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Foundational Considerations for Theological Education in the Coptic Orthodox Church: Part Three — The Experience of the Coptic Orthodox Church Today and a Proposed Path to Her Tomorrow

His Grace Bishop Suriel

Bishop of Melbourne, Australia and Professor at Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary, New Jersey, United States


Thus far in our series,[1] we have examined in broad strokes the experience of the early Church, and particularly the “schools” of Alexandria, and that of a modern Coptic Orthodox religious educator and visionary, St. Habib Girgis, in our discussion of foundational considerations for theological education in the Coptic Orthodox Church. We turn now in our discourse to the Church today, applying herein what we have gleaned from our previous discussions in considering what challenges face the Coptic Church today, whether and how theological education factors into understanding, addressing, and overcoming those challenges, and what sound theological education might look like in practice in the Church today, particularly in the West. 


We have seen significant change in the last 50 years, with the rate of change increasing every decade. We now live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, and it is our duty therefore to equip ecclesial leaders with the proper training to enable them to lead the Church in this ever-changing landscape. In our parishes, we serve several generations concurrently, including Generation Y (those born between 1980 and 1995), Generation Zed, or Generation Z as it is called in America (those born between 1995 and 2010), and the latest generation, Generation Alpha (those born between 2010 and today). Today’s world is increasingly secular, with religion holding little place in mainstream society. Our people, particularly our young people, are radically challenged by Atheism, Secularism, and Relativism amongst others. How will we faithfully minister to them? How will we serve future generations? The need for high quality theological education is now even more pressing than it was in the twentieth century. The world is quite different today than it was in previous centuries, let alone in previous decades, particularly in the West. 


When we speak of theological education proper, we mean the formal preparation of our future priests, bishops, servants, missionaries, and Church leaders. In 2013, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II invited Fr. Dr. John Behr, the regis chair in humanities at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, to a conference on theological education in Egypt to speak about theological education in the twenty-first century. Fr. John reminded us that we are not preparing our students for today’s world, but for tomorrow’s, and it is for this that we need to be equipping our people — again, not for today’s world, but for tomorrow’s. If our situation is difficult now, it will be even more difficult in the decades to come, and it is for this reason that we need to properly equip our people. We are facing an increasingly hostile environment. 


We must also remember that the general level of education in the Coptic community has skyrocketed. In fact, Generation Z is the most educated generation ever, with at least half of those born in that generation having University degrees, compared to a mere quarter of Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980). The mind of the twenty-first-century person is very different from that of the twentieth-century person. Our young people are taught to think critically, question sources, and investigate rigorously. Studies of young people have shown that they are forming their own spirituality from influences in a heavily saturated media culture. Young people living in a secular society are subject to an “electronically conditioned global village culture that colors their view of religion itself and offers many alternative sources of meaning and values that can be incorporated into identity.”[2] The context in which ministry is happening today is vastly different from that of the family-centered, community-focused, and less secular world that existed in previous generations. Studies also show that “contemporary spirituality is individualistic, eclectic, subjective and secular, where little is drawn from the religious tradition, and scant affiliation is made with a specific community.”[3] Yes, these studies were not conducted on young Coptic Orthodox people, but it would be naive to think that our own data would be vastly different from this, especially as to second- and third-generation Copts in the West. How are we to face these challenges today, and the ones to come? 


Clergy, servants, and leaders must be equipped to serve in the times and cultures in which we live. We have clearly seen in our Church’s history what happens when there is an absence or lack of sound theological education. Is it enough for future clergy to be formed in Sunday School, Pre-Servants Training, and other parish ministries? Habib Girgis made the case for this at the beginning of the twentieth century. Does the current situation not beckon an even more pressing need? Perhaps the opportunity for widespread theological education was not feasible in the twentieth century Coptic Orthodox Church in the West due to many factors, such as the rapid foundation and immense expansion of Coptic communities there due to migration. Certainly all of the dedicated clergy, servants, and leaders who served the Church in the West with their blood, sweat, and tears did a magnificent job in engraining Coptic Orthodox life, spirituality, and identity amongst their children and the young people in their communities. These efforts met the needs of the Church in the twentieth century. How will we meet the needs of the Church in this twenty-first century? 


Our young people, as we have all seen in our ministry, differ from previous generations, and we are duty-bound to serve them faithfully, answer their questions thoroughly, and never sell them short. How can we do this without proper theological education? Habib Girgis faced many financial difficulties, which is understandable as the Church herself at that time faced many financial difficulties as a whole. These constraints prevented him from implementing a lasting legacy of theological education that comported to his vision — one that met or even exceeded international standards. I believe it is safe to say that the Coptic Orthodox Church in the West does not have these financial constraints today. We have been blessed with the resources to expand and build many churches and church buildings. Is it not now due time to focus on devoting financial resources to robust theological education, sending students to receive accredited degrees and awards so that they can teach, and sponsoring candidates for ordination to study before being ordained so that they have the time and resources to faithfully devote themselves to their own formation in order to then be able to properly form and educate their future congregants? We spend tens of millions of dollars on beautiful churches that can become museum pieces or meet a variety of similar fates if we do not learn from the rich legacy of the early Church and of Habib Girgis and turn our attention to theological education before it becomes too late. Perhaps some might oppose this attention to theological education and say that we should focus on the “pastoral” needs of the community. Is it either healthy or intellectually honest to pit pastoral care and academic or theological instruction against one another in this way? If pastoral ministry is the service of others, how can it be carried out, and that correctly, if it is not grounded in the fullness of the revelation of God? To so portray the pastoral and the educative is a false dichotomy. Both must go hand in hand in order for them to be founded upon a truly Apostolic foundation capable of soundly meeting the needs of others — needs that are not only spiritual or social, but also intellectual, theological, and dogmatic.


