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By Kallu Messay
The current and latest canonical crisis the country’s oldest Christian church faces can only be addressed through deep and rapid institutional renewal. While preserving its Apostolic integrity under one see, the ongoing trouble must be taken as a very urgent waking-up call, to bring the church’s archaic administrative system to the 21st century. Let me be unequivocally clear that I am not talking about any doctrinal reform. As a member of the Church, I am totally against that. In terms of faith and its doctrinal teachings, I wholeheartedly believe that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church is the true part of the holy body of Jesus Christ. That is indeed the very reason I sincerely call for genuine dialogue and comprehensive and deep institutional reform that would enable the Church to fully and effectively discharge its mission as the mystical body of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only with such an institutional renaissance that the Church could successfully carry out its core mission of evangelicalism, expand its engagement with the current and future generations to be the witness of Jesus Chris, and assert its national role in building a just and peaceful society.
Is the Christian church in a perpetual struggle?
Christianity was established on the Cross, with the excruciating agony of Jesus of Nazareth. He teaches that he “has built His church on a rock, and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.” Hence, the church has always been facing multiple internal and external challenges over the past 2000 years. What Christians do is they do make the necessary adjustments to “redeeming the time, because the days are evil,” as St. Paul wrote to Ephesians. Christ Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His Church does not change its mystical identity and doctrinal principle. But it does indeed renew its approach, method, and communication to engage and reach out to each generation and deal with ever-changing circumstances. This is what the Ethiopian Orthodox Church should do, and should do it now with the highest sense of urgency.
Oldest church and old problems?
Any Christian Church- Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant- face deep challenges. Since the early Christian period, maintaining unity has been a major challenge. Modernization has continued to disrupt Christians from their way of worship. Secularism, atheism, science, excessive individuals, disproportionate hedonism, and modern ideologies, including capitalism and communism have eroded faith and tradition, with many doubting the teachings of the Bible, and others completely departing.
These are also common challenges the Ethiopian Orthodox Church continues to face. It has also unique challenges as one of the oldest churches in the world. What is the role of the Ethiopian church in the Ethiopian state-making process? Did it discharge its responsibilities sufficiently to reach out to non-Semitic speaking populations, particularly after the establishment of the modern state in the 19th century? Even did it broadly spread its message and services in Amharic or Tigrigna? Did it timely and sufficiently reach out to Afan Oromo, Afar, Somali, Wolaita, Gurage, and other language-speaking communities to carry out its evangelical mission? Did it translate its ancient books to other languages to sincerely engage all its followers? Did it modernize its administrative apparatus to ensure good governance, financial stability, and independence and undertake Christian charity? Did it become a beacon of hope and integrity in a country that has been in chaos over the last five or six decades? Do its followers fully understand its mass and services and feel fulfillment? Raising these questions does not mean undermining the important role the Church played in national unity, preserving Ethiopian independence and sovereignty as well as its contribution to Ethiopian civilization, particularly in ethics, education, art, and music.
Don’t get me wrong. Over the last three decades, there have been attempts to address these issues. Mass in Amharic, Afan Oromo, and Tigrigna have started, and appointments of priests and bishops have been diversified. But these measures are not enough by any standard given the pastoral need to reach out to all Ethiopian communities. These actions are uncoordinated and not comprehensive, but have largely been piecemeal approaches. This is a fact, and shying away from this would only be denying the critical problems the church continues to suffer from. Admitting problems and addressing legitimate concerns and demands is the first important step to revitalizing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
These are among the series of questions that church leaders and their followers should contemplate. The current crisis should be taken as an opportunity to find genuine answers to such structural matters, and respond to legitimate aspirations guided by the Holy Spirit and scriptures. Let me stress that diversity of language, race, and culture by itself cannot be a source of problems. Christians are sent to all nations and spread the Word of God. The first gift of the Holy Spirit has been the revealing of different languages to Apostles so that they can reach all nations. The variety of language and customs is not opposed to the unity of the Church. The Church has unlimited capacity to unite people in Jesus Christ from the greatest diversity, respecting and giving a new value to specific characteristics. So, diversity is not anti-thesis to unity and reform.
