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!”