Allow me to illustrate this using an example. Habib Girgis introduced Sunday Schools into the Coptic Orthodox Church at a time when religious education was lacking. He used the model developed in England in 1788 and modified by Protestants in America in the following century. As we have seen in the last 100 years, this initiative bore much fruit. Where can you find a Coptic Orthodox Church in the world without Sunday School today? In establishing the modern Sunday School movement, a key consideration was the viability of the movement — that is, being founded upon no recent underpinning, the emphasis was on providing a sustainable education where there had been none previously. However, the situation has now changed: teaching is now established in the Coptic Orthodox Church and the model of Christian education being employed therein now needs to be re-examined in light of today’s generational profile and a properly Orthodox understanding of education. Sunday School, which is a pastoral ministry, can only faithfully serve our children and youth in the twenty-first century if it is appropriately grounded theologically and culturally relevant to the demographic it seeks to serve. This is not a matter of curriculum or content, but one of approach. How do we as a Church understand the formation of the child, the teenager, and the young man and woman? Is this something that happens in the classroom pedagogically, or in the life of the Church experientially, or both? Such questions require rigorous study, investigation, and discussion, and these considerations represent an important component of the task of theological education in the Church today. 


Theological education is not the same as any other academic endeavor. We must remember that Theology is not some abstract discipline where we learn about God. We cannot set Theology amongst or as equivalent to all other academic disciplines. Such academic disciplines can be mastered through diligent study, teaching, investigation, and even experimentation. The same cannot be said of Theology, since it does not speak of God as those speak of any other subject, but, as the early Christians saw it, it is an affirmation of the divinity of the crucified and exalted Lord Jesus Christ. Theology is not merely some theoretical teaching about God, but as Didymus the Blind states, “it is a power, glory, and force that is able to perform great wonders.” 


Theology operates beyond intellectual reasoning and deduction. It can be said that Theology is primarily an encounter between God and the one who attempts to theologize. Theology is not simply an academic enterprise, as we have seen from our earlier discussion on the School of Alexandria. Theological education in the Alexandrine tradition was to disciple people to the Christian life. This emphasizes that the classroom and the altar are inseparable in theological education. The language of theology is not primarily developed in the classroom, but in prayer and worship — the whole liturgical life of the Church. This framework is expounded upon in the classroom or lecture theater and expressed practically in service or fieldwork. 


One may ask, “Why, then, do we need to have accredited theological institutions?” We cannot sell our students short. We must provide them with the highest caliber of teachers possible, and the most robust training and teaching they can have. The students we present and recommend for service in the Church, whether in the ministry of teaching or otherwise, will not only minister to those who have grown up in the Church, but also to people whose lives are radically challenged by Secularism, Atheism, and Relativism — all struggles we all, whether young or old, face every day in the West, and now increasingly even in the East. We must not forget that we are called to share the Gospel with others, especially in ways that they can appreciate and understand. Our understanding of the Faith must be at least as sophisticated as anything with which the world challenges us. Our people, especially the young, cannot be used to thinking in a critical manner at school and work, and then come to church to find that their questions are being answered unsatisfactorily or unconvincingly, or brushed aside, or dismissed. We must provide our people full and informed answers when we are asked a question — any question — and must in turn ensure that those who occupy positions of teaching in the Church receive the highest caliber of education in order to be able to competently and effectively carry out their ministry. This demands both integrity and accountability — indeed, integrity and accountability are among the most basic spiritual and educational principles — and practically requires that our educational programs are assessed by others who are both unbiased and well equipped to opine on their adequacy and robustness. This is realized through accreditation, where our educational institutions are regularly assessed by an impartial accrediting or governing body to ensure that those who teach are qualified to do so and have spent years dedicated to wrestling with their chosen areas of study and have been tested in both the methodology and content of their teaching and studies. Receiving accreditation means full recognition from the necessary disinterested bodies and being called to account by others who are properly qualified to ensure that we are acting with integrity in the education we provide our people.


As part of theological education, it is incumbent upon our educational institutions to not only teach Patristics, Biblical Studies, Theology, Liturgics, Liturgical Theology, and languages, but also Religious Education, Youth Ministry, Parish Formation (the formation of a parish community), ministry to the sick and dying, Apologetics, Christian Counseling, Prison Ministry, and much more. To become able to do so, we must first promote and encourage scholarship among our people, including facilitating for them both the resources they need to dedicate their time and efforts to study and investigation with the spirit of discipleship as well as the appropriate infrastructural systems to ensure that they do not complete their studies only to be left with nowhere to serve or teach and no way to make a living, as St. Habib Girgis mentions, in his 1938 book on the history of the Seminary, regarding the 22 graduates of the Seminary who were left without work. It is not enough for the Christian educator to know facts; more than this, it is about a way of thinking — a methodology. 


