Notes on an Ethiopian Orthodox court case

Right now, I’m fully immersed in work on my big paper on Orthodoxy and the civil courts. I just thought I’d offer some notes on a case I just read, Kidist Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, Inc. v. Kidist Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, Inc., a 1995 Georgia Court of Appeals case involving the split of an Ethiopian Orthodox parish. (And yes, the case is Kidist Mariam Church versus Kidist Mariam Church — both factions claimed to be the “true” church.)

The basic facts are as follows: In 1993, the Kidist Mariam board of directors, “after a vote by the congregation,” fired the parish priest. The priest told the archbishop, who responded by disbanding the board of directors. This led to a split in the parish — the “Atlanta Group” sided with the archbishop, while the “Decatur Group” was led by the old board of directors. Both groups elected new boards of trustees and claimed the right to control the parish funds. Hence this court case.

Rather than defer to the bishop’s definition of which group constituted the “true” parish, the court applied the neutral principles of law approach. The parish articles of incorporation stipulated that the parish was autonomous with respect to the “internal affairs of the corporation.” The parish bylaws indicated acceptance of the archbishop’s authority only over religious, spiritual, and liturgical matters. Based on these facts, the court concluded that Kidist Mariam was a “hybrid” congregational/hierarchical church.

The court ruled that, “even assuming Archbishop Matthias was authorized in declaring the removal of the corporation’s Board of Directors because of their decision to remove Rev. Haregewoyn as priest of the Kidist Mariam Church, neither the Archbishop nor the Atlanta Group had authority to appoint the corporation’s Board of Directors.” So the Atlanta Group (i.e. the pro-archbishop group)’s new board elections didn’t conform to the parish articles of incorporation and bylaws; meanwhile, the Decatur Group’s board elections were consistent with those official documents. The result? A victory for the Decatur Group, and a loss for the archbishop’s faction.

I find the court’s reasoning curious — and not in a good way. The court has confused the legitimacy of the archbishop’s decision to disband the original board of directors with the legitimacy of the Atlanta Group’s new board. It is entirely possible (probable, even) that no board is legitimate — that the archbishop’s board failed to conform to the parish governing documents, but the Decatur Group’s board failed to qualify even as church members in the first place.

Membership status in a parish is an ecclesiastical (religious, spiritual, liturgical) matter. The archbishop had the authority to determine who was and wasn’t a parish member — and that means he had the authority to disband the board (because you can’t serve on the board if you’re not a parish member). If the archbishop declared the entire Decatur Group not to be parish members on the grounds that they rebelled against his ecclesiastical authority and purported to fire the priest… well, the archbishop had the right to do that, and it seems like he had a pretty good reason. I mean, you can’t have parish boards firing priests — not in the Orthodox Church, and while I know the Ethiopian Church isn’t in communion with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, I don’t think their ecclesiology on that point differs from ours.

The court’s reasoning demonstrates — as do so many other cases — that the neutral principles approach to Orthodox parish disputes is fatally flawed. It assumes that a real distinction exists between ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical issues, when in fact Orthodoxy permits no such dichotomy. Here, the issue of which was the “real” board hinged, in large part, on the issue of who were “real” parish members. That’s an ecclesiastical question, and the court overstepped its bounds when it ignored this fact.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

One Reply to “Notes on an Ethiopian Orthodox court case”

  1. I agree that the precedent is an odd one, but the situation may be more complicated and political than it appears to be on the surface. We’re much too close to the reign of HIM Haile Silase, the Mengistu dictatorship, and the ongoing rule of the Meles regime to be able to interpret the events connected to them in terms of white and black – there are far too many historical, class, ethnic, and political undercurrents to most of these things in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches in both the Horn of Africa and the Diaspora.

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