Window on the World - Etheopia

Few people in Britain have heard of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, yet it must be one of the fastest growing churches in the world. Formed out of a number of Protestant missions less than 50 years ago, it has grown from a membership of about 20,000 at its inception to a membership of about 4.4 million today, most of whom have found the church's title 'Mekane Yesus' (meaning 'the place where Jesus lives') to be descriptive of their own experience.

Quite apart from the usual factors which facilitate the growth of all churches in sub-Saharan Africa today, such as a belief in God and the supernatural which was already present in African traditional religion prior to the advent of the gospel, the growth of the EECMY can, under God, be attributed to two further factors: its attractiveness in comparison with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and its experience of State persecution.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been in Ethiopia for almost 1700 years, and claims a following of over 20 million. Nevertheless, its adherence to a liturgy written in the ancient language of Ge'ez, which few apart from the priests understand, its refusal to give Holy Communion to all but the very young and the very old (the rest being considered too impure), its concentration on the veneration of Mary and the saints, its tendency to discourage bible reading among the laity, and its teaching that forgiveness can be earned by works such as fasting and almsgiving, have made many people to turn to the Protestant denominations such as the EECMY instead, with their focus on Christ as revealed in scripture, their teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, their admission of all believers to Holy Communion, and their modern styles of worship.

State persecution took place during the era of communist rule from 1974 to 1991, and particularly during the reign of Colonel Mengistu Haile Maryam, who not only executed the General Secretary of the EECMY, among other church leaders, but also confiscated the church's headquarters in Addis Ababa, and forcibly closed down hundreds of EECMY churches around the country. As the church went underground, it blossomed with even greater vigour. Whereas at the time of the beginning of communist rule in 1974 the membership stood at about 200,000, by time Colonel Mengistu was overthrown in 1991, the membership had risen to about 900,000. The dictum of Tertullian proved true once again, that 'the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church'.

The phenomenal growth of the EECMY should be of particular interest to British Methodists since, as a Protestant church which believes in infant baptism and has a presbyterian (as opposed to an episcopalian or congregational) form of church government, it occupies roughly the same place within the ecclesiastical spectrum in Ethiopia as Methodism does in this country. To some extent, therefore, the EECMY is our 'sister' church in Ethiopia, and Methodists who visit Ethiopia today will not only find themselves at home in their forms of worship, but also be encouraged to see EECMY churches in many places literally packed to overflowing.

The EECMY has over 20 Bible schools and 3 diploma-level seminaries in different parts of the country, and one degree-granting institution in Addis Ababa itself. Here about 80 students are currently being trained residentially for the ministry. Other students take courses in music, management and leadership, bringing the total number of students up to 200. In addition, the seminary runs a TEE (Theological Education by Extension) programme, whereby a further 1330 students are trained for the ministry externally, through correspondence and local tutors. On completion of their courses, many of these students will have responsibilities for congregations numbering many hundreds of members.

I had the privilege of spending a sabbatical at this Seminary this year, engaging in teaching and research, and also having the opportunity to travel around the country and preach in various places. Before I left, I was told that the Seminary would welcome offers of help in the area of theological education for short periods from other British Methodist ministers. I therefore pass this information on to you and would encourage suitably qualified Headway ministers to consider this possibility when they next have the opportunity to plan for a sabbatical.

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