The Church

No account of the Emperor would be complete without reference to the Church of which he is ‘the unchallenged head,’ that Church which has been referred to as the ‘governing element’ in Ethiopian society.

Christianity arrived in the country during the fourth century, when Frumentius hastened to Alexandria with news of his conversion of the King, and the care of his sons. From that moment the fortunes of King and State have been inextricably bound together, and at times the divinity of the royal state has been most prominently stressed.

Not much is known of the very early history of the Church, but it had a chequered career, and its influence was on the wane when in the thirteenth century, and largely owing to the zealous efforts of the Abuna Tekla Haimanot, who founded the monastery at Debra Libanos, some eighty miles north of the present capital, there was a revival of faith. A revision of the Bible was made; and the liturgy and church services took the form that they have to-day. Subjected to the fierce influence of the Portuguese Catholics the Church lost prestige, and needed a revival. This took place in the fifteenth century, when most of the hymns, anthems, and antiphons now in use in the services were composed and set down. There followed in the sixteenth century the invasion of the country by Ahmed Gran, when Christianity in the south, and even in parts of Shoa, was almost wiped out. For three centuries thereafter there was stagnation; and for the mass of the people religion tended to become a matter of outward form and superstition. The very fact that the leading ecclesiastic was always a foreigner, consecrated bishop by a foreigner in a far distant country, a priest who knew nothing of the life and customs of his flock, in a diocese far too large to be manageable, did not improve matters.

There were, of course, always the enlightened few, chiefly among the aristocracy who had been taught Geez—the early language of Church and State—who had studied their Bibles, and to whom religion was more than a formal habit. Such men deplored the state into which the Church had fallen, and among this number was the Emperor Menelek. During his reign an effort was made to stir the dull ashes of religion into a glowing force again. Foreign missions were encouraged to restart work in the country in the hope that their influence might lead to improvement. The text of the Bible became available in Amharic, through the agency of the British and Foreign Bible Society, who had published a translation as long ago as 1840.

Ras Tafari Makonnen as Regent had continued this policy of encouragement to missionary bodies and made good use of their medical and educational work, regarding this no doubt as a good method of spreading general education and reform. But his real concern was in the improvement of the Ethiopian Church, and he went much deeper into this task. He believes that it is essential that Ethiopia should stand before the whole world as clearly and unequivocally a Christian state under a Christian ruler. He believes that to make this a reality Church and State must be more closely bound together, as in the old days. He is convinced that unless the Church is re-vitalized and re-enlightened to the point when it will command the respect and allegiance of the modern intelligent young men, there will be a tendency for Church and State to fall apart. He regards himself—as indeed he is—as the head of Church and State. It is therefore his responsibility to ensure that progress inside the Church should keep pace with progress in the State.

In his approach to this problem—delicate because the Church is strongly entrenched in its own conservatism and in the superstitious awe which it commands from the people—the Emperor has shown great wisdom. He has relied on personal example and gentle persuasion rather than on measures for forcing the pace which might lead to a derogatory attitude towards the Church. An example will illustrate his method. The traditional ceremonies connected with death and the commemoration of the departed were a considerable burden on the poorer members of society. ‘Those who have money,’ says Walker,

will hold a commemoration on the third, seventh, twelfth, fortieth, and eightieth day, and after six months and one year and seven years.... On the third day there is the taskar of the ‘salist’ when even if one is poor, he must bring three baskets of bread, six pots of beer, and six dishes of sauce for the priests, and a load of wood for the kindling of the fire. Also there will be money for the Absolution—two or seven dollars and a few raisins, and two or three tapers. Therefore if a man has not the dollars he must perforce call a surety and borrow them. Nor is bread alone fitting for a commemoration and a poor man must provide at least one pot of beer for the poor, one for the head of the Church, one for the chamberlain, and three pots for the priests; so also six dishes of sauce whether of meat or of vegetables, with a hundred pieces of bread. Else he may not make a commemoration.1

The excerpt will show what a heavy charge this was to the poor man; yet respect for the dead, and superstitious awe of the Church and the monks, and considerations of prestige compelled observance. The only people to gain by all this were the priests.

When Ras Tafari’s second daughter died in 1932 he issued a short statement. In it he declared his view that the traditional forty days’ mourning was unreasonably and unnecessarily long, and was a cause of hardship and unwarrantable expense to the poor. He therefore was ordering a period of three days’ mourning only for his own daughter and he hoped that the Church authorities would succeed in bringing in this innovation. This made a great impression and met with general acceptance.

