The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Millennium Lecture - Thursday 20th September 2007

The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia and Social Change: a personal journey through modern and ancient Ethiopia

Given by - The Revd Melanie Toogood

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

The Revd. Melanie Toogood is Vicar of St. George's Tufnell Park, London N7. Some eighteen months ago, she responded to a knock on her vicarage door. Standing at the doorstep was a young man: "We need a home", he said. "Come on in", she replied. 'We' was the local Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church community.

And so it is that on Sundays, St. George's is packed with a congregation of some 200 Ethiopians from 7 to 10.30 am; alas, the traditional Church of England congregation from 11am onwards is much smaller.

The Revd. Toogood copes with the situation admirably. She is philosophical, realistic and effervescent with good humour - vital qualities in today's agnostic and atheist world.

As a result of her charitable response to the 'knock at the door', Melanie Toogood now has close relations with both congregations. Her visit to the Society graphically described her connections. It will come as no surprise that her own Anglican Community is now equally committed: "We do things together and explore each other's culture", said the Revd. Toogood.

In no time at all, Melanie Toogood was installed by her Ethiopian congregants as chairman of their charity, 'Waly'. The charity deals with community problems both here and in Ethiopia - and especially with teenagers. 'Waly', by the way, was said to be a tree found only in the Waldeba area of Tigray. Like the palm, the waly is said to provide many uses to those who are lucky enough to live in its range.

It was not long before Melanie Toogood made the transformation from Ethiopia in London to the country itself. She did not go unprepared. Facts and figures cascaded from her fast and furiously: 20,259 Ministers licensed by the Church of England; 500,000 priests in Ethiopia - odds overwhelmingly in favour of Ethiopia! And this, just the beginning: Ethiopia has 44 dioceses with 44 archbishops, 40,000 parishes, countless monasteries and 40 million or more adherents.

There can be little doubt that Revd. Toogood fell in love with what she saw in Ethiopia. She sports a large Ethiopian cross to prove it. But her love is by no means uncritical.

First of all, the positive. On the feast of Timkat: "No religious ceremony I had been to had such holiness and such joy". She asked our audience: "Who has been to a Timkat ceremony?" But, without waiting for an answer, declared to us all: "There's something about it, isn't there. It's a transforming experience."

She loved the ecclesiastical robes of the Ethiopian Church. "There's something about dressing up that the Evangelicals miss out on." And, as we gazed up at her magnificent slides on the screen, she intimated: "I really wanted to wear this outfit", pointing to the gilded brocades of a deacon or a debtera.

And then the negative. She made a three hour visit to the Black Lion Hospital and she told the audience that: "There were no nurses, no doctor, and no drugs; no family and no chaplain; children had no speech and no stimulation; two children died".

The Revd. Toogood also saw the dark side of poverty. She visited a house in a shanty town. "The shanty town is in need of so much love and action", she said. "The Church should go there".

Historically, the Ethiopian Church, Melanie claims, has never seen social action as part of its brief, or of its raison d'être. Nor have its 40 million adherents ever looked to it to provide this role - in the past or today. In her words: "The Church is a House of God, a Gateway to Heaven, a place to be touched and kissed". She talked of the Church as "Very confessional, prayerful, hierarchical, nationalistic, numerically rich and concerned to preserve tradition".

It may well be that concern for the Church to engage in social action is a Protestant phenomenon. The Ethiopian Church may not be alone in on-the-ground non-intervention. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that the Revd. Melanie Toogood believes that the time has come for change. Whether she said this to Abuna Paulos, whom she met, she did not say. She did note that the Abuna is the first Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to have received a PhD from a western university.

For Revd. Toogood, education is the key. Particularly, the education of women. She quoted Malcolm X: "If you educate a man, you educate one person; if you educate a woman, you educate and liberate a nation." Hopefully, the Abuna will see it this way too.

"The Ethiopian Church is a sleeping giant. It really needs to engage". These words may well turn out to be the Revd. Melanie Toogood's 'credo'. If so, the Church should brace itself for beneficial change. A powerful force for good is on the way.

We thank the Revd. Toogood very much for this talk.

First Published in News File Spring 2008

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