The Altar Lot and the Election of the Patriarch of Alexandria

Father Peter Farrington

The election of the final three candidates eligible to be chosen as the Patriarch of Alexandria is fast approaching. In just a few weeks a new Pope will be selected and will be enthroned as the successor of St Mark. One of the most interesting aspects of the selection process is that the final choice of a candidate will be made by a small child choosing one name by an altar lot from the three which were most successful in the election process. This method of selection has generated a great deal of interest around the world, since in Christian communities such as the Roman Catholic, or the Church of England, the selection of a primate does not introduce allow for any such element of providence. At this unique time in the lives of many Coptic Orthodox it is useful to consider the altar lot and its use in the present selection of the new Pope.

The use of a lot to help to determine God’s will is not unique to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Indeed we can find references to the use of the lot in the Old and New Testaments of the Scripture. In Numbers 33, for instance, we find that the land of Israel is to be divided by using a lot..

And you shall divide it among you by lot... to every one as the lot shall fall, so shall the inheritance be given.

We can imagine that this was designed to prevent a great deal of arguing about which parts of the land would be claimed by the various tribes. By using a lot it ensured that everyone had an equal opportunity, and that the outcome would be subject to God’s will. There are many similar incidents in the Old Testament. These also include using the lot to discover someone who had sinned, and using the lot to determine who would go and fight against an enemy army.

In the times of the Old Testament it was very common for ordinary people to use a lot to make a decision, although the priesthood of the Jewish people also used the lot for important religious matters. It would seem that the lot consisted of a number of stones, some of which might be marked with a sign. These would be shaken in a container of some sort and then thrown onto the ground, or they might be placed in a container and one picked out. On the Day of Atonement, for instance, as described in Leviticus 16, two goats would be brought to the High Priest and using the lot, in the form of sacred stones, one would be selected to be dedicated to God.

But in ancient times the lot was not restricted to Jewish believers. It was a widely practiced means of making a choice. We can remember the account of the Prophet Jonah. When the boat he had boarded was caught in a great storm and seemed about to sink, the crew used a lot to understand who was at fault. We read..

Come and let us cast lots, that we may know why this evil is upon us. And they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.

We should not imagine that in the times of the Old Testament the use of a lot was considered simply a matter of chance. There was always an intent to find out the will of God, or even the will of the false gods. But it was always a spiritual matter. When the Persians in the book of Esther planned to

destroy all of the Jews, they also used a lot to find the best day to accomplish this cruel act. It was not intended to be a matter of chance, but a means of understanding the will of their gods.

Even at the end of the Old Testament period the use of a lot was still very common in all sorts of circumstances. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, found himself in the Temple offering incense because he had been chosen by lot out of all those who were eligible on that day. (Luke 1:9). While as our Lord Jesus Christ was being crucified the Roman guards cast lots to determined who would take the garments of our Lord. This was the normal way of making a decision, just as a soccer match begins today with the toss of a coin to decide who will kick off. The people of the past would understand this as casting a lot.

It is not suprising then that in the New Testament we find that the Apostles, all Jewish men, determined to use the lot as a means of discovering God’s will for a replacement to Judas Iscariot. In Acts 1 we can see that they also used the lot in a spiritual manner, and not simply as a means of chance. We read..

Then they prayed, "Lord, you know the hearts of all people. Show us which one of these two men you have chosen to serve in this office of apostle, from which Judas fell away to go to his own place." So they drew lots for them, and when the lot fell on Matthias, he was added to the eleven apostles.

We can see that the use of a lot has an ancient history, and that it featured in the life of the Jewish people, and in that of the nations around them. Even in the New Testament we find that the important decision to replace Judas Iscariot was left to God and not simply to chance, when the Apostles prayed to God and then used the lot. But the selection of Matthias to succeed Judas was the last time we read of lots being cast in the New Testament. It made sense in the case of Matthias. There were only two candidates, both suitable, and the choice seemed best left to God. There is also the fact that this selection was being made just at the end of the Old Testament period and as the New Testament was beginning. There is something appropriate perhaps in the idea that the Apostles who were Jews according to the Old Testament, were completing their number according to Old Testament means, in preparation for taking the New Testament into the world.

