By Anthony MacIsaac
During my last trip to Glasgow, a few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to visit a thriving Christian community from Ethiopia. Their Church is one of the most ancient in all Christianity, having split from mainstream Catholicism in AD 451. To most Christians, they often seem forgotten about – indeed, it seems true that while people often know about the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches are virtually unknown. The same might be said for the Assyrian Church of the East, but that’s another community altogether. For many centuries the Oriental Orthodox were known as the “Monophysites”, but they prefer to be known as “Miaphysites”. This nomenclature and theological differences over Christ’s Nature are too complex to detail here, but it is interesting to note that over the past 20 years or so, movements towards full Communion with Rome are underway. Pope Francis seems to have been leading some of the most recent efforts, in 2015 creating a Catholic Church for Eritrea, in close dialogue with the Eritrean Tewahedo Orthodox Church. Eritrea and Ethiopia share the same patronage, and while their Church has two branches for each country their core is one.
Ecclesial background asides, the community in Glasgow is vibrant indeed but still finding its feet. For a few years, the Kinning Park Church of Scotland have very generously given over their premises to the Tewahedo congregation, who celebrate their Liturgy in the afternoon. St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Hyndland has likewise kindly provided Eucharistic services, around once a month, for the same group. Worship on most Sundays is thereby at Kinning Park, but Eucharist is celebrated at St. Peter’s through the year too. During the Liturgy at the Church of Scotland building, there are a variety of striking points.
My friend Kevin and I were immediately welcomed with open arms by the presiding Deacon and other members of the congregation. Each man wore a white robe, loosely wrapped around the shoulders, with a Cross imprinted on the back. The women wore long dresses, also in white, with veils on their heads too. Within minutes of our arrival, we were impressed in that the Deacon immediately offered us robes for the service, which we gladly wore in a spirit of fraternity. We would wear these for prostration, the Orthodox equivalent to kneeling. As we sat awaiting the start of worship, various Holy paintings (or Icons) – some inspired by the Catholic “L’Art Saint Sulpice” – were erected on chairs at the front of the Church. In the middle of these was a special chair, laden with blue velvet covering, upon which rested a painting of the Holy Trinity. This was to serve as a kind of throne for this Holiest of images. The Church congregation kindly explained the origin of each piece of Sacred artwork, and their pride was an Icon of St. Hripseme. Though being an Armenian Martyr, from the 3rd century, she holds a very special place for the Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches. The official patronage for the Glasgow Ethiopian Church is under her name.
The service (which we expected to last 45 minutes) took about 3 hours to end! Afterwards we were encouraged to take tea and banana cake with the community, which we felt we couldn’t refuse. We were invited to return again, and I’m sure we shall. Indeed, generally the whole experience was very uplifting, and in the service especially. Dancing and liturgical singing took up at least half of the time – all in the praises of God, but a chance also for the people to enjoy themselves. Turns were taken in playing the drum, and people practiced their singing. Children were accorded a first place in the whole Liturgy – it was they who read the Scripture, they who intoned the prayers of the Faithful. Moreover, they were free to run about and play through the whole three hours, even if they had to keep relatively quiet! Overall, the spirit of Christian Joy was clear in the whole experience.