Monday, August 3, 2009

Book Review: The Copts and the West, 1439-1822*

Author: Alistair Hamilton
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2006)
360 pages

PROFESSOR ALISTAIR HAMILTON has succeeding in producing a work that is both a readable narrative and a monumental work of historical scholarship. For this reason, the book will be of value not only to scholars of church history, but to non-scholars, such as everyday workers in the ecumenical movement as well as to Copts seeking a deeper understanding of their heritage. The work uncovers the timeless issues facing Coptic participation in the ecumenical movement. At base, Professor Hamilton has shown that, far from being considered serious parties to the ecumenical table, the Copts have largely functioned as a kind of battleground between Protestants and Rome.

The work comprises four parts. The first part is a survey of Coptic Church history from late antiquity to the Islamic Period. Here, the author highlights some of the important intellectual achievements of Copts under Arab domination and emphasizes the importance of these achievements for western students of the Eastern Churches. This section also includes an intriguing discussion of the tension between the Coptic upper class and the Coptic priesthood, a tension whose intensity has waxed and waned up to the present time.

Part Two focuses primarily on the Roman Catholic missions to Egypt during the period. This part highlights the Roman Church’s efforts to exploit the sacramental commonalities between the two communities in order to strengthen ecumenical bond. In this part, the author suggests that loyalty to Dioscorus and anti-Calcedonianism was so deeply-embedded in Coptic consciousness, that these sentiments, in combination with Rome’s insistence on Alexandria’s total submission, were sufficient to frustrate union with Rome. Importantly, the author also highlights the linguistic shortcomings of the Jesuit missionaries - who apparently couldn’t speak Arabic at all – and shows that the failure of ecumenical dialogue between Alexandria and Rome in that period probably was doomed from its inception, not because of a substantial disagreement about dogma, but because of the sheer failure to communicate.

While the authored touches on the tension between the Pope’s emphasis on submission to Rome and Coptic patriarch’s hesitation to sign on to this, his study of the interactions among all the players in between was far more interesting. Hamilton analyzes the relationship between emissaries from Rome - with their primary preoccupation with Egyptian submission to Rome and secondary concern for theological agreement - and the Coptic monks, some of whom, it must be admitted, may not have adequately distinguished the Chalcedonian position from Nestorianism. From the time of Anthony’s influence on Athanasius to the present day, monks have held a strong influence on Coptic patriarchs. Hamilton skillfully demonstrates how this strong influence, coupled with the monks’ often extreme theological positions, make for a complex dynamic. Finally, this part also includes intriguing vignettes on bright and colorful personalities, such as, for example, Raphael Tuki.

Part Three follows with a study of the efforts of Roman Catholics and Protestants to understand the Copts. Additionally, Hamilton lays out a very helpful background regarding how the two occidental bodies rivaled one another for influence over the Copts. He explains the dynamic between them, separate and apart from his discussion of their respective relationships with the Copts. This provides an excellent context for understanding their interactions and motivations with respect to the Copts. The author shows how the respective agendas of these two groups colored their differing conclusions regarding the Egyptian Christians. He also shows that, while Roman Catholics emphasized the Coptic recognition of the sacraments, the Protestants were more interested in the Copts as a significant body of Christians not in submission to Rome. As with Part Two, this part’s narrative feel is enhanced by biographical close-ups of intriguing figures, such as Johann Michael Wansleben, author of the important Histoire de l'Église d'Alexandrie.

Part Four is, for the most part, a highly technical study of the efforts of Western scholars to identify and understand the three major Coptic dialects. It begins, however, with an excellent, in-depth analysis of the work and methodology of Athanasius Kircher, generally considered the greatest Coptic scholar of the seventeenth century. The author’s meticulous analysis, however, utterly demystifies Kircher. Hamilton notes his “notorious carelessness” and “lofty indifference” to criticism and to his own mistakes. Generally, this section will be of primary interest to Coptolgists and linguists, and the general reader may, frankly, skip to Hamilton’s helpful epilogue.

In the end, the book is highly unique as a study of the Copts, being as it is, primarily a study of western missionary efforts to Egypt, and, secondarily, a study of the Copts themselves. Those looking for a more direct study of the Copts during this period will, of necessity, need to look further. A Copt reading this frank history of western perceptions and misperceptions about the Copts may become, as the present reviewer did, increasingly annoyed. At first one finds himself amused, but, as a pattern emerges, the amusement fades, giving way to unrelieved exasperation and dismay as he realizes that arrogance and ignorance have consistently characterized western approaches to the Egyptian Church. Copts seeking to learn more about this period of their history will appreciate Hamilton’s study because it manages to be extremely understanding of the Coptic position vis-à-vis the West without slipping into over-indulgent, politically-correct fawning.
*This review originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of the journal Touchstone and is republished hereon with permission.

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