But after this unique incident we do not find such a method used again. At the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem, for instance, decisions were made, and it was stated that, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...’. Likewise when Paul and Barnabas were sent to Antioch it was also said, it seemed good to us, assembled with one accord. Something had changed, and now the Church was relying on the indwelling Holy Spirit to provide guidance, and was discovering that guidance when there was agreement. This is why, it would seem, on the great majority of occasions when a new Patriarch has been selected, both for the Coptic Orthodox Church and for all other Orthodox Churches, the lot has not been used, rather a sense of agreement has been reached among the bishops, clergy and people.

Within the life of the Orthodox Church it is interesting to note that the Coptic Orthodox Church is presently not unique in using the lot, as has taken place in the case of our own selection of a new Pope. In both the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Church of Constantinople, the use of the lot has taken place to select a new Patriarch over the centuries. And in recent times, in the Russian Orthodox Church, this method was used to determine the choice of Patriarch in 1917, during a time of great tension just before the Russian Revolution. Patriarch Tikhon, chosen by lot on this occasion,

was later canonised as a saint and confessor in the Russian Church. Even more recently, in the Serbian Orthodox Church, their new Patriarch was chosen by lot in 2010. The names of the three leading candidates were placed in three sealed envelopes inside a Bible, and a monk drew one envelope to select the name of the Serbian Patriarch. The Serbs had introduced this method in 1967 to avoid the interference of the communist state in the election of the leader of their Church.

In the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria the altar lot for the selection of a new Pope can be traced back to 98 AD, when the 3rd bishop in succession to St Mark had passed away. The book of the History of the Patriarchs says..

When the priests, and the bishops, his suffragans in the land, heard that the patriarch was dead, they mourned for him. Then they assembled at Alexandria, and took counsel together with the orthodox laity of that city, and cast lots, that they might know who was worthy to sit upon the throne of Saint Mark, the evangelist and disciple of the Lord Christ, in succession to the Father Avilius; and their choice fell with one consent, by the inspiration of the Lord Christ, our Master, upon an elect man, who feared God, and whose name was Cerdo.

Now it might be thought that the lot, having been used so early in the life of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria, was certainly the traditional method of selecting a new Pope. But in fact it has only been used 10 times in the history of the Church. Indeed this first occasion in 98 AD is given attention in the History of the Patriarchs because it would seem that none of the other early bishops of Alexandria were selected in this manner.

It was not until the election of Pope Yoannes IV, in 775 AD, that the altar lot is described again. On this occasion it is said that it was the habit of those gathered to consider a new Patriarch to write the names of those who seemed suitable on small pieces of paper. We discover that just as in our own present case, a young boy chose one the names and this was taken as God’s will. Yet when Pope Yoannes reposed in the Lord it was not the lot which was used to select the next Patriarch, and this method was not resorted to until the selection of Pope Mikhail V in 1145 AD and after this election the lot was not then used until 1660 AD when it was used for 4 Popes in succession.

We can note from this information that in fact the lot was not used very often in the selection of a new Pope. Over the centuries the most common method of selecting a new Pope has been by a consensus among the bishops, priests and faithful as they have prayerfully considered who should succeed the reposed Patriarch. In fact this method was used on over 50 occasions. At other times the Pope, aware of his imminent departure, offered a suggestion as to who he believed would best succeed him, and this has been accepted by the agreement of the bishops, priests and faithful after his repose. On a few other occasions the bishops alone made a selection, or the laity acclaimed a certain person as Pope.

