The practice of simony. The biblical passage cited by the Coptic jurists condemning the practice of the cheirotonia or simony is recorded by Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles 8:14-25. As the early church moved from its sectarian structure to an all-inclusive national cult, members of the hierarchy faced new problems concerning the power structure. The temptation to sell and buy ecclesiastical privileges was a constant threat, especially since the selling and the purchasing of civic rights and privileges during the imperial age was a widespread and largely accepted practice.
Saint Basil of Caesarea, aware that his suffragan bishops accepted money for the ordination of priests, addressed an open letter to the members of his clergy in which he warned them of ecclesiastical and eternal punishments if they persisted in the practice. For the Copts, the two series of CANONS OF SAINT BASIL, of which one canon (sec. 45) is specifically devoted to the condemnation of the cheirotonia, are authoritative.
With respect to the Coptic church, we must distinguish the motivations of this practice, whether members of the hierarchy were merely moved to increase their personal gains and prestige or practiced simony for the sheer survival of the church that was entrusted to them. In some cases—certainly not in all—the cheirotonia as practiced by the Coptic patriarchs, bishops, and archons was a necessary evil, comparable with such necessary evils as the “white lie” or stealing on account of need or poverty. In these cases, the end justifies an otherwise prohibited act of conduct. This principle was acknowledged by the canonical jurists of the medieval Coptic church, for example, by MIKHA’IL of Atrib and Malij (Nomocanon secs. 13, 17, 24).
Similar arguments could be advanced regarding the practice of the cheirotonia following the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT with its more or less oppressive measures against the Coptic church. For example, during the 470 years from 830 to 1300, seven patriarchs are said to have practiced the cheirotonia.
In two cases, KHA’IL III and GABRIEL I, it is stated that they practiced the cheirotonia from entirely unselfish motivations and exclusively for the survival of the church. Five patriarchs, PHILOTHEUS, SHENUTE II, CHRISTODOULUS, CYRIL III, and THEODOSIUS II, were severely censured for having personally engaged in, participated with others in, or condoned the practice of the cheirotonia, and were therefore referred to as “lovers of money.”
Four patriarchs, SHENUTE I, ABRAHAM, CYRIL II, and GABRIEL II explicitly prohibited the practice either by patriarchal order or by the issuance of ecclesiastical canons. Special condemnation for those practicing the cheirotonia is expressed in the canons of Cyril II and Gabriel II ibn Turayq.
- Burmester, O. H. E. “The Canons of Gabriel ibn Turaik, LXX Patriarch of Alexandria.” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 1 (1935):5-45.
- . “The Canons of Cyril II.” Le Muséon 49 (1936):279.
- Crum, W. E. “The Coptic Version of the Canons of Saint Basil.” Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 26 (1904):57-62.
- Meinardus, O. “The Cheirotonia among the Copts—A Necessary Evil?” Ekklesiastikos Pharos 59 (1977):437-49.
- Reidel, W. Die Kirchenrechtsquellen des Patriarchats Alexandrien, 260. 231-33, 260. Leipzig, 1900.