Eygyptian Christians to choose Pope by lot

In a report in today’s (London) Independent:

Pope Shenouda, 88, [who has just died] was famous as a cautious Coptic leader, all-powerful within his community, who for four decades had dealt with the Egyptian government. … His successor, to be chosen by a synod of bishops, is unlikely to exercise the same authority in defence of Egypt’s embattled Christian minority. The bishops will choose three candidates, whose names are written on pieces of paper and placed in a box. The final choice is made by a blindfolded boy, who picks one of the names.

Yet another example where religious organizations use a lottery to choose leaders. Previously we heard of Tibetan Bhuddists who chose their Abbot by a similar procedure. So it’s good enough for Coptic Christians, Bhuddists, but  not for Anglicans (Episcopaleans)?  According to Gataker (1621) Uses of Lots, that would be blasphemy, forcing God to reveal Her preference by means of a lottery.

Can anyone explain the difference?

9 Responses

  1. Pope Honorius III in 1223 banned the sortitional selection of ecclesiastical appointments because it was a ‘superstitious practice’.

    On the other hand, current day Amish see the use of sortition in selecting their leaders-for-life as the way in which God makes the final decision from among the group’s nominees.


  2. Conall, in your introduction to Gataker, did you mention that he was on the puritan wing of the Anglican church? The reason that I ask is because Olly Dowlen flirts with the idea in his book that one of the reasons that election was replaced by sortition was because protestants felt that God spoke to the elect in the privacy of their own consciences (and God’s message could then be passed on by preferences indicated via the ballot box) as opposed to the public ceremony of the lot (which reminded puritans of Catholic sacraments). This might possibly explain why the lot survived so long in Venice, but was not even considered by the American founders (given their predominately puritan backgrounds)


  3. This thread seems to be the right place for a “religion and the lot” question. I went on a walking tour of Dublin this past weekend. (It was allegedly an “In the Footsteps of St. Patrick” tour, but only about 10% of the tour dealt with the man himself.) The tour guide mentioned that the Celts regarded the numbers 3 and 7 as sacred. Has anyone else heard this? Or know why they did so? I ask because 3 and 7 are commonly regarded as the most “random-looking” of the first ten numbers. If you ask people to select a number “at random,” the most likely response is 7, followed by 3. Can’t help but think this is more than just a coincidence.


  4. Keith: Yes, Gataker was on the Puritan wing of Protestantism, but I can only look on at the ‘beliefs’ of these and others with detached amusement. Particular sects may have rationalised their use/non-use of randomly selecting priests/bishops/popes using some form of belief, but I’d guess their real reasons were because of the virtues of the random process.

    Peter: If you look up Google on ‘sacred numbers’ you’ll find *every* number has some magical/religious properties in some faith!! (I was interested in 8-sided religious buildings when I looked.) Again, I’d say that once you stray into the area of belief, anything goes!


  5. Well, as I’ve commented in an earlier exchange with Yoram, I think it’s a mistaken belief (sic) to claim that all ideology (including religious belief) is just rationalisation of interests. This is particularly true when it comes to religious faith in earlier ages. The work of Pocock and others on early-modern Europe identifies religion as one of the key factors of social and political change. Pocock certainly doesn’t view this as some sort of rationalisation of interests but rejects the claim that he is some kind of idealist. Adopting a view of ‘detached amusement’ over the beliefs of others does imply that you have some sort of god’s eye perspective — I’m more inclined to accept that historical agents actually believed the things that they say and that their ‘real reasons’ are the ones that the linguistic paradigm that was available at the time permitted.


  6. Another interesting role that religion has played in the history of democracy is in the development of New England Town Meeting direct democracy. When they rejected the authority of the Anglican Church and the Pope in Rome some protestant faiths used general congregation meetings to make decisions (and elections to select their leaders). When they set up colonies in the new world (like towns in Massachusetts) the church decision-making process and municipal process were initially one in the same. So the model of town meeting democracy seems to have had no heritage from Athens.


  7. Yes indeed — further evidence to support Olly Dowlen’s hint that there is something specifically protestant about the notion of election. Note also the overlap between (political) election and the Calvinist notion of “the elect” (Madison’s tutor at Harvard was the Calvinist divine John Witherspoon). Given that the average American farmer would be more familiar with the Bible than the writings of John Locke, religious belief strikes me as a more plausible reason for rejecting sortition than the natural right theory of consent. It would have seemed perfectly natural to New England protestants to prefer the elect as their leaders rather than risk a process that failed to distinguish the sheep from the goats. This is probably the reason why protestant countries are more concerned that their politicians appear whiter than white, whereas catholics are more content to put up with the likes of Berlusconi and Strauss-Kahn.

    It’s also the case, as Manin points out, that the birth of representative government has to be seen against the background of monarchy rather than classical democracy, so Terry’s parallel with the rejection of the king in Rome by protestant congregations is pertinent.


  8. Keith,

    A few corrections about Witherspoon (who I know a little about). He taught Madison at the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University. He was a Scottish Presbyterian. Although a member of the clergy, he was a big fan of Enlightenment philosophy including natural rights. He was also a fan of the Roman Republic as a model for the new nation. He didn’t take his lead on this matter from his religion.


  9. Thanks for the clarification. From memory my focus on Witherspoon’s Calvinism (and its subsequent influence on Madison) was Manin’s book. He remarks that a part of one of Madison’s speeches was lifted straight from one of Calvin’s sermons. (We’ve just published excerpts from Witherspoon in one of our Library of Scottish Philosophy collections — looks like I’d better dig it out and read it.) But the important point is, pace Conall, the very real influence of ideas (including religious belief) on politics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: