Jayson Casper: How Sunday School Sparked Revival in Egypt’s Oldest Church

My wife had just dropped off our kids at the local Coptic Orthodox Church we attend in Cairo and sat down with her Egyptian friend at the adjacent church-owned cafe. After initial pleasantries, she spoke of this current article I was then researching.

“Oh, do Americans have Sunday School also?” inquired the mother. “I never knew.”

My wife and I have lived in Egypt for nearly nine years and consider ourselves of evangelical faith. But we wish also to learn about ancient Christianity and, to the degree possible, worship within the Coptic Orthodox Church, which many Protestants here respectfully call “the mother church.”

We have been impressed by their biblical fluency. We have marveled at their forgiveness after martyrdom. But to entrust our own children to them?

We have been blown away by their care for the next generation. It takes two years of training to even teach a kindergartener.

It was not always so, and they have the Americans to thank—sort of.

Foreign Influence

The modern Sunday school movement began in late 18th-century Britain and spread quickly to the United States. In 1825, the UK Church Missionary Society arrived in Egypt, and American Presbyterians followed in 1854. Both immediately began distributing children’s literature, working alongside the population at large—Muslims particularly.

Neither group had much success, and they adopted different attitudes toward the Copts.

The English missionaries sought to work alongside what they considered to be a sisterly episcopal body unaffiliated with Catholic Rome. Coptic papal permission was given to establish a seminary in 1843 to train Orthodox priests in their parish ministry. At that time, clerical roles were mostly inherited within families, with no formal training beyond rites and rituals.

The seminary closed five years later, unable to cross-pollinate amid considerable suspicion.

The Americans opened schools. Still a new idea in Egypt, they were of vastly better quality than the few local options, especially in Upper Egypt. Presbyterians trace their seminary in Cairo, now over 150 years old, to a boat purchased to sail up and down the Nile River.

As they attracted Coptic converts, the missionaries established congregations, and the Sunday schools proved popular. In 1870 there were around 200 Egyptian children attending; seven years later, more than four thousand.

It was a dire moment for the Copts. Authorities granting equality with Muslims a generation earlier also allowed entry of competing versions of Christianity, preached by foreigners with financial means and modern education.

The Coptic Pope Kyrillos (Cyril) IV (1854–1861) became known as the “Father of Reform” for welcoming Western innovations. He opened the Great Coptic School and imported a printing press. But his successor, Demetrious II, gave far less attention to education, instead threatening excommunication for families sending their children to missionary schools.

Popes would alternate between reform and reversal, but all were trying to undo a situation of inherited darkness.

Looking backward eight decades, the beloved Pope Shenouda III, known as “the teacher of generations,” described the solution with primordial imagery. “Our teacher … started his life in an age that was almost void of religious education and knowledge,” said the patriarch, who died in 2012. “Then, God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And the light was Habib Girgis.”

Coptic Educator Extraordinaire

Girgis was born into a middle-class family in Cairo in 1876. One of four children, his father died when he was only six years old. Even so, young Habib was fortunate to be educated in the Great Cairo School.

In 1893, Pope Kyrillos V (1874–1927) resumed his namesake’s reforms and opened the Clerical College, the first Coptic theological institution since the patristic-era School of Alexandria. Girgis was one of 40 students chosen to be part of the first class. Unfortunately, he discovered that almost none of the instructors had any training in theological education. The dean simply read aloud from religious materials.

Girgis lamented the situation. “Is there among us anyone who is capable of responding to those who ask him about his religion and why he is a Christian?” he asked in a student lecture four years later. “I am sure that most of us do not have an answer, except to say that we were born from Christian parents and hence we are Christians.”

To a large degree, Girgis had to educate himself. He read Tacitus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Rome. Even before graduating in 1898, he was appointed as a theology professor. Twenty years later, in 1918, he would be named dean of the Clerical College, a position he held for the rest of his life. In the intervening time, Girgis began the most transformative change in Coptic education since the patristic era: the Sunday school movement.

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Source: Christianity Today

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