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By Kallu Messay
Since the “appointment” of 26 bishops by Abune (former) Sawiros has triggered the current canonical crisis, the situation is getting worse every day. I am deeply worried like millions around the country and abroad. The escalation of the crisis has negative ramifications for the unity of the Church and the country. Unfortunately, both are in vulnerable situations. Regrettably, what we watch, read, and listen to from all angles appears to further exacerbate the crisis. My attempt is therefore to appeal for a Christian and agape-based approach to seek sustainable remedies before we start another slippery slope that would lead to catastrophic consequences. I don’t in any way claim what I propose is a panacea. But I sincerely hope and appeal to all fathers, brothers, and sisters these principles would contribute, in a little way, to resume a Christian-based and respectful conversation leading towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
After the “appointment”, the Holy Synod excommunicated Abune ( Former) Sawiros and collaborators while leaving the door open for reconciliation if the latter requested forgiveness. In a tit-for-tat approach, Abune Sawiros and his team doubled down and excommunicated twelve Archbishops, further widening the gap and complicating the already complex trouble. Reports indicate that they are on a tour to certain areas of the Oromia region claiming to “assume” their dioceses, leading to multiple reports of imprisonments of priests of the local dioceses, the forced return of an Archbishop Estifanos of Jimma to Addis Ababa and seizure of office of Abune Nathnael. Tensions are boiling. Any external and illicit intervention that aggravates the crisis is unacceptable. Thank God, so far we have not heard any blood-shedding. But if things continue with the current state of deterioration, can anyone rule out the loss of innocent lives with certainty?
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s speech which, leaving other contentious issues aside, called for dialogue and unity has angered the Holy Synod which threatened a nationwide demonstration. This is gravely concerning as it may signal another layer of division between the Church and the Federal Government. As the Premier rightly observed, several external actors have intervened in this matter to take advantage of the crisis. All these are additional reasons why finding amicable solutions based on Christian unity is of the highest importance. Time is of the essence before the crisis gets out of hand. We all remember how the political tension between the Federal Government and the TPLF led to one of the most devastating wars. As we just start to get out of that unnecessary conflict with all its ugly consequences and unspeakable sufferings, Ethiopia simply cannot afford religious turbulence with potentially devastating impacts. We are sleepily walking into a dangerous zone with no point of return insight. With this in mind and with a sense of genuine concern, the following principles are humbly suggested to all Christians and peace-loving citizens and stakeholders to consider them with sincerity and earnestly so that we can all stop our dangerous slide.
1. Unity of the Church of Jesus Christ
This is the cardinal principle of Christianity. It is the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ of Nazareth that brought this unity of all nations due to his Crucifixion and Resurrection. That is why he thought to us ” I am the vine, ye are the branches (John 15:5) Saint Paul who emphasized multiple times the unity of Christians preached that ” For as the body is one and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body, even so, Christ. For in one Spirit, we are all baptized into one body (1 Corinthians 12:12, 13). The Holy Church is the body of Christ and his body should not be divided. That is what a Holy Synod represents. This is ecumenically true for Christians.
The question is what happens when Christians face differences as it happened almost in every era. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” That was again St. Paul to Ephesians. The same principle of addressing our differences in unity applies to us. Problems and grievances either real or perceived happen. Every time we face problems, creating our separate paths, no matter how appealing it appears, is a counterproductive measure that divides the body of Christ- the Church. To solve our problems we should not create another problem. Preserving the unity and integrity of the One and Apostolic Orthodox Church should be the cornerstone in all our struggles to promote evangelicalism. Unity is the best way to teach the Gospel of Christ. Remember, unity does not mean uniformity. It means unity of purpose and ultimate allegiance to the mystical body of Christ. That is why our unity has been the prayer of Our Lord. “May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent me,” (John 17:21). Lack of unity as Christians affects and disturbs all Orthodox Christians. In unity, however, we are determined to speak, debate, and resolve our problems. That brings us to the next principle.
2. Addressing legitimate grievances and concerns of all
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has continued to face multiple and interlinked crises. Maladministration, corruption, and state interventions coupled with a lack of intensive evangelization using vernacular languages in its mass and services have caused legitimate disappointments. One of the reasons the separated fathers claim is discrimination and lack of inclusive service to all believers. We have an intense debate about whether that was genuine or a cover to go on a separate path. There is also another constructive debate that strongly claims that the EOTC has done a lot to convey the gospel in local languages. Fair enough, this debate is healthy as long as it leads to the spread of the Gospel. What every Orthodox Christian would agree is that the institution of the EOTC needs a thorough, comprehensive renewal to address legitimate, real and perceived concerns related to mismanagement, embezzlement, and serious weakness in reaching out to the current and future generations. There are many followers of the church, including fathers who truly advocate that the existing administrative system must be renewed. It is vitally imperative to recognize and address legitimate concerns of all to meet the heavenly aspirations of millions of adherents. How to do this should lead us to the next pillar of the solution.
