Organization of the Church and the Clergy

Ethiopia Table of Contents

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church's headquarters was in Addis Ababa. The boundaries of the dioceses, each under a bishop, followed provincial boundaries; a patriarch (abun) headed the church. The ultimate authority in matters of faith was the Episcopal Synod. In addition, the Church Council, a consultative body that included clergy and laity, reviewed and drafted administrative policy.

Beginning in 1950, the choice of the abun passed from the Coptic Church of Egypt in Alexandria to the Episcopal Synod in Addis Ababa. When Abuna Tewoflos was ousted by the government in 1976, the church announced that nominees for patriarch would be chosen from a pool of bishops and monks-- archbishops were disqualified--and that the successful candidate would be chosen on the basis of a vote by clergy and laity. The new abun was a fifty-eight-year-old monk who took the name of Tekla Haimanot, after a fourteenth-century Ethiopian saint.

From the Christian peasant's point of view, the important church figures are the local clergy. The priest has the most significant role. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of adult male Amhara and Tigray were priests in the 1960s--a not extraordinary figure, considering that there were 17,000 to 18,000 churches and that the celebration of the Eucharist required the participation of at least two priests and three deacons, and frequently included more. Large churches had as many as 100 priests; one was said to have 500.

There are several categories of clergy, collectively referred to as the kahinat (priests, deacons, and some monks) and the debteras (priests who have lost their ordination because they are no longer ritually pure, or individuals who have chosen not to enter the priesthood). A boy between the ages of seven and ten who wishes to become a deacon joins a church school and lives with his teacher--a priest or debtera who has achieved a specified level of learning--and fellow students near a church. After about four years of study, the diocesan bishop ordains him a deacon.

After three or four years of service and additional study, a deacon can apply to be ordained a priest. Before doing so, he has to commit himself to celibacy or else get married. Divorce and remarriage or adultery result in a loss of ritual purity and loss of one's ordination.

A priest's chief duty is to celebrate the Eucharist, a task to which he is assigned for a fixed period of weeks or months each year. He also officiates at baptisms and funeral services and attends the feasts (provided by laymen) associated with these and other events. His second important task is to act as confessor, usually by arrangement with specific families.

Most priests come from the peasantry, and their education is limited to what they acquire during their training for the diaconate and in the relatively short period thereafter. They are, however, ranked according to their learning, and some acquire far more religious knowledge than others.

Debteras often have a wider range of learning and skills than what is required for a priest. Debteras act as choristers, poets, herbalists, astrologers, fortune-tellers, and scribes (for those who cannot read).

Some monks are laymen, usually widowers, who have devoted themselves to a pious life. Other monks undertake a celibate life while young and commit themselves to advanced religious education. Both kinds of monks might lead a hermit's life, but many educated monks are associated with the great monastic centers, which traditionally were the sources of doctrinal innovation or dispute that had sometimes riven the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Nuns are relatively few, usually older women who perform largely domestic tasks in the churches.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress