The ancient churches of the east have long fascinated me. I found that one of the most interesting parts of Diarmaid MacCulloch's BBC documentary A History of Christianity was his opening section on the east, not only the Syrian Orthodox Church, but also the very early progress of Christianity in China.
On a more personal level, I had the good fortune to spend several months in Armenia in 1998, where, thanks to the insatiable appetite for knowledge and thirst for history of my French boss at the time, I visited and attended the liturgy at a number of ancient churches and monasteries, including of course Echmiadzin and the astonishing and beautiful Khor Virap, which sits right on the current Turkish border with spectacular views of Mt Ararat. Khor Virap is where St Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in a cave for many years before finally being released and converting the King of Armenia, making Armenia the first country to declare itself formally Christian (in 301AD).
The reason for indulging myself in this trip down memory lane is that today is the Feast of St Frumentius, the Apostle to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, like the Armenian Apostolic Church, is very ancient, and is an Oriental Orthodox church. These churches split from the Western Church long before the Catholic/Orthodox divide that arose in the eleventh century. The fundamental difference between these Oriental Orthodox churches and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the west is a disagreement that crystallised at the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD.
In the west, we refer to the Oriental Orthodox Churches as Monophysite, meaning that they believe that Christ had one single nature, whereas western teaching is that Christ has two natures, being, as the Divine Praises say, "True God and True Man", being wholly divine and wholly human. The Oriental Orthodox reject the label of Monophysite, preferring Miaphysite, meaning that their definition of one nature really means a union in one form of two different natures. These differences, which in this short summary and even in their underlying origins, turn on very subtle interpretations and in some cases on differences in translations, have kept the Oriental Orthodox and the Western Churches apart for over 1500 years, and it is only in the most recent times that small steps towards greater understanding have been made.
A high point in the move towards greater understanding and reconciliation was the visit of Coptic Patriarch Pope Shenouda III to the Vatican in 1973, where Pope Paul VI presented him with a relic of St Athanasius (of whom a little more below), which relic is now housed in the Coptic Cathedral of St Mark in Cairo. We must hope and pray that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, the "Pope of Christian Unity" as he is being called, continues the good work that has been started.
St Frumentius, having found himself shipwrecked in Ethiopia, was eventually sent to Alexandria, where in 328AD he was ordained Bishop by St Athanasius, who for so long was credited as the author of the Quicumque Vult, a text that is not as well known any more as it should be ("Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith...."). From Alexandria, Frumentius returned south as Abune ("father") of Ethiopia, thereby starting a tradition that endured until 1959 of the Coptic Pope naming an Egyptian Copt as Archbishop of Ethiopia. Like St Gregory the Illuminator, he baptised the King, and converted the country.
No post on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church can be complete with something on Lalibela, the series of churches carved out of the rock, each being quite literally monolithic, ie one single stone. Here is an extract from a documentary about these astonishing buildings.
For me, gaining more and more understanding about the ancient churches of the first millenium, and seeing that, even if very very slowly, efforts are being made to explore ways to bridge our gaps, is ever so slightly bittersweet. It is of course wonderful that these things are being done, these are clear examples of work and prayer being put in with a view to finding ways to come closer to unity of Christians. Who does not rejoice at seeing this photo of the Holy Father with Bartholomew the Ecumenical Patriarch, symbolising in one image small steps that, while still fraught with difficulty, were thought impossible within living memory?
Yet the label of bittersweet still applies, because it reminds us that our former home, the Church of England, is not moving in the same direction, but in the opposite, towards some sort of increasingly formal affiliation with the national protestant churches of Scandinavia, rejecting more and more the idea of unity with the ancient Church of East and West : some kinds of Anglicans, in saying something anti-Papal, forget that the Orthodox Churches view developments in their church no more positively than does the Catholic Church.
We must pray with Pope Benedict XVI, the Pope of Christian Unity, with St Gregory the Illuminator and St Frumentius for the unity of all Christians. On a day when the Holy Father is gathering around him not only the leaders of other religions, but also the leaders of Orthodox and Protestant Christianity, this seems doubly appropriate.
Let us also offer a prayer for those in the Ethiopian Catholic Metropolitan Church, who are in communion with the Holy Father, and who follow an Ethiopic Rite, especially those in Eritrea, whose ecclesial structure became an Ordinariate in 1930, later being raised to an Exarchate and thence to an Eparchate under the Metropolitan See of Addis Ababa.