A global faith

The Ethiopian church's practices and rituals have survived despite the efforts of the Jesuits and Mu

Today our church has over 40 million members, over 400,000 clergy, over 55 dioceses and over 100,000 churches with 1,000 monasteries.

The church is led by the Holy Synod, consisting of more than 45 bishops and archbishops. His Holiness Dr. Abuna Paulos is the church's Patriarch.

The church's hierarchical structure of ordination - deacon, priest and bishop, or episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate - can be originally traced to the Church of Alexandria from where St. Frumentius introduced Christianity to Ethiopia.

In the years following the Muslim invasion at the start of the 17th century, the Ethiopian Church passed through a crisis which had serious implications on the hierarchy. Even before then, the Jesuits had been working to bring the Ethiopian Church under the jurisdiction of Rome without success.

It was not until 1881 that the hierarchy was fully restored again when four Egyptian bishops were sent to Ethiopia. As the last of them died, the Church pleaded with the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria for the consecration of Ethiopian men as bishops for this Church.

As a result, five Ethiopian bishops were consecrated in 1928 and the recognition of the autonomy of the Church of Ethiopia was marked by the consecration of five further Ethiopian bishops in 1948.

Beyond the three-fold hierarchical structure each level has subdivisions. For example, the episcopate includes patriarch, archbishops and bishops.

Within the Ethiopian Church there are also numerous priests assisting the rector of each parish. In cities, these rectors are made by appointment but it differs in rural areas where the chief priest makes a selection based on character, ability, virtues and personal qualities.

Another position working alongside the rector of each church is the gebes. This is a priest who acts as treasurer and holds authority over the church property.

The priest is also supported by a group of deacons in every church, assisting the presbyters in worship and administration. Finally each church has its own archdeacon as leader among the deacons.

A unique feature of the Ethiopian Church is the debtera. This is an order of singers, similar to choirs in other churches. Although the debtera do not belong to the ordained hierarchy, they are a class by themselves and found in every Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They are closely associated with the priests and deacons in assisting the services of worship.

The debtera are educated and practised in Church music. Their ecclesiastical dance, performed with solemnity and sanctity, makes their role in the Ethiopian Church distinctly unique. With rhythmic movements, steps and musical accompaniment, their performance adds to the beauty of the worship and of special festive celebrations.

Until the present day, many of the churches and church institutions have remained the source of basic elementary education for the Ethiopian population, and this hierarchy plays a key role. Until the introduction of modern education, the teaching ministry was the prerogative of the teacher-priests of the church.

Most of the clergy are educated in the ecclesiastical language, Ge’ez. Ge’ez is a rich language with a large mass of theological, historical and biblical literature, with which many scholars of the Ethiopian Church are well acquainted.

In prayer, parts of our prayers, chants and hymns which are said by priests and deacons differ from those said by the faithful. The liturgy is referred and tells the life and teachings of Christ which relates to the sufferings of the saints and martyrs.

Finally we also use many symbols and rituals such as the signs of the cross, the censer, the bell, the chalice, the container for the holy water, the washing of hands by the chief priest, the bows and the whole elaborate vestment of the priesthood.

“Glory to The Father, The Son and The Holy Sprit, now and forever more, Amen!”

Arch Deacon Dawit Gebreyohannes Woldetsadik, moved to London from Ethiopia as a young man. He writes in the faith column about the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.