Given the diversity of characteristics in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church and the way, the current crisis is taking a very dangerous divisive track, unfortunately, time is running for renewal. And the illicit measure to appoint “archbishops” in clear violation of the church’s canonical laws is just an additional reason why the Church is in a deep institutional crisis. Though the decision of the Synod to excommunicate Abune (former) Sawiros and collaborators are the right approach according to the canonical laws, it is very far from sustainably addressing the structural deficiencies why in the first place the Church suffered from such illegal and unnecessary action that has the potential to further complicate and undermine its mission. The best course of action is for those excommunicated bishops to take advantage of the gate left open for forgiveness and reconciliation and rejoin the hierarchy of the Church and be part of the institutional reform within the Church.
The latest crisis is a grave danger to the Church and the country
Before the current crisis, it was abundantly clear that the institutional system has been marred by serious allegations of corruption, lack of transparency, and accountability. Until recently, it had two Patriarchs after almost three decades of “two synods.” When the Church- with tens of millions of followers- is divided at home and abroad, it undermines national unity, complicating not only religious lives but also political interactions and national consensus. The conflict in the northern part of the country has also led to the declaration of another administrative body by Tigrean Orthodox priests. There are also sprinted Tigrean Orthodox churches in US and Europe. While the Church was struggling to deal with such threats, the latest “ appointment” of bishops by a well-positioned archbishop claiming “ linguistic and administrative discrimination “ is a very serious blow to the institutional unity, stability, and credibility of the Church. That is why I argue that a canonical action would not be enough to address the latest crisis and the deep-rooted structural grievances that contributed to such a shocking event.
A call for an urgent and extraordinary Synod Council
Addressing these multiple crises the Church faces should be the top and urgent priority of the leadership of the Church. Calling the emergency Synod meeting for the latest event is not enough. The Patriarch should call for another extraordinary Synod Council to deal with all structural issues that keep the church in continuous crisis. The objective has to be to deal with all the institutional problems the Church encounters since the modern era and unleash a new spirit of rejuvenation to fulfill its mission.
The solutions should come only from a Christian-based perspective. It is not a political calculation that would redeem the church. Some consider the latest crisis as part of their political agenda or religious motive of destroying or weakening the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. That is wrong both politically and spiritually as exploiting the weaknesses of the church is a very irresponsible and short-sighted approach. Instead, the Ethiopian government, other stakeholders, and citizens should encourage unity and peaceful resolution of the disunity while respecting the legal identity and independence of the Church.
Other churches that faced similar challenges have introduced reforms. It is known that the Coptic Church, with whom EOTC has a unique relationship, began its modern renaissance towards the latter half of the nineteenth century, after many centuries of darkness. With a vision of the revival of the glories of the Church of Alexandra, established by St. Mark, the Copts have opened the gate to youth and accelerated institutional reforms to spread the Gospel to its followers. The change is dramatic as the Coptic Church is now an influential religious institution in Egypt albeit under difficult conditions.
Renewal of the Catholic Church was also the whole purpose of the Second Vatican Council which lasted from 1962 through 1965. It thoroughly deliberated on the modern fundamental problems the Catholic Church faced and decided on vital linguistic, liturgical, and administrative matters to recommit the church to evangelicalism and engage with the modern world. Among the changes, instead of Latin mass, vernacular language was introduced in services engaging the laity.
These reforms did not solve all the problems these churches face. Secularism, atheism, the burden of modern life, and corruption are still serious challenges. But these churches are in a much better institutional position to face the modern world and navigate through it while preserving the fundamental dogma of their teachings. Appropriate lessons could be taken from these experiences while fully recognizing the unique national and traditional circumstances of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. The Renaissance of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not only good for redeeming itself but also had a positive influence on national unity. A fragmented church is a threat to national unity and calmness. It is only the consolidation of ancient Ethiopian institutions like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that could contribute to and foster much-needed national unity.
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