line to the apostle Mark. Coptic is an ancient form of the Egyptian language; this form of Egyptian uses the Greek alphabet. Coptic is still the language of Church liturgy but preaching is in the local language.
          Coptic Christianity is firmly Trinitarian; it recognises seven sacraments. It encourages devotion of Mary as being the Mother of God. Followers are recommended to pray seven times each day and fasting is important. In all there are 240 fast days in Coptic Christianity. Priests are married and women have only a minor part in church life.
          Egypt was always a melting pot of different civilisations. In addition to the native Egyptians there was a sizable population of Jews and Greeks living in the city of Alexandria. We know that in the 3rd Century BCE the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek for the benefit of the Greek speaking Jews living in Egypt.
          In the year 42CE the apostle Mark ministered to the native Egyptians using their Coptic language. Some of the earliest fragments of the Gospels that have been found, are written in Coptic.

A standing stone inscribed with a Coptic cross and facing towards Scelig Micheal.
The entrance door of the ruined Monasteries in Ballin Skellig Co.Kerry
also face out to sea and Scelig Micheal.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire persecution of Christians stopped. With martyrdom no longer an option ardent Christians sought different forms of intense religious practice. Anthony the Great was one of the first men to go to live in the desert. It was in the desert that Coptic Christian’s developed Monasticism. Christian Monasticism was instrumental in moulding the Coptic Orthodox Church’s character of submission, simplicity and humility. These early monks are known as the Desert Fathers; by the way there were Desert Mothers as well. Women too went to live in seclusion in the desert.
          A further reason the monks went to the desert was their belief that the Church should not become part of a powerful secular Empire. This would not help to create a truly Christian Society. How right they were!
          Anthony the Great was the earliest and most noted of the Desert Fathers. Around the year 270 CE Anthony decided to follow the teaching of Jesus which said “sell what you have give to the poor and come follow me” he then moved to the desert for more complete seclusion. The Desert Fathers did not greatly concern themselves with Theology they emphasised living out the teachings of Jesus.
          Others followed Anthony; it was said that “the desert became a city”. A pattern emerged; these Christians formed small groups of two to six persons. They lived and worked separately. They chanted psalms as they worked they came together for prayer.
          The sayings of the Desert Fathers have been recorded. There are about 1200 of them these sayings were used by the early Benedictine monks. In these sayings I can see some of meditative practices of Buddhism. For example

“Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work”


“Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you all”.

“Wherever you are stay there”

I see in these sayings the very essence of Buddhism.
          The Council of Nicea in 325A.D. is important for Unitarians. It was at this council that the bones of the Doctrine of Trinity were agreed. The Council was called to settle a dispute concerning the nature of Jesus. Arius argued that as Jesus “proceeded from the Father” there must have been a time when Jesus did not exist. The parties in the dispute were on one side Arius and on the other were Alexander and Anthanasius. Arius as we know lost the vote hence Christianity adopted the Doctrine of Trinity. Arius, Alexander and Athanasius – who gave his name to the Athanesian Creed - they all belonged to the Coptic Church in Alexandria.
          In March Ireland will celebrate our national Patron St.Patrick who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. There were Christians in Ireland long before the arrival of Patrick.
          Celtic Christianity was based on communities gathered around a monastery and it’s Abbot; they did not operate in the Roman tradition of dioceses and Bishops. Very often in the Celtic Church the post of Abbot was in the stewardship of the local ruling family. Celtric Church only joined fully with Rome in the year 1152 at the Synod of Kells.
          Irish Christianity had none of the power structures of the Roman Empire. The simplicity of Irish Monks brought a more authentic Christianity to places such as Iona, Switzerland, France and Austria. This was a golden age for Ireland; Celtic Monks made Ireland the “island of saints and scholars”, their Christianity is based in Coptic teaching and not Roman tradition.
          Monasteries were located in remote places with close connections to nature. Just think of Glen da Lough and of course the ultimate secluded monastery “Scelig Micheal”.(see front cover) This monastery is set on bleak rocks seven miles off the coast of Kerry; it is perhaps more remote that the Egyptian desert.
          The beehive huts of the Skelligs are for individual monks with communal areas for prayer this is the same monastic pattern as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The religious patterns established by Christians in the deserts of Egypt made their way to what was at the very edge of the known world. For those looking for seclusion there was nowhere that was more remote. It is said of the Skelligs “The ocean was their desert”
          There are six known examples of Coptic iconography carved into stone shrines. These are called Gable of Tomb Shrines of the six shrines five of them are around Ballinskelling facing out into the Atlantic and Scelig Micheal. It is striking that a monastery following in the tradition of the Desert Fathers; has Coptic inscriptions in the surrounding area.
          In 2006 a book of Psalms was found in the Faddán Mór Bog in Co. Tipperary. The book contains sixty vellum pages held within a leather cover; it is modestly decorated. The book is dated to the early eight century C.E. that is the early seven hundreds. During the course of its restoration it was discovered that the inside cover of the leather binding was lined with Papyrus. This eight century book proves that the early Irish monasteries had connections with Christianity in Egypt.
          We tend to think that two thousand years ago people were primitive maybe less intelligent than we are. These connections between Egypt and Ireland paint a very different picture. These people believed and practiced a Christianity that was not based on power or empires. They felt compelled to bring their faith beyond Judea throughout the Mediterranean and outward to the very edge of the known world. Theirs was a form of Christianity that was closer to the actual teachings of the Jewish Rabbi who lived in simplicity and poverty and who went placidly to his death.

Rev.Bridget Spain                                         Dublin 14th February 2021
Minister Dublin Unitarian church