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Foundational Considerations for Theological Education in the Coptic Orthodox Church: Part Two — The Experience of St. Habib Girgis and the Coptic Orthodox Seminary

His Grace Bishop Suriel

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


Having briefly set forth, in Part One of this series, an overview of Christian education as it was carried out in the early Church, and particularly in the “schools” of Alexandria, let us now shift our focus to modern Coptic history, and specifically the work of St. Habib Girgis in theological education in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Prior to embarking on that endeavor, however, it is important to note that little is known about the theological developments that arose in Egypt immediately following the Arab Conquest, and whatever we know today comes from the literary productions of isolated theologians of that period rather than from any consistent or uniform theological school of thought. The thirteenth century is considered by some scholars to be the “age” of Coptic Orthodox Theology and Dogmatics, which was followed by 300 years of silence in the field of Coptic Orthodox Theology. By the late Middle Ages, the situation in the Coptic Orthodox Church was quite dire. A seventeenth century German theologian and traveler describes his visit to a Sunday liturgy in the Coptic Orthodox Church, writing: “They [the Copts] do not keep or have preachers nor are those good priests suitable. Instead of the sermon, there is reading after the Gospel of a homily from a book called tafâsîr (explanations), taken from one of the Fathers, such as Basil, Chrysostom, Cyril, Theophilus, Abbot Bussi, and people of that sort. For some time, the Franciscans have been preaching in Arabic among the Copts, and as a result they have been converting Copts to Catholicism with their exemplary lifestyle.”[1] By the middle of the nineteenth century, historians note that many among the clergy, reflecting their social surroundings, were ignorant of and negligent in their religious duties. Coming from the lower classes of the community, these clergymen often made up for their previous probations either by misusing church property or selling their religious services. The Church, plagued with widespread ignorance, had then a bleak future and was under external threat from Western missionaries while facing constant internal struggles, with the educated lay people calling for reform. By this time, Protestant and Catholic missionaries were active in Egypt and began posing threats to Coptic identity, as they were generally far more theologically educated than the Coptic clergy of that time. Needless to say, the need for a clerical school to educate Coptic Orthodox clergymen in the Faith of the Church became particularly pressing under these dire conditions. 


The first attempt at establishing such a clerical school was the opening of a clerical college on January 13, 1875 during the papacy of Pope Cyril V.[2] This institution was enthusiastically hailed as a new incarnation of the ancient Catechetical School of Alexandria. However, few of the students — all monks from the monasteries — applied themselves to their studies, and the Seminary survived only a few months. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Coptic Orthodox Church was in all the more urgent need for a seminary for the formation of her priests. St. Habib Girgis comments: “Since religious service was among the most esteemed services to the Church and its position was the highest, this required, therefore, that pastors [الرعاة] be sufficiently prepared in the Orthodox faith. They needed to be especially cared for and to be chosen from among those with excellent qualifications, from the sons of the community generally. Various efforts and finances are also required for the sake of these pastors who will lead the community to the place of safety and for the benefit hoped for.”[3] Habib Girgis could not imagine a priest serving without the education necessary to equip him for such an important role. He understood how impossible it would be for any person to be employed in a profession or trade without having first undergone the necessary training; how much more important, then, was proper religious training for a priest who was responsible for the souls of people! He wrote: 

“But the Church cannot present to us true leaders, counselors, and reformers unless her leaders and pastors are specially trained to practice their lofty and critical roles. Who can be compared to them except those with similar critical positions in life? An engineer cannot take on this role without proper training in the faculty of engineering. The physician cannot be trusted over people’s bodies and souls unless he receives both theoretical and practical education in his faculty. The situation is similar also for a judge, lawyer, teacher, farmer, and mechanic, as well as others who are comparable… Hence, a religious pastor is not exempt from this, since a pastor, worthy of this title and worthy to be responsible for souls, needs to be educated in religious and secular subjects. But it is more important that [the priest] perfects the sacraments and characteristics of his profession than any of those other professions so that he may fulfill his obligations and carry out his burdens. In this way, he may transcend to a most eminent relationship with the eternal souls [he pastors].”[4]

According to Habib Girgis, in the second half of the nineteenth century there was only one priest in all of Egypt who was both capable of preaching and well versed in the Orthodox faith: Hegumen Philotheos Ibrahim Baghdadi, who lived from 1837 until 1904. 


This historical background underscores the importance of the dedication ceremony that took place on November 29, 1893 — a date widely considered to be the official opening of the Coptic Orthodox Seminary in Cairo, which Habib Girgis considered to be the greatest success of Pope Cyril V. When the Seminary opened, it had no teacher of religion or theology. Its first dean, Yusuf Mankarios, would simply choose some religious books and hand them out to the students to read aloud in front of him. Students complained repeatedly to the Pope and to the Lay Community Council about the lack of proper theological instruction, but to no avail. This bizarre situation continued for four years and led many students to leave the Seminary. There was one attempt to rectify the situation: on January 13, 1896, the Lay Community Council appointed the  aforementioned Hegumen Philotheos, who was then quite elderly, to teach at the Seminary. Sadly, however, his tenure lasted only two weeks, after which he collapsed in class due to his old age and illness and would never return. Habib Girgis was one of 12 graduates of the great Coptic School who were chosen to be part of the first class of 40 students to enter the Seminary. Many of his cohorts dropped out because of lack of interest or academic ability, but Habib Girgis was a bright scholar who, given his academic prowess and exceptional talent, as well as the Seminary’s need for a capable teacher, was appointed by a special decree to teach religion on a temporary basis during his final year. He graduated shortly thereafter — the first to graduate from the newly re-established Seminary — and on May 8, 1898, having shown great potential and success as an instructor, he was promptly appointed to a full-time position at the Seminary, teaching Theology and Homiletics. Habib Girgis compared the relationship between the Seminary and the Coptic community to that between the heart and the body. He says, “for as the duty of the heart is to pump blood to the organs of the body, accordingly, from this spring, the spirit of teaching, guidance, and the transmission of the good news of salvation will spread among people.”[5]


The mission of the Seminary was twofold: to teach Orthodox Theology and doctrine, and to form priests and preachers who would enlighten the other members of the Coptic community, both young and old. The first statutes for the Seminary were formulated in 1893, prescribed a five-year period of study, and listed the subjects to be taught. All were taught by foreigners, with the exception of Theology, which was to be taught, from the third year of coursework onwards, by a capable Orthodox priest. The statutes promulgated thereafter, in 1912, addressed numerous administrative matters: all students were required to live at the Seminary, sleeping in dormitories or large rooms, and it was only with special permission that a student could lodge outside the Seminary. Class sizes were capped at 25 students, and admission requirements included passing an entrance exam, presenting three letters of recommendation, including one from the prospective student’s diocesan bishop, a minimum age in practice — of 16 years old — and at least four years of elementary school education. Each applicant was required to undergo a medical examination and be physically fit, without blemish or physical deformity. Applicants were also required to nominate a sponsor — an individual who would vouch for the prospective student’s character, commitment to completing his studies, and willingness to be employed wherever the need arose and to continue in religious ministry following his completion of the Seminary’s curriculum. The statutes also extended to the lives of priests and teachers beyond the confines of the Seminary. For example, the Board could transfer a preacher from one place to another according to need and circumstance. Preachers were required to prepare for the Board an annual report of their ministry. Parish priests were only permitted to allow graduates of the Seminary to preach in their parishes, and had to obtain written permission from the Pope. The Seminary maintained a record of qualified preachers and each year announced the names of the new graduate preachers along with their places of ministry. These regulations served two purposes: they ensured that those who preached were properly trained and formed at the Seminary and preached according to the Coptic Orthodox Faith, and prevented followers of other religious denominations from infiltrating Coptic Orthodox parishes and preaching views and ideas that were not in accordance with Coptic Orthodox Theology. Such measures afforded the Coptic Orthodox community a layer of protection by ensuring that those who preached came from a reliable source approved by the Pope himself. 


When Habib Girgis was appointed dean of the Seminary in 1918, he inherited an institution with virtually no organizational structure, vision, or sense of direction. The curriculum was inadequate in many ways, particularly with regard to religious and theological education — the very purpose for which the Seminary had been established. Financial constraints led to friction between Habib Girgis and the Lay Community Council, and Habib Girgis felt stymied in his efforts to improve the Seminary’s infrastructure, increase faculty salaries, and meet daily running expenses, among several other concerns. As dean of the Seminary, Habib Girgis had his work cut out for him. He took on a monumental list of reforms under dire circumstances, embracing a task that might have discouraged even the most formidable and talented of educators. He described his love for the Seminary and his zeal for education and theological reform in strong metaphorical language, likening it to the shedding of blood, putting one’s life and spirit at its service, and the kindling of fire and hope in one’s heart. 


Amidst those financial difficulties, a committee presented a report in February 1927 which acknowledged the Seminary’s financial hardship and the economic crisis that the country at large was then facing, asking only for what was considered to be essential, fundamental, and practical. Acknowledging Habib Girgis’ great endeavors in developing the Seminary religiously, spiritually, and academically, the committee sought the support of the Patriarchate Church Council, the Lay Community Council, and the Pope to raise standards even further. The committee desired that all faculty be appropriately qualified, both academically and spiritually, with preference given to clerical school graduates who had completed the higher level coursework. This would entail transferring to other schools certain faculty members who were deemed unqualified to teach at the Seminary. The report also stressed the importance of having qualified lecturers, preferably chosen from among the higher level graduates of the Seminary, or from those holding higher diplomas from other Schools, Colleges, or Universities. 


The low salaries paid to local faculty affected their morale and gave them little incentive to improve their academic standards. Habib Girgis understood their predicament and made repeated requests for increased pay, to no avail. He wrote bitterly to the Patriarchate Church Council saying: “I have said that the moral state of the teachers is unacceptable and their spirits are low with pain and overburdened with hardships. How can a teacher work while his mind is disturbed and his soul is in pain and in a miserable state?”[6] Receiving meager wages, the existing lecturers showed little desire to develop their knowledge and skills and found no incentive to exert themselves to strive for academic excellence among their students. The report that was presented alongside the budget emphasized that the Seminary was the “spine” of the Coptic Church and the measure of its revival and refinement, and argued that the new proposed system would raise standards to a level suited to modern developments and circumstances. 


Despite all the work by the committee that had been expressly appointed by the Patriarchate Church Council, there was no immediate response. Habib Girgis followed up with a letter to the Council on May 31, 1927, after the academic year had ended, seeking a response so that improvements could begin at the start of the new academic year. Almost two months later, he received a hasty and brief reply requesting a report on the last academic year before the committee could look into the new curriculum. Both Habib Girgis and the committee must have been deeply frustrated by this apparent lack of interest from the very body that had demanded such a thorough inquiry and imposed such a stringent deadline. The reasons for the Patriarchate Church Council’s ambivalence are unclear; the most likely explanation is a lack of sufficient funds to implement their recommendations, although the Council may also have been attempting to exert its authority over the Seminary. Habib Girgis regularly wrote with sorrow to the Patriarchate Church Council about its lack of financial support. The following appeal is from 1929, but the sentiments expressed therein remain true throughout Habib Girgis’ career as dean: “This state has disadvantaged the welfare of the College and the welfare of education, and if this continues the situation will be worse. Who then will carry that responsibility? This, no doubt, is an injustice that no member of the council would accept, and since I have raised this complaint and have not had a response except that the budget does not allow for more, why then does the budget accommodate all [the Patriarchate’s] facilities, yet is only restrictive toward the Clerical School, which is more worthy than any other facility and should be given attention more than any other work?”[7]


Habib Girgis appointed foreign lecturers to teach subjects for which no qualified Coptic Orthodox teachers could be found. For instance, in October 1928, he announced that the Seminary’s elite group of instructors of Theology, the humanities, and Law had been joined by the honorable Mr. John Leonard Wilson, who held a higher degree in Theology from Oxford University, to teach Philosophy of Religion. Habib Girgis understood that appointing a highly-credentialed scholar from Oxford would help raise both the academic standards and prestige of the Seminary. While he did not allow non-orthodox doctrine to be taught to his students, Habib Girgis looked beyond dogma to the other benefits that such a scholar could bring. 


