Zionism, Mission, and the Episcopal Church

Review by Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski

In Christian Homeland, Gardiner Shattuck directs our attention to the Episcopal Church’s engagement with the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries. By attending to both denominational dynamics and geopolitics, this accomplished historian of the Episcopal Church shows how the shifting struggle for control of the Middle East, from Ottoman to British to American, was also a canvas on which Christian aspirations played out.

This is a book of two halves. The first concerns the development of Episcopal missionary activity to the Middle East, beginning with the arrival of Horatio Southgate in Constantinople, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire, in 1836. Initially convinced that only evangelical Protestantism could convert Muslims, and that the indigenous churches of the region were spiritually lacking, Southgate soon came to respect the resilience of the local churches. He was an advocate for ecumenical collaboration with these churches, as part of a strategy for reviving Christian life in the region, as a prelude to conversion of Muslims. This softening attitude presaged the ecumenical collaborations between Anglicans, Lutherans, and a range of churches in the Middle East.

The Episcopal Church developed a special bond with the Armenian Apostolic Church. Missionaries came to greatly esteem Armenians for their perseverance under persecution. When the Ottoman Empire unleashed genocide against the Armenian people, the Episcopal Church was at the forefront of advocating for Armenian refugees in both the United States and the Middle East. If high-church ideals were evident in advocating greater ecumenical relations, the social-gospel vision of the broad church was at play in this advocacy on behalf of Armenians.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War created the conditions for the focus of the second part of this book — Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. With Great Britain gaining control of the administrative region of Palestine, the Church of England saw this expansion of the British Empire as a providential sign of the restoration of the Christian identity of the Holy Land and an opening for the conversion of both Muslims and Jews there. Yet the Balfour Declaration of 1917 put this vision in question. High-church Anglicans saw the British opening of Palestine for the Zionist project of creating a Jewish homeland as catastrophic for the local Christians. Here we see that a strong anti-Zionist streak in high-church Anglicanism was contrasted by conversionary impulses toward Jews by evangelical Anglicans.

Among Episcopalians, the missionary Charles Bridgeman represents the antipathy toward Zionism that often veered into racial antisemitism and theological anti-Judaism. Beginning as a missionary in British Mandate Palestine in the 1920s, Bridgeman organized Episcopalians’ opposition to the Zionist project. Shattuck illustrates how anti-Zionism and attendant antisemitism and supersessionism were prevalent in the church during this period, manifesting in church periodicals (including The Living Church) and the annual Good Friday appeal letter.

Alongside these dynamics were other church leaders sympathetic to the need for a Jewish homeland. Shattuck illustrates how in the debates over the partition of Palestine, Anglican opposition to a Jewish homeland was rooted in a high-church supersessionist theology that asserted Jews had no right to the Holy Land since they rejected Christ. Such reasoning was explicitly expressed in the 1938 publication of Doctrine in the Church of England by the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. Anti-Zionists thought themselves secure in their combination of political and theological reasoning.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a traumatic experience for Palestinian Christians, many of whom lost life, property, and possessions. While anti-Zionist advocacy continued in the Episcopal Church, the leadership of the denomination leaned toward support for Israel, in part as a means of making amends for the legacy of Christian antisemitism. Yet the events of the Six-Day War in 1967 and the ensuing occupation of formerly Palestinian territories, especially Jerusalem and its holy sites, led to a resurgence of anti-Zionism among mainline Protestants, including progressive Episcopalians.

In his epilogue, Shattuck illustrates how the pro-Palestinian activism found in the contemporary Episcopal Church is a direct descendent of the anti-Zionist views of predecessors like Bridgeman. While there have been recent moments in this activism when rhetoric has been antisemitic in nature, Shattuck reminds us that this is not an anomaly. In Anglicanism, anti-Zionism has been intertwined with anti-Jewish prejudice. Shattuck’s work leaves us with a question: What would it take for Anglican advocacy for the rights and dignity of Palestinians to finally fully divest it of anti-Jewish bias?

The Rev. Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski is Kraft Family Professor and director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College.


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