By Mark Michael
The Rt. Rev. Michael Lewis became President Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East on November 17. Lewis, who has served as Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf for the past twelve years, succeeds Archbishop Suheil Dawani of Jerusalem in this primatial role.
Lewis, who will continue his diocesan ministry, will serve a term of two-and-a-half years, and was chosen for this role in a provincial synod held in Amman, Jordan in May, 2017. The province is the Anglican Communion’s largest in geographical spread, but is among the smallest in population, with only 55 congregations and about 35,000 members (slightly more than the Diocese of Chicago). The province is composed of four dioceses: Cyprus and the Gulf, Egypt and North Africa, Iran and Jerusalem.
In an interview with Anglican News Service, Lewis said that he hoped to raise awareness about the ministry of the diocese, which gathers Anglicans who practice their faith in diverse settings. “There are some countries where Christianity is honoured and taken to be a part of the integral life of a nation. There are others where it is under some pressure and threat and where maybe people will wonder what part Christians are playing.” A June 2019 Pew report described all twenty countries of the province as places where the levels of government restriction on religion is either high or very high.
Lewis said that the situation is especially challenging for Anglicans in Iran. The Diocese of Iran, whose presence dates from Henry Martyn’s pioneering missionary work in 1811, currently has only four small parishes. Iran has been without a bishop since 2017, and the Rev. Dr. Albert Waters, the acting vicar-general, was forced to leave the country earlier this year when his visa was not renewed.
According to a May 2019 report from Radio Farda, an English-language Iranian news source, Mahmud Alavi, the Iranian Intelligence Minister, said that his agency was active “in countering the advocates of Christianity” amid a growing number of illegal conversions from Islam to Christianity. A 2015 study conservatively estimated that there are 100,000 Christians converts currently living in Iran, most of them evangelicals and Pentecostals. While Christianity is officially protected under the Iranian constitution, the printing and distribution of Bibles and other forms of Christian literature is illegal, and conversion from Islam is potentially punishable by death.
Lewis also noted that Anglicans in Iraq face deep challenges. St. George’s in Bagdad, the single Anglican Church in that country, has played an important role in peace-building amid episodic violence. The overall number of Christians in Iraq has fallen by 80% since the US invasion in 2003, and there has been significant emigration of Christians from across the region to the West in response to increasing hostility. The province’s growing edge has been among Sudanese refugees in the Horn of Africa, where the groundwork is being laid to develop a new Anglican province, based in Egypt.
Lewis said that ecumenical cooperation is deeply important in the region, and he currently serves as a member of the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue. “We have to recognise that we must practically work ecumenically together with other mainline Christians of goodwill,” he said. “There are huge benefits that come from that and ecumenism across the province is in good heart.”
Lewis is also engaged in building bridges with Muslims, as over half of his diocese’s 27 churches are in Muslim-majority countries throughout the Persian Gulf region. He has served on the board of Oman’s Al Amana Interfaith Centre, an important regional institution that sponsors interfaith dialogue and community projects.
When asked about continuing tensions in the Anglican Communion, Lewis seemed poised to continue the centrist agenda of his predecessor. He told ACNS, “I’m very committed to living with difference and in the Anglican Communion at the moment there is a lot of difference to be lived with. I think that in the dioceses of our province and in our province as it changes shape over the years, I hope that we respect and honour one another and relish those different flavours of Anglicanism.”
Jerusalem and the Middle East has been deeply involved in Communion-wide institution, but has also assumed leadership within the Global South Anglican movement. Former primate Mouneer Anis stepped down this year as chair of the Global South Anglicans. The province has also regularly sent representatives to the GAFCON Conferences that grew out of this body.
Prior to his election as Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, Lewis served as suffragan bishop of Middleton, in the Church of England’s Diocese of Manchester. He has degrees from Oxford in oriental studies and theology, and served as a parish priest in the Dioceses of London and Worcester prior to becoming a bishop in 1999.