It might well seem to many Coptic Orthodox today that the altar lot is the only Tradition of the Church. But with only 10 occasions when it has been used, and a long list of 117 successors to St Mark, with the 118th about to be selected, clearly it is one tradition among many. The reason it seems to represent the Coptic Orthodox Tradition is that both Pope Kyrillos VI, and Pope Shenouda III, were both selected by the use of the lot, and therefore it is the only method which a great many Coptic Orthodox are familiar with. In the case of both these most recent Popes the electoral procedure which was used was that formulated in 1957. This allowed for the nomination of

candidates, the reduction of the list to between 5 and 7 names, and then the election by a representative selection of electors which produces 3 names put forward for the altar lot.

The altar lot is therefore one tradition among many, and is most well known because it has been used most recently. Of course this does not mean it is an unsuitable tradition for the present election. But we should be aware that it is not the most common historical means of selecting a new Pope. Indeed the variety of means which the Coptic Orthodox Church has used suggests that it is proper for the Church to find the appropriate method for the various circumstances in which the Church finds itself.

It has been suggested that the modern use of the lot has been copied from the Assyrian Church of the East. But this seems most unlikely, nor does it strictly have any bearing on the use of the lot in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Since 1450 the Patriarchate of the Assyrian Church of the East had fallen into the hands one just one family, and it was passed on by hereditary. This meant that on occasion even a 12 year old might become the Patriarch. There was no need for the lot in the sense in which we have just seen it used because only members of this one family, usually the nephew of the Patriarch, could be chosen. It was not until the election of Mar Dinhka IV in 1976 that this hereditary principle came to an end. Since the Coptic Orthodox Church has always had the example of Pope Cerdo in 98 AD, and therefore has never needed to copy the practice of any other community.

The Coptic Orthodox Church has required a sense of agreement in the selection of a new Pope, and it can be considered that the electoral aspect of the present 1957 arrangements does allow for this. The nomination of names with some minimum level of support does seem to ensure that where there are suitable candidates they will be considered. The election itself also allows the wider community of the faithful in the Church to participate directly in supporting some candidates, and excluding others. Without this process leading up to the altar lot, and a prayerful reliance on the will of God, it would be possible to imagine great controversy in the Church over the selection of one candidate by means only of a vote, either by the Holy Synod of Bishops, or together with other representatives of the Church. It could also be imagined that external influences, or even the popularity rather than the suitability of candidates, might have an effect.

By resorting to the ancient practice of the altar lot the Coptic Orthodox Church is asserting that after prayerful consideration and selection of candidates, in the end the choice is properly left to God. The altar lot allows the Church to pray with the Apostles, “Lord, you know the hearts of all people, show us which one you have chosen”. There is still a proper involvement of the Church, and the present arrangements allow for, and expect, the Church to have considered the most suitable candidates. This has almost always been the case throughout history. God has only very rarely indicated in some miraculous manner who should be selected. But when the Church has played her part and made a selection of three final candidates it is a blessing to be able to step back from the process and allow God to make a choice.

The altar lot is not beyond manipulation. It could be possible for the names of three unsuitable candidates to be placed on the altar. But while the Church surrounds this election in prayer and fasting we may have confidence that God will act for the good of his own people and will indeed show who he has chosen. It is a means of placing the election beyond mere human parties and

politics, and in a prayerful waiting upon God it allows the Church to find a unity in the will of God. As it is written in the Book of Proverbs 16.

People cast lots to learn God's will, but God himself determines the answer.

Nevertheless, since the Church abandoned the use of the Lot in the New Testament, and has only rarely used it in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church, it is reasonable to ask whether it should be allowed to become a method which is always used. If it is because the Church is unable to be confident that it could reach agreement so that the choice seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, then surely we must ask what needs to be resolved and renewed in our community. This is not to doubt the efficiacy of the lot on this latest occasion of the election of our Pope. But the lot is not the normal means that our Church, or any Orthodox Church, has used to select its Patriarchs, and we should be hesitant in allowing it to become the only means used simply because it is the only method most people have experienced.