3. Renaissance within the Church
If the church has to go out of the current canonical crisis as well as address the other structural problems such as mismanagement, it just cannot continue business as usual. It has to proclaim and undertake institutional transformation. That has to happen within the Church- under One Holy Synod. This Renaissance within the Church helps us to preserve the unity of the Holy Synod while addressing the grievances of those who formed a new diocese as well as others who stand for institutional renewal. It is possible to maintain unity – a unity that addresses challenges; a unity that does not underestimate the frustration of many in the Church. Institutional renaissance is urgently imperative and it can’t wait anymore.
4. Recommitment to inclusive evangelicalism
The fourth principle I suggest is going to solidify the above ones. It is a recommitment to inclusive evangelicalism and liturgical services as evangelicalism is the ultimate goal of the Church. Why do we want to preserve the unity of the church or address grievances and ensure Renaissance? Or if we put ourselves in the shoes of the Abune Sawiros and we believe his claims, it is a lack of evangelicalism that led to the departure of millions. Then, let recommitment to the whole message of the Gospel be the central pillar of our debate, dialogue, and reconciliation. Let us fight within the Church the good fight of how to reach all communities now and in the future.
If we agree on these four principles, the fifth is the most important and the most difficult. I call it respecting the status quo or moratorium. The point is having agreed on the above principles; let the appointment, and the ex-communication by both parties be deferred. I know this is automatically rejected by both sides. Some may even get angry at me as it flies in the face of what both sides have been saying. Both would even say decisions by the fathers have been already made. I get it. Trust is low if there is any. Tension and anger are high. But I strongly appeal that if we care about Christ and his Church, if our intentions are purely about his Kingdom, I respectfully call us to stop the slippery road to complete disunity and dysfunction. I agree with the Prime Minister that if the current canonical crisis persists, both sides would lose and ultimately, it is the Apostolic and ancient Orthodox Church that would be weakened very much. Return to the status quo would only mean for now until we find together amicable and urgent solutions. This would require requesting and accepting forgiveness and fully recognizing the grievances and concerns raised.
6. An Emergency Holy Synod Council
The final principle is both an action and a guideline to practically cement the five principles. I have mentioned it in my previous piece and let me repeat it now. His Holiness Patriarch Mathias should call for an extraordinary Holy Synod Council to deal with all structural issues the Ethiopian Orthodox Church continues to face. Centered on the current canonical crisis, the Council would be a historical opportunity to deal with all fundamental administrative challenges and seek sustainable solutions to ensure the Renaissance of the Church to discharge its evangelical mission, fulfill the spiritual aspirations of all its followers and re-emerge as a holy, one Apostolic church that engages the modern world in every corner of the country. This Council should be preceded by inclusive local meetings at each parish and dioceses, culminating in a national conference of bishops, priests, deacons, Sunday schools, and other spiritual associations. This process would enable the whole church to listen to each member from all communities and engage in a genuine dialogue to ensure solutions are reflective of each constituency. Based on such a robust process, the Holy Synod would make final decisions that would ensure the Renaissance of the Church to enable it to proclaim the Risen Christ to every nation at every corner of the country and beyond.
I don’t claim these principles are exhaustive. Others who have more experience and knowledge could add or reformulate new ones. My attempt -how incomplete or idealistic it may appear to some- is to encourage us to seek sustainable remedies to the current crisis in the spirit of the Crucified Jesus Christ and all saints who followed Him until death. It is going to be difficult. That is very true. But finding solutions would not be as difficult as living with a broken and divided church that would not be reflective of the One and Only Lord.
I also know that these or other principles would not lead to immediate resolution. Emotions are high. Few are cool-headed, sadly. If we start talking and debating about them with a genuine sense of Christian spirit, not political, they would surely contribute to solutions. We have important and influential actors in the country who hold positions in public and private institutions. As this is an urgent national matter, such influential individuals should exert their efforts to encourage an amicable and timely resolution of the crisis. One of the lessons we should draw from the devastating conflict in northern and other parts of the country is the primacy of dialogue before things lead to a dangerous and catastrophic road. Let us find solutions to the current canonical crisis of the church now with a Christian spirit of friendship. Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with all brothers and sisters who are calling for prayer and fasting. We should pray and fast while we put all our God-given minds to work to unite the Apostolic Church.
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