Illustration of man holding a staff in front of a church dome with an Ethiopian cross on it


Praying in Ethiopia

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Malcolm C. Young

In Ethiopia, Sunday Christian worship begins at 5:30 am. A loudspeaker drones chants far out into the distant darkness. Worshipers wrap themselves in white prayer shawls and remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary. Ushers in long white coats with red crosses on the back issue prayer sticks that are five feet long with a carved four-inch cross piece for a handle. The faithful use these like giant crutches so that they can remain standing during most of the four-hour service.

As a Christian pilgrim in Ethiopia, I alternated between feeling a sense of the utter strangeness of these church practices and the shock of recognition in seeing how much we share in common. In the United States, our shorter Episcopal liturgy has the same form. The roles of the various ministers, deacons, priests, and bishops, the chanting, the icons, the incense, and the stained-glass windows all seem familiar. Their practice of pilgrimage, fasting, the calendar of holy days, prayer, and the monastic life do not seem separated by 1,600 years from how we live as Christians in North America.

I traveled to Africa to learn about African Christianity, not just the churches established in the nineteenth century by European missionaries, but also the indigenous African church in Ethiopia with its own language, legends, rituals, music, art, and theology. The Ethiopian church’s first bishop was consecrated in Alexandria just before the reign of Emperor Constantine, and the church has functioned continuously without colonial interference since then. I went to Ethiopia in order to see a form of Christianity relatively uninfluenced by Europe. I hoped that there was some way to get beyond the cultural trappings of our own experience with the church to some more fundamental encounter with Christ.

Many traditional Ethiopian churches are round. The center contains the holy of ho-lies and the church’s ark, the middle ring is for the clergy and choir, and the outer one for everyone else. The most striking thing that a visitor notices about the church in Ethiopia is the faith of ordinary people, especially young adults. They attend long services in Ge’ez, a liturgical language that only few understand. They fast, embark on pilgrimages, and fill the streets during massive religious festivals. For the American Christians I know, it is the community of people that is sacred, not the church building. But in a busy Ethiopian city people of all ages pray and cross themselves as they pass by a church, often stopping to kiss the gates, the walls, and the ground in front of it in order to venerate the tabot, a replica of the Ark of Moses, inside.

Their legends place the people of Ethiopia at the center of salvation history in a way that people in the new world can hardly imagine.

At the same time, their legends place the people of Ethiopia at the center of salvation history in a way that people in the new world can hardly imagine. At the entrance to the patriarch’s museum, a painting depicts Ethiopia as a beautiful woman stretching out her hands to God as mentioned in Psalm 68. This sense of a personal and ancient connection to the creator is confirmed by their story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. Attracted by Solomon’s great wisdom, the queen was tricked into sleeping with him. Menelik, the son that this union produced, then returned to his father’s house and took the Ark of the Covenant to the new promised land of Ethiopia. Ethiopians’ status as a chosen people in this sense predates the church, which faithful Christians there trace back to the Ethiopian eunuch’s encounter with Philip in Acts 8.

Yet Americans view Africa as a place of crime, violence, corruption, poverty, and disease. We know that 25 million people live with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and that some expect this number to increase to 80 million in 20 years. Angola, Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, Congo, and Sudan for us are synonymous with some of the worst human tragedies of the twentieth century. Recent films such as In My Country, The Constant Gardener, The Last King of Scotland, and Blood Diamond associate graphic, violent images with Africa in our imagination.

Despite intractable problems like severe poverty, warfare with child soldiers, malaria, cholera, AIDS orphans, government corruption, famine, neocolonialism, environmental degradation, and over population, African Anglicans have put a great deal of energy into condemning the Episcopal Church for consenting to the election of a gay bishop and for condoning public rites to bless same-sex unions. Now, some dissenting Episcopal congregations in the United States are seeking oversight from African bishops instead of their American ones. After the meeting of the Anglican Communion’s primates last winter in Tanzania—a meeting in which the Episcopal Church was, in effect, told to change—and a subsequent meeting of the Episcopal hierarchy in Texas, at which the American church affirmed its own right of governance, the exclusion of the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion may be unavoidable.

From their public statements, it seems to me that the most vocal African Anglican bishops fail to understand three important elements of this conflict. First, in the American context the fight arises out of a history of continuing disagreements about racial justice, the role of women, and changes in liturgy. The majority of American Episcopalians believe that this difference in opinion about human sexuality does not need to result in schism. One can still be part of a church that disagrees about these matters. Second, scripture does not interpret itself. On this earth we will never completely agree on what the Bible means and what emphasis we should place on various stories, images, verses, etc. In the United States we resolve this through conversation and the authority that we grant to our religious leaders through electoral processes. Finally, in the United States, Episcopal bishops are not appointed but elected locally. The choice presented to the larger body is then whether or not to accept the democratic results. American Episcopalians never elected the Archbishop of Canterbury or Nigeria or Uganda, and those primates really ought to have no authority over our local churches.

Ethiopia has its own catastrophic problems. Difficult relations with neighbors in Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia lead to recurring wars and represent a destabilizing force in its political life. Separatist rebels continue to clash with government soldiers in the Ogaden Desert. Ten to fifteen million Ethiopians rely on international food aid each year, and population pressures are leading to severe stress on the environment. Three million people there have HIV/AIDS with an estimated 1,000 more being infected every day.

Still, in Ethiopia we experienced a different way of being God’s chosen people than what we hear from the most vocal Anglican bishops in Africa. While I do not expect that the Ethiopian patriarch approves of the changes leading to gay bishops in the Episcopal Church, this did not diminish his warmth in welcoming us. For the Ethiopians we met, being chosen by God is not a matter of one’s own personal piety or purity. One’s chosenness does not depend on being separated from other unclean people. Instead, it is more like a mysterious hereditary gift, a tangible sense of God’s continuing presence in the sanctuary of the local church.

Malcolm C. Young, MDiv ’94 and ThD ’04, is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Los Altos, California. A Lilly Clergy Renewal Grant made his travel in Africa possible.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.