Egypt: The Coptic Orthodox Community The Daughters of St. Mary
It was long-term security for celibate women who wish to serve the community that Anba Athanasius, the metropolitan of the diocese of Beni Suef, had in mind when he established the Daughters of Saint Mary Convent in 1965. The active nuns of the convent work in the community, but are different from consecrated deaconesses. Whereas consecrated deaconesses relate to the bishop, active nuns are answerable only to the convent.
The working-nun model, Metropolitan Athanasius explains, provides a sense of security. The fate of the women is not dependent on that of the bishop; they are nuns who will always belong to the convent. If a bishop dies, the deaconesses will not have to worry about their future, because irrespective of the leadership of the convent, she will always be a nun there.
Tasoni Agapi, one of the first three working nuns of the Beni-Suef convent, recounts when Pope Kirollos VI gave the movement his blessing. He had said that 80 per cent of Catholic nuns in Egypt were originally Orthodox, but had converted to Catholicism because they could not find a way to combine a celibate life with community service. Pope Kirollos, Tasoni Agapi affirms, supported the idea.
One distinctive difference between the consecrated deaconesses and the working nuns of Beni Suef is the nature of their work. If consecrated deaconesses are committed to the service of the Church, the working nuns of Beni Suef are committed to the service of the neediest and most marginalised people in society, irrespective of gender and religion.
“We have to address social needs. Commitment to the poor is our priority,” says Anba Athanasius. “We are committed to the most needy, the marginalised.” These include garbage collectors, the mentally handicapped and abused women. The convent includes a refuge for women facing personal hardship and severe marital problems — it is one of the few women’s shelters available in Egypt.
Some habits are hard to break: traditions of monastic life still remain, including communal meals (top) and attending mass (bottom)
The Coptic Orthodox Church, however, does not officially recognise the order because the tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church does not have a history of active monasticism, meaning working nuns or monks who are a part of the community. As Anba Moussa put it, “Monasticism is about the deserts; it is not about active participation in the community.”
Anba Bishoy believes that the continued ordination of working nuns in Beni Suef is a mistake. “It is impossible to recognise this convent. Since we have our own Coptic rite of consecrated deaconesses, why ordain them according to a rite that is not what was passed on to us,” he asks, adding that a “working nun” is a Catholic, and not Coptic, tradition. Anba Bishoy believes that the solution is that they be called “consecrated deaconesses” as opposed to “nuns.”
“It is unacceptable to have an unorthodox tradition imposed on us. The Holy Synod has persistently refused to recognise this. It will not continue; one day [Anba Athanasius] will have to do the shift.”
It is ironic, and perhaps reflective of the patriarchal nature of the Coptic Church, that while the Church has refused to recognise the concept of a working nun — on the premise that monasticism and community service cannot be combined — it has been appointing an ever-increasing number of monks to serve in the community as priests. A monk cannot serve in the community unless he is first ordained as a priest.
Anba Moussa concedes that “things are a bit distorted, and we want to correct the situation. We want to limit and correct the presence of monks working in the community. We want to get monasticism away from the active world of the Church, not to encourage it among women.” But Anba Moussa did not completely rule out the possibility that the Church might one day recognise the Daughters of Saint Mary Convent.
Anba Athanasius, who founded the order, is optimistic that the Church will recognise the status of the working nuns. “The Church will have to recognise the working nuns in the future,” an order supported by Pope Kirollos. “In my view, the time will come, and it is not far. The church needs this order,” he said.
Anba Athanasius notes that despite the traditional link between monasticism and seclusion, there have also been monks who were active in the community. There is evidence of a community-oriented working monastic life, he concedes. However, this way of life did not take the shape of established orders, with encoded regulations, but was rather spontaneous.
Saint Shenouda, for example, was a gifted preacher as well as a political leader. “At that time, Egypt was ruled by the Romans, who owned the land and he fought relentlessly against feudalism. During famines, [Saint Shenouda] provided people with food from the monasteries,” Anba Athanasius says.
Information to be collected includes (but is not limited to) the following questions.
A brief history (may include links to documents and websites) – how did it all get started? What are the key dates and events? Are there documents that are part of the history (please specify)?
Diaconal ministry agents: consecretrated/commissioned/ordained/other?
Title: Sister, Deaconess, Deacon, Rev, etc
Historical information and dates re formation/recognition of diaconal ministry agents in the denomination/church agency.
Does the diaconal ministry agent wear a distinctive uniform? Are diaconal ministry agents able to be married? Are they remunerated? Do they live in community (eg motherhouse) or independently? Etc.
What kind of training/formation do diaconal ministry agents receive before formal recognition in their church. Are there expectations of ongoing training, or professional development? If yes, what is expected and how often does it happen?
How many diaconal ministry agents are there currently in the denomination or church agency? Any comment on trends in numbers?
Are there key people (historical or current) in the organization who have provided significant leadership. Any weblinks to their story, or a short write up?
Who are the current leaders in the diaconal association? (photos, ‘blurb’).
Relationship of diaconal ministry agents to a denomination/church agency
An overview of main responsibilities for diaconal ministry agents (past and present). Are they located within a church, a particular facility or agency, or community based? Are diaconal ministry agents appointed to individual placements or work together on projects or in institutions?
Are diaconal ministry agents able to preside at sacraments (communion, baptism, weddings etc)?
Who makes the appointments for diaconal ministry agents eg they apply for positions, they are appointed (eg by a Bishop, by the conference office, or another body/committee).
Is there a length of time for appointments (eg usually less than 5 years, usually between 5 and 10 years, at the discretion of the diaconal ministry agent or at the discretion of the appointing body), appointed to and remain with a particular mother house, etc.
Do diaconal ministry agents organize conferences, seminars, gatherings for professional development, pastoral peer support etc? How often and what is the nature of these events?
Key issues and challenges in the contemporary ministry context
Do the diaconal ministry agents have ‘code of conduct’ or ‘code of ethics’ that inform ethical and behavioral expectations for ministry?
Key documents (historical, vision and mission etc) – links or PDF or Word files
Links to relevant articles, websites etc
Other areas of interest……
(information to Rev Sandy Boyce, President, DIAKONIA World Federation, email@example.com, to upload to this website)