The EOTC Synod in Exile: Issues and Challenges
The reconciliation efforts underway between the EOTC home and exile synods seem to come to an abrupt halt. Technically speaking, it is the home synod who takes it to the limit. The ratification of a law that governs patriarch choice, the selection of patriarch nominating committee, the crystal clear decision not to allow Abune Merkorios to reassume his position, and the firm decision to proceed with election of patriarch are four of the many ‘hurdles’ put forward by the home synod that freeze the unity negotiations. Putting God’s will at a constant, one could reasonably conclude that the peace talks reached at a point of no return ‘thanks’ to the home synod.
On the other hand, the exile synod made their own decisions that seem to indicate, among other things, the scale of their future engagement. The synod clarified a number of issues that were “incorrectly” raised by the home synod, including those related to the way the fourth patriarch was ousted. More importantly, the exile synod vowed to build its capacity at several ‘fronts’ and strengthen the spread of the Gospel in foreign lands. They are also poised to bring “neutral” churches under their authority. Moreover, they plan to expose the ill-conceived ‘moves’ of the home synod and the government in Ethiopia to international organizations.
I believe that the synod’s decisions are kind of default measures to be taken. If reconciliation is just a dream, it is crucial to focus on growing the church in quantity and quality. Actually, a lot could be done in the years to come. The synod rightly decided to build its organizational capacity for a better outreach. That EOTC believers live in nearly all major cities in the West and Asia makes it necessary to get strengthened administratively first. And that is quite possible. Innovative ideas and agile planning could make a significant difference. Still, it is great to remain open to and flexible about continuing the peace negotiations with the home synod if something develops, from both sides, at any point in time.
My belief is that the exile synod could do great holy jobs in North America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa provided that some issues are well addressed in the beginning. There are several controversial and fuzzy issues that are raised in relation to the way the synod deals with some people and services. Social media circulated several issues, which are still active and fresh in the minds of many. In fact, these issues are provided as reasons why churches and individual Christians do not want to be under the authority of the exile synod. It is thus vital for the success of the synod and the church at large to first carefully and publicly address these and other issues. To me, the first task the synod should accomplish is to clarify issues related to its 1) organization, 2) ambition and strategic plan, and 3) decisions made so far on core spiritual and administrative issues.
This paper aims to frankly outline some of the core issues and challenges the EOTC synod in exile has faced and is likely to face in the times ahead. Unless the synod adequately addresses these and perhaps other ones, it would be a practical rarity to achieve their goals such as strengthening their international ‘influence’. The only goal of this paper is thus to invite the synod to publicly entertain the issues that occupy the minds of the many. If people and churches are cleared of these, there is no convincing reason that forces them not to join the synod in exile. The major issues and challenges that need adequate and timely clarifications include the following.
To me, the synod has that huge task of 1) retaining their own churches under their reign, 2) attracting churches and individual Christians from neutral churches and churches that belong to the home synod, and 3) reaching non-believers with the Gospel. The challenge is as much capacity related as it is related to spiritual strength and integrity. Although the reconciliation effort is technically given its embarrassing end by the home synod, the failure must be shared by the two synods. The debacle is a result of uncompromising agendas and prerequisites put forward by both.
One could also argue that the exile synod’s demand (to reinstate Abune Merkorios as patriarch) was much like a ‘misguided missile’. Meaning, the patriarch was dethroned by the government who is still in power. What would happen if the home synod allows Abune Merkorios to reassume his position? Will the government allow that to happen or will it smoothly work with the patriarch? Absolutely not. So, the reconciliation should have been with the government and not with the EPRDF-controlled home synod alone.
By default anyone who fails to forgive and make peace at any cost is not considered a spiritual role model. The division between the two holy leaderships erodes their credibility and integrity. That means, there might be a moral challenge for the exile synod to teach Christians to make sacrifices and to forgive. Spiritual power and grace expected from a role model is hard to be seen. The synod would have a particular problem preaching about peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, love, and unity even within its own jurisdiction. If the synod has that ambition of bringing the neutral churches and the churches that are under the home synod to their authority, they need to ‘travel extra miles’. In a way, the synod is expected to demonstrate its integrity if it plans to expand services and structures around the world. In other words, they should identify and ‘exhibit’ the qualities that distinguish them from the home synod.
The issues and challenges outlined below seem to even complicate the matter. There are some signs and rumors that need to be clarified ahead. Some of the following issues concern some members of the synod. They could still adversely affect the integrity of the synod even if one or more of the following are considered to be false allegations. Regardless of their truth value and regardless of who raised them, the synod would benefit a lot if they clearly and publicly address them in good time.
Just name calling
It seems that at least some of the Archbishops of the exile synod have very symbolic or ceremonial relationships with their churches. Some of them do not have the time and zeal to closely work with the parish councils and the Christian community at large. Part of the reason may of course be related to their limited human and resource pool. In fact, they do not seem to worry a lot about the growth and development of the churches. As long as their names are called during prayers and as long as they are invited to observe election of parish councils, they do not mind. This leaves behind bad message to the church community, the message that the bishops care a lot about their personhood and future vs that of the church. In some places, some churches publicly complain about this already.