In May 1942, Habib Girgis outlined the further refinement of the curriculum of the Seminary. He restructured the Seminary by dividing it into nine “streams,” or programs. There would now be only one level for the main course of study, which was primarily for those studying so as to receive ordination thereafter to the priesthood, requiring four years to complete. The Sunday School Teacher’s program would require three years of part-time study, comprising two lessons per week. The clerical program for ordained priests would also be part-time over a three-year period, but with six lessons per week, into which Habib Girgis proposed introducing the subject of Comparative Theology. Unfortunately, the 1942 plan only partially came to fruition due to a lack of funding. In 1946, Habib Girgis introduced further part-time study in the evenings for University graduates who were employed and still desired to serve as volunteers in their own parishes. Many leaders of Sunday Schools from Cairo and Giza enrolled in the Seminary at that time, although women were not admitted until October of 1959, nearly eight years after Habib Girgis’ death. Sadly, however, the Lay Community Council ordered the closure of this new Graduate Seminary during Habib Girgis’ last illness.[8]


The Seminary still struggled to find qualified Coptic Orthodox faculty members to teach, eventually conceding that if no suitable Coptic Orthodox teacher could be found, a theological teacher might be recruited from another, preferably Orthodox, denomination. The depressingly low pay rates were still in place, even in 1948. The average teacher was earning only around 12 Egyptian Pounds per month. Girgis as dean was paid just over 40 Egyptian Pounds per month, while Cantor Mikhail Jirjis was earning less than four Egyptian Pounds per month to teach liturgical hymnology. 


There was also the continuing dilemma over whether to send students abroad to gain higher qualifications in western Seminaries and Universities. Habib Girgis struggled with this predicament throughout his career. In November 1945, the committee suggested that some of the Seminary's brighter graduates be sent abroad to study Hebrew and Greek, in order that they might, upon their return, replace foreign faculty members. It was also decided at this time to form an administrative committee for the Seminary consisting of three metropolitans chosen by the Holy Synod, three members of the organizing committee, the dean, and two members of the faculty. Its role would be to examine every nomination to the priesthood from across Egypt and present its recommendations to the Pope for his approval. Any ordination carried out in defiance of that system would be considered void. This move would bring an unprecedented degree of centralization to the Church and greater authority for the Pope. Habib Girgis wished only to ensure that those who had earned their qualifications at the Seminary would be ordained to the priesthood, and no one else. Whether this goal was achievable is open to question. The decree was followed to a great extent during the papacy of Pope Cyril VI but less closely thereafter. 


It is important to note that alongside his diligent work in theological education, Habib Girgis worked in parallel on expanding the work of Sunday Schools in the Coptic Orthodox Church. In fact, he based much of the work of Sunday Schools at the Seminary, which was a strategic move, as the Seminary was the heart of education in the Church and became an environment where Habib Girgis could test his ideas and theories on both faculty and students, with the Seminary also providing the right environment for the protection of pedagogical approaches, textbooks, and curricula. 


Having discussed the great work of Habib Girgis in the service of theological education in the Coptic Orthodox Church during his lifetime, the question now becomes whether he ultimately achieved his ambitions for the Coptic Orthodox Seminary. Because his work there was central to his mission of reforming the Coptic Orthodox Church and community, success or failure in that enterprise meant success or failure at broader reform. The verdict of history is not unanimous. In his 1938 book on the history of the Seminary, Habib Girgis observed that in the 45 years since its opening in 1893, the Seminary had produced a total of 320 graduates, two metropolitans, 209 priests, and 87 preachers and teachers (he did not mention the cantors), and acknowledged that 22 graduates were still without work. Many of the graduates had served the Church and the community in capacities other than the priesthood, such as by teaching Sunday School, leading youth groups, and joining Coptic Societies. Graduates of the Seminary had a profound influence on the Coptic Orthodox Church and community. Nonetheless, later in life, Habib Girgis soberly reflected on the Seminary's progress and said: “The Theological School was established half a century ago. It should have reached, by now, the standard of the finest Colleges. Regretfully, however, it did not receive the required support for its development. Instead, it spent most of its life in wasted struggle, fighting to survive and develop according to the weak means it possessed.”[9]


