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The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, A History.

The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, A History.

John Binns

London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017

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Review by Stephen Need, editor of Bible Lands magazine

John Binns’ recent book on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (now published in paperback, 2018) is a very welcome volume indeed. It will be of interest to a wide variety of people and would be good as an introduction as well as for advanced study. A treasure trove of information, it is an immersion into the world of the largest and most colourful of the so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches. The author is already well known for his two previous books: An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (CUP, 2002) and Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ. The Monasteries of Palestine 314-361 (OUP, 1994). Now, in this new work he takes his readers into the unique world of Ethiopia, its geography, history, culture, architecture, Christology, politics and modern church life.

Throughout, the author interweaves a useful chronological framework with deeper insights into Ethiopian culture and identity. Binns’ work is the result of years of travelling to the country and getting to know locals at first hand. Although this is a serious academic study it reflects the author’s field trips and includes quotes from his journals written whilst visiting Ethiopia. A substantial but accessible book, readers will soon become immersed in the key identifying elements of Ethiopia, its churches and traditions.

Binns begins by drawing the reader’s attention to some interesting facts about Ethiopia. Of course, it is one of the most exotic cultures on earth. It is also the home of over ninety million people. It is the country that gave its name to coffee which is taken with the famous enjara, a flat pancake eaten with wat, a spicy sauce. This fare symbolises the culture. But perhaps the most sobering reminder is that it was in Ethiopia that ‘Lucy’, the three-million-year-old hominid skeleton, was discovered in 1974. She is now in a museum in Addis Ababa. Did the human race itself begin in this incredible country?

The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia has a strong sense of the past and early on in the book Binns notes the strong connection with King Solomon of ancient Israel and the queen of Sheba. The author’s opening line is, ‘The Ethiopian Church began its life a thousand years before the birth of Christ’ (p.1). The tradition is that the Queen of Sheba (probably biblical Cush) travelled to Jerusalem to witness the king’s wisdom for herself. She returned home with a son, Menelik, who became the first King of Ethiopia. When he went to Jerusalem later, he returned with the Ark of the Covenant from the Jerusalem temple. The Ethiopian tradition is that it is still there today in Axum. This strong connection with ancient Israel gives the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians a distinctive Semitic flavour blending with their sub-Saharan African culture into something quite unusual. Ethiopia is the land of the ‘burnt face’ (aitiopica) and most of the traditions central to Ethiopians can be found in their key text the Kebra Negast or ‘Glory of Kings’ which Binns discusses.

The Semitic connection gives the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians some of their identifying practices such as keeping the Jewish Sabbath, circumcising their male children and keeping Jewish dietary laws. Indeed, their worship is riddled with Jewish theology emanating from the Jerusalem Temple. Binns draws on the work of the British Old Testament Scholar Margaret Barker who has recently established the importance of the Jerusalem temple and its theology for understanding the New Testament and early Christianity. The Ethiopian church buildings and services reflect the architecture and theology of worship in the Jerusalem Temple. Binns describes the significance of the Tabot, the centre of the Ethiopian church building, which is effectively the presence of God.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is riddled with many traditions. It was two fourth-century Syrian travellers, Adesius and Frumentius who were shipwrecked off the coast of Ethiopia and who first preached the gospel to the Ethiopians. When they arrived, they were taken up to Alexandria where Athanasius consecrated Frumentius as Patriarch thus establishing the centuries-long connection between the Ethiopians and the Coptic Church of Egypt. These beginnings led to the Ethiopian Patriarch being chosen and consecrated by the Egyptians for centuries afterwards, often with difficult political and practical problems. The elected patriarch was often Coptic and didn’t speak Ethiopian or understand the situation in the country over which he was presiding. There were sometimes long interregnums including one of fifty years! This tradition with the patriarchs only came to an end in 1959 when the Ethiopian Church became autocephalous or independent.

A book on Ethiopia would be incomplete without coverage of the development of church buildings and architecture, and Binns discusses the different types of churches including the famous round churches so much associated with Ethiopia. The famous rock-cut churches at Lalibala and the less well-known ones in Tigray are included. For worshippers, these church buildings mark out sacred space whilst the calendar of church seasons provides sacred time. The cycle of feasting and fasting also contributes to the Ethiopian Christian way of life. Other interesting features such as the Ethiopian Bible with its eighty-one books and the tradition of oral learning which still characterises Ethiopian education are discussed. Binns does a good job of underlining the Ethiopian emphasis on the spoken word in the education system as opposed to book-learning. He also draws attention to the very different mind-set in worship: the church has to do with gathering in the presence of God, not with Christians seeking forgiveness. The Ethiopian mindset, he says, is often incomprehensible to westerners!

Ethiopian history is punctuated, of course, by the arrival of Islam in the region in the sixth century and of numerous missionaries from the west in later centuries. The appearance of the Moslem faith resulted at times in bad relations, in conversions (in both directions) and in the destruction of numerous churches and manuscripts. However, in the longer term there developed a peaceful co-existence which prevails today. At the present time new mosques are being built and Islam is very much part of the landscape of contemporary multi-faith Ethiopia.

Catholic and Protestant missions to Ethiopia date back to the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Jesuit missions arrived shortly after they were founded. Two individuals are selected for special mention: Pero Paez and Alfonso Mendes. These sparked a clash between Roman western culture and that of Ethiopia. One of the major differences, of course, was Christology. The Ethiopians had not been at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and had ended up on the Monophysite (or as the author reminds us, now usually known as ‘Miaphysite’) side of the fence. Binns brings out well how this controversy flared up again when Chalcedonian missionaries arrived expecting to find agreement in much later centuries and how the word Tawehedo (or Unionist) was added to their name: the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawehedo Church.

The Protestant missionaries were equally interesting. Also Chalcedonian, they arrived with European Reformation ideals and wanted to provide the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with a Reformation of its own. And there were some colourful characters here also including Samuel Gobat (later Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem), David Stokes and the American Thomas Lambie. There was also the eccentric Ethelstan Cheese, the first Anglican Chaplain in Addis Ababa, who was appointed in 1926 and was really quite saintly though he didn’t hold the job down for long.

The final chapters of the book focus on the more recent spread of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity in Ethiopia. Binns paints a balanced and realistic picture of how the country has now changed both politically and in terms of religion. The traditional Ethiopian Orthodox Church has lost a good deal of its influence, power and significance as the newer Protestant groups have moved in from the west. But in spite of fundamental changes to the landscape, the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia is still growing as it feels its way forward in a new climate.

For many years the author of this rich and informative book was Vicar of Great St. Mary’s in Cambridge. He is now Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, also in Cambridge. Anyone who knows the Ethiopian Orthodox Church or Ethiopia itself will find the book fascinating. And anyone who doesn’t know them will find it a very enjoyable way of engaging. Binns’ book could inspire a first visit to the country – or a return. There are interesting black and white photographs, a Bibliography for readers who want more, and very full academic notes. This work certainly provides an exciting taste of the spicy flavour of an exotic and dynamic country, culture and church.

From the book:

“This remarkable book helps its readers not only to learn about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – its history, theology and spirituality – but also to live its amazing journey over the centuries. John Binns has poured all his experience and deep love of the church into his volume, which is unique in its breadth, scope and sympathy. I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

Bishop Mouneer Anis Diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa

“John Binns has a long and deep acquaintance with the Ethiopian church – its liturgy, prayer, ancient ascetic practice and unique art and architecture. In this lush and authoritative book he leads the reader on a journey into the spiritual world of those he has so often visited, and does so with a striking sensitivity to their theological world and fractured political milieu. Much more than a travel book, this volume is more truly a whole spiritual education.”

Professor Sarah Coakley, University of Cambridge

Featured in Bible Lands, Winter 2019