He has worked steadily all his life to bring the Scriptures and the Church services to the knowledge of the people. He took the first steps toward this as soon as he became Regent. An edition of the Gospels with an Amharic commentary on the ancient Geez was published; the liturgy with an Amharic translation in parallel columns was brought out; and the same was done for the baptism service. A translation of the Gospels and Acts was made by the late Belatingeta Herowi with the Regent’s active encouragement; and in 1936 an Amharic translation of the whole Bible was completed. He let it be known that he thought it would be a good thing if an Amharic text of the Bible was kept in every church throughout the land. This was not an order, but, put that way, the thing was done. The head priest of our own parish church came to us and said that as Ras Tafari had recommended them to get an Amharic Bible, would we please get them one, and a suitable box to keep it in!

Since the return of the Emperor in 1941 the use of Amharic in the churches has been greatly extended. The example was set in the Church of the Saviour of the World just outside the gates of the Emperor’s palace, and also at the Church of the Trinity, which was built by the Emperor and is the mausoleum of the Imperial family. Here most of the religious services of special importance are held, and are conducted with great dignity and impressiveness. Amharic is mostly used. Special trouble has been taken, due to the Emperor’s insistence, to raise the standard of preaching; on occasions, sermons are broadcast by the Addis Ababa wireless station.

A theological college was founded by the Emperor in the year 1944 for the training of priests. During the last three years there has been a growing demand for the emancipation of the Ethiopian Church from the control of the Egyptian Coptic Church and from its Patriarch at Alexandria. The Emperor has steadily pressed this claim to freedom.

When Abuna Mattheos died in 1926, an Egyptian, Abuna Cyril, was appointed Archbishop as usual, but as the result of representations by Ras Tafari, four Ethiopian monks were consecrated bishops by the Patriarch in Alexandria. A little later, while on a visit to Addis Ababa, the Patriarch consecrated a fifth. This was a great step forward.

The Italians during their occupation of the country were desirous of destroying all other foreign influence and wished to break this connection with Egypt. Abuna Querillos refused to co-operate with this policy, and left the country. They then made the old Abuna Abraha their instrument, and declared the independence of the Ethiopian Church in December 1937. The Abuna was declared the Metropolitan. The Patriarch’s retort to this was to put the Church in Ethiopia under a ban of excommunication.

When the Emperor returned in 1941, he reopened negotiations with the Patriarch. Querillos returned to Ethiopia in June 1942 with a delegation from the Coptic Church, and the Patriarch lifted the ban of excommunication. The Patriarch Johannis died shortly after, and was succeeded by Macanis, who in June 1944 sent another delegation to Ethiopia, which took back a document setting forth the Ethiopian demands, of which the most important was that an Ethiopian should be chosen as Archbishop, to be consecrated by the Patriarch; that an Ethiopian synod should choose bishops and suffragans to be appointed by the Archbishop. These two demands were turned down flatly, but negotiations continued, and gradually the Coptic Church conceded the Ethiopian demands.

By the middle of 1948 it had been agreed that the Patriarch should consecrate five more Ethiopian bishops; that on the death of Querillos an Ethiopian should go to Cairo to be consecrated Archbishop by the Patriarch; and that thereafter this Archbishop should have authority to consecrate Ethiopian bishops, on the sole condition of informing the Patriarch beforehand of what he intended to do.

In October 1950 Abuna Querillos died, and the way was opened for the consecration of an Ethiopian Archbishop—and the choice fell, as was expected, on the Itchegi, who had already been consecrated bishop by the Patriarch under the name of Aba Basileos.

Throughout these negotiations the Emperor acted with his usual patience and perseverance, restraining his own people when they wished to break off negotiations and gain their ends without the consent of the Egyptians. He returned constantly to the charge as opportunity occurred. Looking back on it all, one sees that he recognized that under all the circumstances the Egyptians were playing a losing game; that, as before, time was on his side, and that if the Ethiopians bided their time they would gain their ends by consent, without a rupture in the continuity of the life of the Church. The link with Egypt will be maintained through the succession of the Archbishop.

A long patience, a far-seeing accommodation to passing circumstances, a resolute determination to make the most of every opportunity, this is the strength of the Head of State and Church in Ethiopia.

1 Walker: The Abyssinian at Home.

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