It is recommended that the synod members make carefully planned visits to churches and make genuine discussions with parish councils and the general laity. Discussions must include issues related to growing the church by numbers- how to increase membership and how to establish and maintain new churches. The laity must feel that they have someone at close range who listens to and solves their problems. Focus on and worry about the church and not on and about you as a synod or as a bishop. If this is taken up, it would be easier to identify real orthodox believers from people having reformist agendas.
In the past, the home synod officially excommunicated some people for their wrong teachings related to EOTC dogmas and traditions. The excommunicated managed to leave for North America and join the churches administered by the exile synod. This appears to be a worrisome development to many believers. If the excommunicated abandon their wrong teachings and if they once again demonstrate their correct understandings of church teachings (and with penitence), that must be a great news and must be made public. If not, how does the synod explain this to the laity who appear to be very sensitive to and knowledgeable of church dogmas and traditions? This is a serious issue that needs to be handled with utmost care. If not dealt with, it would seriously compromise the very spiritual integrity of the synod.
EOTC has its unique hymn, which has its base the Bible. The exceptionally sophisticated and soul- touching songs of Saint Yared are the real gifts from God. All the rhythms, melodies, and/or instruments of EOTC songs reflect these works and the Bible. Modern musical instruments are not thus allowed to be used for singing and prayers. But the exile synod seems to be a bit relaxed on this regard. There are at least some bishops who themselves use modern instruments for singing and praying. They believe that using these instruments is an aspect of bringing modern technologies to the church. I am a witness here- that one of the Archbishops told the congregation with confidence and pride that he used and love to use modern instruments for prayers. This is something hard to swallow to many EOTC believers.
This and other developments seem to tell the fact that the difference with the home synod may not be strictly speaking related only to administration. It seems to have these added dimensions. I am requesting the Holy Synod to clarify on this issue- whether the synod as an entity/organization believes in the use of modern musical instruments for prayers and singing. If it is the belief of individual bishops, how could that still be explained to believers? If it plans to improve its outreach, the synod must come up with a clear communiqué about this and other issues related to politics.
The exile synod members appear to show a political ‘gesture’; some of them try to champion the efforts of Diaspora opposition. They endorse the formation of political parties and their decisions. One could ask: what is wrong with this? It is a good question. I believe that the synod and individual bishops have the obligation to defend the truth and to stand in defense of their followers. But this should be made in a systematic and spiritual fashion. It is difficult to understand why a bishop visits an armed group in the field. It just itches ears when a bishop calls the ruling party “ዘረኛው መንግስት» although we for certain know that the party is indeed that type. What am saying is that it is absolutely possible to oppose freedom violators without resorting to insults and words which are not in tone with the talks expected of bishops. And I do not believe that it is a good idea for a bishop to endorse the formation of parties, groups and campaigns. Fight injustices of any kind using the most ethical and spiritual standards.
Another political issue raised in relation to the exile synod concerns its history. I recall several people shared the idea that the synod, particularly the patriarch, used to ‘play at a silent mode’ during the reign of Mengistu Hailemariam. The point is that the patriarch kept silent when hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians were massacred in the name of Red Terror. As a patriarch of this great and historic church, Abune Merkorios was expected to oppose the arbitrary killings. Some even believe that the patriarch has had a good relationship with the killer machine called Melaku Tefera of Gondar. The synod is expected to clarify what happened during that dark period of time to at least the young generation who begin to question and learn from our past.
A related but minor complain is that the synod is dominated by bishops of Gondarian origin, as the home synod is dominated by bishops of Tigrean origin. This sort of issues is beyond my imagination. How spiritual people who reached at the top of the hierarchy found themselves in mindless and earthly matters such as the one raised here? I wish to see a solely merit-based future ordination of bishops! Unless issues like this are not adequately clarified and considered for future moves, it would be a particular challenge for the synod to accommodate as many churches and Christians as expected.
Although they put forward a hard-to-meet prerequisite for reconciliation, the synod in exile patiently waited for the decisions of the general assembly of the home synod. Knowing that the fourth patriarch cannot be reinstated back to his position, the exile synod passed several decisions that are aimed at harnessing the growth of the EOTC in the other parts of the world. The ambitions are great and holy and could be met if the synod takes very strategic moves.
Perhaps the first move may be winning the hearts and minds of believers. To do just that, the synod needs to clarify issues and rumors that are under circulation in the cyber world. I am not arguing that all those aforementioned issues are true; I am saying that rumors and false propagandas could ruin the integrity and credibility of the synod. The synod could profit a lot from campaigns that are aimed at 1) briefing the public on the organizational make-up and readiness of the synod itself, and 2) clarifying issues that are honestly raised in this paper and elsewhere.