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The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: A history, by John Binns

29 March 2019

Richard Chartres reads a book that fills a gap

IN THOSE blissful days before the internet or mobile phones, I spent a memorable retreat in Anba Bishoi, a Coptic Orthodox monastery in the Wadi Natrun. The Coptic Pope Shenouda had been exiled to his desert residence in the monastery, and he used to lead monks and visitors on moonlit walks in the desert, emphasising his homilies by drawing patterns in the sand with his ivory wand.

It was on one of these walks that I first heard about the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia and the critical part played by Ethiopian monks after the Second World War in rekindling the religious life in the Egyptian desert. Until 1951, the Abuna, the Head of the Ethiopian Church, had been appointed by the Egyptian Pope, but more recently the former disciples have become spiritual teachers.

On return, I searched for a book that would offer a comprehensive history of the ancient Ethiopian Church. That was forty years ago, and at long last John Binns has published just such a book, in which legendary and traditional stories are coupled with the latest research and reflection on the recent upsurge of Evangelical groups.

The national identity of the Semitic-speaking Ethiopian people has been profoundly shaped by the Kebra Nagast, “The Glory of Kings”, which records the adoption of the Ethiopians as the chosen people of God in stories centring on the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon and the birth of their son Menelik. A pronounced Jewish influence persisted after the adoption of Christianity in the fourth century.

Having survived Islamic invasions and predatory Europeans, the monarchy with which the Church had been closely identified since at least the 13th century was toppled in the coup of 1974. The revolution was followed by the confiscation of church lands. Then, in 1991, a fully secular state was established. The Church lost its position as the principal provider of education and became one, although the largest, of a number of religious organisations in the country. There was a dramatic increase in the number of Evangelicals, who now constitute about 20 per cent of the population.

In 1926, the first Anglican Chaplain, Fr Ethelstan Cheese, was appointed to Addis Ababa. He was a peripatetic holy man, an ornament to any church, although from the episcopal point of view he proved to be unmanageable.

Despite recent setbacks, the historic Ethiopian Church with its village base, tenacious popular tradition, and light superstructure is renewing itself. Dr Binns, in this sympathetic study, has some stimulating reflections on the Orthodox missionary strategy that seeks to incorporate the young in a traditional society and its customs. By contrast, in a more mobile period, the Evangelical approach is “extractive”, emphasising change of life centring on concepts of vocation, repentance, and conversion, and leading to the formation of a new culture and community.

The flourishing state of Christian faith in modern Ethiopia suggests that there is room for both approaches, and it is possible by mid-century that the Ethiopians will constitute the largest Orthodox Church in the world.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.

The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: A history
John Binns
I. B. Tauris £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

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