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Ethiopian Orthodoxy at a Crossroads

Ethiopia’s ancient church confronts modernization

In any church, two questions present themselves when the subject of the formation of clergy is broached. Unfortunately the first — “What kind of ministers do superiors want for their faithful?” — overshadows the second — “What do the laity expect from their clergy?”

The Catholic and Orthodox churches share a common problem. In an increasingly industrialized, urbanized and secularized world, the traditional bonds between priest and people — once formed in rural or village communities — have eroded, perhaps irrevocably.

For the most part, Christians in Europe, North America and Oceania no longer look to the parish priest as sole arbiter or intermediary between God and humankind. More frequently than not, the priest (if one is available, as priestly vocations continue to decline) is brought down from the shelf and dusted off only in times of family need, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals.

In Ethiopia, one can now discern tension developing between priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — the historic church of the Ethiopian people — and the faithful. This tension reflects the evolution of Ethiopia from an agricultural society of subsistent farmers to an urbanized and industrial modern state.

In the past, the priest was the natural reference point and adviser. Today, however, Ethiopia’s young, urban Orthodox Christians no longer perceive the priest as the only source of wisdom; they turn increasingly to their own experiences to find answers to life’s complexities.

Ethiopia is celebrated for its many monasteries, ancient foundations peopled with men who, in the footsteps of the early desert fathers, have fled the world to fast, pray and participate in the weekly celebration of the Qeddase, the eucharistic liturgy of the church.

Academics describe Ethiopian Orthodox spirituality, with its focus on interior prayer and the communal celebration of the Qeddase, as introspective and monastic. They contrast this with the more extroverted spirituality pervading Christian life in the West, where ministry exercises a more “apostolic” dimension.

Though Ethiopia’s monks have retreated from the world, they have not forsaken it. Historically, monasteries have played a significant role in the development of the Ethiopian nation, its culture and its identity, even participating in its often volatile political life.

Despite such power and influence, however, the laity understands that the role of a monk is contemplative. This traditional role is not reserved to those in monastic life alone, but extended to parish priests as well.

Traditionally, a priest’s primary duty is the celebration of the Qeddase — in Ethiopia, typically five priests concelebrate — and other liturgical rites, particularly burials. Liturgical festivals feature rhythmic dancing, the chanting of hymns and the recitation of religious poetry. They require the participation of numerous priests, deacons and scribes, or debtera, a class of learned men unique to the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox tradition. Knowledge of Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches, is required of all clergy.

Monks and priests also function as nafs abbat (spiritual fathers), visiting families and serving as confessors and spiritual guides.

As a rule, parish priests marry and start families. When not attending to their liturgical and sacramental duties, they rear their children (of whom a few are expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps) and till the soil as farmers. Parish priests survive on freewill offerings and fees for their liturgical duties, but subsist largely on their own earnings as tenant farmers.

Traditionally, Orthodox parents offer one or two sons — in rural Ethiopian families, five to six children are the norm — to the local parish priest for the priesthood or monastic life. The boy, called a kollo temari, or “grain student,” joins other boys (all of whom are between 10 and 12 years of age) who gather around a priest or scribe for daily instruction.

The boys are expected to memorize passages of Scripture, the works of the church fathers, liturgical texts and religious poetry: Some priests can recite entire books of the Bible. After a kollo temari masters his subject of study with one instructor, he tackles another field of enquiry with a new teacher, often in a different church or monastery.

This period of tutelage can last as many as 10 years, at which point the student will decide if he wants to commit himself to celibacy and enter a monastery or marry, seek ordination and join the ranks of the eparchial (diocesan) priesthood.

But as Ethiopia changes, the Orthodox laity, particularly among the urban population, are demanding more from their clergy. Long-held religious traditions are weakening. Days of abstinence from meat, fish and dairy products have long been a cornerstone of religious observance. But today, many young Ethiopian Orthodox Christians no longer observe these dietary restrictions.

More broadly, most well-educated Orthodox Ethiopians know of the traditional education of their clergy and expect them to carry out baptismal and burial rites, to call upon the sick, offer the Eucharist and perform other liturgical services. But they do not look to them for intellectual or spiritual guidance or for help in reconciling the church’s teaching with scientific illuminations encountered during the course of their studies, which are often concluded in the industrialized countries of Europe and North America.

Meanwhile, as elsewhere in Africa, evangelical Christians are succeeding in winning new converts. When former Orthodox believers explain their conversions, many say they do not find the celebration of the Qeddase — which lasts more than two and a half hours — personally meaningful.

These converts find the charismatic and informal services of the evangelical churches more participatory, as opposed to the Qeddase, which finds the laity participating largely as observers. They also believe the Western-funded evangelical movements are more dynamic and possess a clergy who are better equipped to help them negotiate their Christian identity with the modern world.

But the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is extending higher theological study to seminarians . Also, the patriarch is bolstering education for priests and deacons, sponsoring clergy training centers throughout rural Ethiopia. It has not been easy, however.

The Communist dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991 confiscated church property, including the church’s Holy Trinity Theological College in the capital city of Addis Ababa. Once the regime was overthrown, the college was returned to the church, but it was found in a state of disrepair. Though short of funds, the church shored up the college’s modest facilities and built two other theological institutes to serve better other regions of the country.

The laity has not been neglected. In church compounds throughout the country, daily instruction is broadcast over loudspeakers. One can even travel in remote areas and hear the teaching of the priests — in many of these areas there is no electricity, so power to run these loudspeakers is provided by small generators. This clearly demonstrates that catechetical instruction of the laity — even if chaotic — is a high priority.

With a growing Muslim population; increased evangelical Christian proselytization; and the rise of industrialization, urbanization and secularization, Ethiopia is at the brink of losing its traditional Orthodox identity, which has sustained it for almost 2,000 years.

Are the efforts to educate and form the next generation of Ethiopian Orthodox priests enough to take on these challenges? Are there lessons the Ethiopian Orthodox can learn from the experiences of the church in the industrialized world? And are there lessons the church in the industrialized West can learn from Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians?

Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., CNEWA’s former regional director for Ethiopia, dedicated 39 years of service there, facilitating priestly renewal and formation programs.

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