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Press: When war leads to schism, unity is far off

01 September 2023


AT GREENBELT, I heard myself explaining to someone the template for a church news story: “Someone says something. Someone else gets angry about it. Then nothing happens.”

Very occasionally, this template is broken. Schisms happen. The Financial Times had a long read about the schism in Tigray, the northernmost province of Ethiopia which abuts Eritrea. A Tigrayan grouping had ruled the whole of Ethiopia for 27 years until 2018. For 20 of those years, the country was at war with Eritrea. The non-Tigrayan President who took office in 2018 ended that war, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for doing so. The next year, his forces went to war with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, and the Eritreans, seeing an opportunity for revenge, invaded Tigray from the north, fighting on the Ethiopian side. In the resulting war, perhaps 600,000 people were killed in two years — quite ignored by the West — and among them were at least 1000 clergy.

That is the background to the consecration of nine Tigrayan bishops in their own church. “The ceremony in the cradle of Ethiopian Christianity — where the faith was founded in the fourth century and which is said to house the Ark of the Covenant — heralded a bitter split with the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa, whose 36mn members form the world’s second-largest Orthodox congregation,” the FT reported. “‘We’re saddened by the separation from the Ethiopian church because God wanted us united. But God now wants us away from our enemies,’ said Bishop Yohannes, the leader of the schism.”

Not even the spokesman for the Ethiopian Church could muster much optimism: “Maybe in 10 or 20 years there will be a reconciliation — but not yet. There have been too many atrocities.”

This is worth noting not only as a properly reported story about horrors, which dwarf anything else in the papers, but also as an early warning. It should be read in conjunction with the accounts of Saudi border guards’ shooting the refugees who try to cross from the Yemeni border. The vast population displacements that these wars bring with them are going to affect Europe, including England, too. For all the talk about “humane deterrence” of asylum-seekers here, it is worth trying to imagine how much less humane we would have to be to deter people fleeing that kind of war.

AFTER that story, it seems ridiculous to turn to normal church quarrels; so let’s, instead, have a look at the supposedly more rational “effective altruists”. The movement is in disarray now that its poster boy, Sam Bankman-Fried, turns out to have made untold billions of investors’ cash disappear (Radio, 23 June, Press 18 November 2022).

That wasn’t the sort of magic that he was meant to work. So, stories are now emerging of the way in which it worked: in particular, it appears that male effective altruists, who formed the vast majority, worked out, on scientific and utilitarian grounds, that the most effective way for women to be altruistic was to sleep with all their colleagues. Monogamy, they reasoned, was relatively inefficient at spreading happiness around. Some women actually believed this.

I once met a Swedish engineer who had dedicated his life to helping the poor in Africa. He had tried giving out mosquito nets in Ethiopia to help against malaria. The villagers thanked him, and cut them up to use as fishing nets. Food now was more important than protection from some future disease. Even outside the effective-altruism cult, doing good is hard.

BEFORE you ask, I don’t know what to do about rural churches with dying congregations, either. But at least I know that I don’t, and I have never been persuaded that anyone else does.

The Revd Marcus Walker, of Save the Parish, had a grump in The Spectator: “A series of dioceses are pursuing plans to slash the number of their clergy and create vast mega-parishes. Truro is ground zero for this. The deanery of Kerrier is about to become one mega benefice, made up of (wait for it) 23 churches and ministered to by (wait for it) two full-time stipendiary priests, one of whom (and I am not making this up) will not work on Sundays. She will ‘work primarily in the community, looking for exciting opportunities to grow churches for people who have either never been to church or who have had a break away’, the area dean explained.

“This decision is not for want of cash. The Church Commissioners’ vast £10.2 billion endowment has the money to keep all of these churches going and staffed from the interest alone. They just choose not to.”

Yes, but the Commissioners spend their money on other parts of the Church, instead. Shall we shut down the cathedrals to staff rural ministry? Dr Eve Poole, a former Third Church Estates Commissioner, pointed out at Greenbelt last weekend that, if the Commissioners dissolved themselves and gave all of their money to the Church, it would last between five and ten years. And, when it was all gone, what then?

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