Studying Theology at an Orthodox theological school is not like studying Theology at a secular university. It requires, and must require, the same intellectual rigor, but our teaching and study as Orthodox Christians must be driven by the theological vision itself. In late antiquity, education was viewed as Paideia, “a training that seeks, above all, formation. Formation examines the habits of the heart that constitute a good theologian. The focus is on identity rather than information: being a certain kind of person rather than knowing a specific body of knowledge.”[4] Seminaries “train professional leaders, people who will both ‘profess’ the Faith in fresh ways and function as professionals, i.e., display the skills and competencies appropriate to their calling. Church leaders today need what Church leaders have always needed — training in what theology is all about and training in how to do it on the ground.”[5]


This is not only about having theological institutions, but also about respecting theological education as a Church. Asking: “What do those who have studied have to say to us as a Church?” This requires us to respect expertise more than mere experience. Just because someone has been serving, or served, in a particular church for a long time, or was a popular or respected servant in the Church, does not make that person an “expert” or imply that what that person taught or how that person conducted his or her service should necessarily be emulated or sustained. What should be considered is expertise, in order to allow the many voices in the Church to sing a beautiful symphony of sound Orthodoxy that is in line with the Biblical, Patristic, and Liturgical witness. 


I will conclude with a final point — one that was briefly mentioned in the first entry of this series. We must read carefully and wrestle with the ancient Christian texts, in order to allow the writers of antiquity to speak to us today. We must do so both by consulting accurate translations of the ancient sources and through the mouths of their modern readers. We must oblige our responsibility of academic honesty and have the courage to be accurate, precise, and specific in our research efforts. It is not enough to simply read the Fathers. Rather, the Fathers need to be studied in terms of both their content and context. We in the Church today face an ongoing struggle with many voices presenting opposing views on various important theological matters, such as salvation, Christology, the Holy Spirit, Original Sin, and many other points. These have been the subjects of contention for decades, both within our own Church and more broadly between Christian denominations, and the discussion becomes even more pertinent when it enters the sphere of ecumenical dialogue. We as a Church must be honest in examining our past, particularly the last century, to see if what was widely taught stands in line with the understanding of the Church Fathers as set forth in their writings. In doing so, we ought to respect academic integrity. We cannot sideline without adequate discussion and exploration those who have views that do not align with what is understood or recognized to be today’s mainstream thought. This must be done using the appropriate theological methodology — something that is best learned through proper theological education. 


Those before us in the twentieth century used the means and methods at their disposal in often challenging circumstances. It is now up to us to build on their efforts, even if it means reconsidering some of the teachings presented in the (recent) past in light of our understanding of the Church’s Theology as expressed through her Biblical, Patristic, and Liturgical witness properly understood. In doing so, we do not by any means question the piety or holiness of the lives of those whose teachings we may question. Rather, as a Church, we consider that Theology is not the work of individuals, but the work of the whole Church, and we must reflect and learn from our past. Will we sideline those who have studied and have, after sound study and rigorous examination, and with the necessary spiritual prerequisites, come to hold opinions that may not be considered mainstream today? Will we remain silent when clergymen or members of the laity preach doctrine that lacks any appropriate academic or theological rigor? According theological education its rightful place as a pillar in the Church protects us from those individuals who wish to render themselves self-proclaimed theologians, whether maliciously or not, especially when the various communication platforms available today make it easy to do so, particularly on social media. 


Let us take seriously the call to ministering in the West in the twenty-first century by valuing theological education. This is by all means achievable. All other major Christian denominations are found to do this; they require those whom they appoint as clergy, servants, and leaders to be adequately trained and educated. We too can do so, in the spirit of the Alexandrine tradition, which will surely include unique elements not present in Western approaches to theological education that will bring to light the depths of the riches of our two-thousand-year heritage. 


May the Lord guide the Coptic Orthodox Church in the West to raise theological education as a top priority in her ministry, to the salvation of many and the glory of God, to Whom be glory in His holy Church forever. Amen.


[2] Crawford, M.L. & Rossiter, G. M. (2006). Reasons for living: Education and young people’s search for meaning, identity and spirituality. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

[3] Michael Salib, A Multidimensional Understanding of Sunday School in the Coptic Orthodox Tradition, in Copts in Modernity, 257–269.

[4] Martha E. Stortz, Re-Imagining Theological Education for the Twenty-First Century: “What Has Theological Ed to do with Higher Ed?”, in Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Volume 50, Number 4, Winter 2011, December, 373-379, at 373.

[5] Id. at 375.


His Grace Bishop Suriel presently serves as a Professor at the Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary in New Jersey, United States. We are honored to announce that Season Two of His Grace Bishop Suriel’s podcast, Coffee with Bishop Suriel, is also coming soon! Subscribe to Coffee with Bishop Suriel to receive the latest news.

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