The supreme ecclesiastical authority of the Coptic church, under the presidency of the patriarch of Alexandria. Ever since the foundation of the church by Saint Mark in the first century, there has existed such an authority to protect the faith, preserve tradition, and ensure the welfare of the church. Membership is vested in all metropolitans and bishops ex officio, whose number varies from time to time, the modern average being fifty.
The latest constitution of the Holy Synod, as ratified on 2 June 1985, consists of ten sections that may be summed up as follows:
- Introduction and definition. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is an apostolic church, affiliated to other Oriental Orthodox churches through faith, sacraments, and ecclesiastical tradition.
- Membership. The Holy Synod consists of the pope of Alexandria as president, with all metropolitans, bishops, abbots of monasteries, chorepiscopi, and patriarchal deputies (vicars-general) as members.
Membership is for life, and may be withdrawn from those who deviate from the Orthodox Christian faith, fall into heresy, lose their mental faculty, or become excommunicated. This withdrawal shall follow a trial in which the member in question is given an opportunity to vindicate himself.
- Jurisprudence. The Holy Synod is the highest legislative body in the church, empowered to make ecclesiastical laws and issue statues governing all ranks of the clergy. It is entitled to pass judgment in all cases of infringement of church doctrine. It also considers appeals against its judgments.
It is the highest authority responsible for safeguarding faith and doctrine, interpreting this faith in the light of established ecclesiastical tradition. In this capacity, it may examine publications dealing with church doctrine and give relevant decisions.
It is the primary source of church ritual.
Its decisions are final, but may be reviewed in the light of changing circumstances. It may pardon repentant offenders and heretics.
It supervises the entire process of papal election, from nomination to enthronement.
- Chairmanship. The pope is the head of the Holy Synod, without whom it may not be convened, except in the following cases: his physical inability to speak or think, as attested by competent doctors and certified by more than half the number of members; and his refusal to convene the Holy Synod, despite his ability to attend, providing the majority of members request it be convened. In the event of the patriarchal throne becoming vacant, the locum tenens acts as chairman.
- Secretariat. The secretary shall be chosen by secret ballot for a period of three years; his tenure may be extended for a similar period in a subsequent election. He is assisted by three members, two to be elected and the third appointed by the pope.
- Committees. The Holy Synod incorporates the following committees: Doctrine and Ecclesiastical Education; Legislative; Diocesan Affairs; Church Ritual; Ecclesiastical Relations; Public Relations; Pastoral Work; and Ecclesiastical Development and Planning. An additional committee, consisting of the secretariat and rapporteurs of all other committees, is responsible for the implementation of the synodal decisions.
- Sessions. The Holy Synod shall hold two sessions every year, at the beginning of the Great Lent and at the Coptic New Year. Extraordinary sessions may be convened to deal with an emergency, providing reasonable notice is given to all members residing in Egypt. It may also be convened at the request of the majority of members.
The quorum for ordinary sessions is two-thirds of all members. For emergency sessions, the quorum is two-thirds of those members residing in Egypt.
Decisions must be agreed upon by at least three-quarters of the members attending; the chairman’s vote counts as two. Synodal decisions are binding on all.
- President and members. The president of the Holy Synod is the pope, who is the patriarch of Alexandria, successor to Saint Mark; he is also the bishop of the cities of Alexandria and Cairo and, as such, is the archbishop of the See of Saint Mark, in accordance with the decrees of the Council of Nicaea (see NICAEA, COUNCIL OF).
The successor to Saint Mark must be an orthodox Egyptian Copt. The locum tenens must also be an orthodox Egyptian Copt.
The pope is the bishop responsible for vacant dioceses or new dioceses established abroad until such bishops are duly ordained or appointed. He may delegate a papal representative or appoint a synodal committee to assist him in running dioceses outside Egypt.
He may appoint general (suffragan) bishops and preside over their ordination to the episcopacy. The pope, together with member bishops, may ordain new bishops and raise them to the rank of metropolitan or catholicos.
He represents the church vis-à-vis the state and other churches and official and religious organizations.
Coptic monasteries are under the pope’s supervision. The pope supervises the Coptic monasteries, to which he appoints abbots.
All possessions left by the pope after his death shall be the sole property of the patriarchate, and not his locum tenens or his own relatives by blood.
- Metropolitans and bishops. Priests and deacons are ordained by bishops, who also consecrate churches, altars, baptismal fonts, icons, and sacramental vessels. New bishops are to be first recommended by people of the diocese, and their candidacy must be approved by the pope. Applications for ordination must also be approved by the majority of synod members.
Bishops may not be inherited by the patriarchate but by their diocese, with the pope acting as trustee until their belongings have been received by the diocese.
- General (suffragan) bishops. The pope may ordain general bishops to assist him in his diocese, other church services, or pastoral work. No recommendation is required by the candidate, other than that of the pope or the bishop in whose diocese he will assist. A general bishop may be promoted to the bishopric, subject to the recommendation of his diocese and the approval of the pope.
- Amendments. Any amendment application to articles of this constitution must conform with canonical laws and traditions, subject to the approval of at least three-quarters of the total number of all members, giving them a month’s notice. No amendment may be introduced in the absence of the pope.
- Lai’hah al-Asasiyyah lil Majma‘ al-Muqaddas, al-. Cairo, 1985.