The culmination of Habib Girgis’ work at the Seminary was its official recognition and accreditation in July 1948 by Egypt’s Minister of Education. The Minister recognized the qualification granted by the Coptic Orthodox Seminary as the equivalent of a four-year Bachelor’s degree. Nevertheless, the Seminary never reached the international standards to which Habib Girgis aspired. The prerequisites for admission remained low, as relatively few young Coptic men were interested in studying theology or pursuing a priestly calling — a vocation that enjoyed little prestige in the Coptic community at that time. Habib Girgis never achieved his ambition of an educated priesthood made up solely of men with a proper theological training from the Seminary. Although one can sense through his writings the bitterness he felt at the end of his life because his goals were not fully met, he is found in the same writings nonetheless hoping for a brighter future, one in which the next generation would carry on his legacy, recognize the central role that his educational reform policies would play in preserving Coptic identity, and assure a successful future for the Coptic community. Habib Girgis’ desire was that the Coptic Orthodox Seminary not only graduate priests, preachers, and teachers, but also reformers in every sense of the word.[10]


In the life and decades-long service of Habib Girgis, we see that he was responding with singular care and concern to a pressing issue of his time — a desperate need for educated clergy, servants, and Church leaders who were able to ensure that the Coptic Orthodox faithful were fed true Orthodoxy in light of active western missionaries in Egypt. In the coming final entry in this series, we will reflect on the challenges we face today in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and examine, through applying the historical data we have discussed thus far, why the Coptic Orthodox Church is in equal if not even greater need for sound theological education today as she was at the time of St. Habib Girgis.


[1] Johann Michael Wansleben, Relazione dell Stato presente dell’Egitto, as translated in Anthony Alcock, Johann Michael Wansleben on the Coptic Church (2016), 7-8.

[2] Pope Cyril V occupied the Throne of St. Mark from 1874 to 1927. He is the longest reigning patriarch in the history of the Coptic Church, having served as pope for 52 years, nine months and six days. 

[3] Habib Girgis, The Coptic Orthodox Theological College

[4] Habib Girgis, “al-Madrasah al-Iklīrīkiyah: Māḍīhā wa-ḥāḍirhā wa-mustaqbalahā” [The Clerical School: Its Past, Present and Future], al-Karmah [The Vine] 9.9 (1923): 464 

[5] Habib Girgis, “al-Madrasah al-Iklīrīkiyah,” al-Karmah 6.7 (1912): 307-8

[6] Habib Girgis, Handwritten letter from author to the Patriarchate’s Church Council, Patriarchal Archives, Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, Cairo (21 February 1929): 4-6.2-4/33

[7] Ibid.

[8] I believe this decision caused him to become paralyzed near the end of his life.

[9] Habib Girgis, Practical Means Toward Coptic Reform, 82

[10] It is important to note that during this period, authors would at times use western writings as references. Even some of Habib Girgis’ works, especially those on the Sacraments, were influenced by Catholic writings. At times, Protestant Apologetics was used against Catholics and Catholic Apologetics against Protestants. While some efforts were made by certain individuals to translate selected patristic texts such as Yassa Abdelmassih, Murad Kamel, Yusuf Habib, and Fr. Markos Dawoud, it was not until the time of the bishop of education in 1962, that is, Bishop Shenouda (later Pope Shenouda III of blessed memory), and his writings and sermons, along with the publishing of the writings of Fr. Matthew the Poor and the work of the Center of Patristic Studies in Cairo, which started in 1979, that we begin to see a more widespread use of patristic texts. This begs the question: what were some of the main sources used during the first seven decades of the twentieth century, particularly the first half of the twentieth century? Fr. Markos Dawoud, for instance, spent most of his effort translating the works of F.B. Meyer and Matthew Henry from English into Arabic. This raises some serious questions about the formation of theological thinking in the Coptic Orthodox Church, particularly in the late nineteenth and early- to mid- twentieth centuries, which many see as a time of reform. These issues merit further study and extend beyond the scope of this introductory series. 


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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