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A webinar from the land of Jesus

Wow! I can see the Anglican Communion before my eyes.

This was the exclamation of Hosam Naoum, dean of St. George’s Cathedral and manager of St. George’s College, Jerusalem. Through a computer screen, he was greeting nine theologians from Japan to Brazil, during our webinar March 27-29.

It was hosted from the college, co-chaired by Dr. Muthuraj Swamy, general editor of our series with SPCK, and me, and cosponsored by the college and Saint Augustine’s Foundation.

The Most Rev. Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, gave greetings to the webinar by video, recorded in his study before he flew to Jordan. He encouraged Muthuraj and me to visit one of the 31 educational and health institutions of his diocese.

St. George’s College is in the close of St. George’s Cathedral, together with the archbishop’s house. It is about 250 metres outside the Damascus Gate of Old Jerusalem, and is very secure. We felt very much at home. We greatly appreciated the hospitality and welcome of Dr. Susan Lukens, associate dean, and of all the staff.

Two incidents, however, reminded us of the fragile context of Israel-Palestine and the need to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

On Wednesday afternoon we were in the college when a distraught woman brandished an open pair of scissors at a policeman in front of the Damascus Gate. She was shot to death. She was the mother of a man who had been shot at the end of last year.

The previous Wednesday, the day before we visited Bethlehem, a Palestinian boy without identity papers was shot by a sniper guard from the tower of the gate in the dividing wall at Bethlehem.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his magisterial book, Jerusalem: The Biography, mentions that “Jerusalem is surrounded by, and founded upon, cemeteries” (p xxviii). He states:

It is impossible to write a history of this city without acknowledging that Jerusalem is also a theme, a fulcrum, a spine even, of world history. (p xxvi)

In this article I first describe the webinar and then provide some first impressions and reflections on visiting the land of the Holy One.

1. Webinar on Reconciliation and Mission

(a) Two Gifts from God

After our arrival, Muthuraj and I were surprised by two gifts from God.

We were delighted to discover at St. George’s College the eminent, veteran Palestinian theologian, Dr. Naim Ateek, who was on sabbatical there. He kindly agreed to write a paper on the context of Israel-Palestine and on his background of growing up in Nazareth.

Just before flying from London, I had written a review for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research of Jesus without Borders: Christology in the Majority World, edited by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue and K.K. Yeo. The Palestinian theologian Dr. Yohanna Katanacho, academic dean of Nazareth Evangelical College, wrote an intriguing chapter in the book. Muthuraj and I arranged to meet him in Nazareth on the Friday before our webinar, during our visit to Galilee, with Dr. Hector Patmore and Bishara Khoury from St. George’s College.

Yohanna gave us 90 minutes of his time, which included introducing us to his children’s book in Arabic, The King of Peace and his Young Followers (2012), published by the Arab Israeli Bible Society. After studying two academic dissertations on reconciliation, he unveiled his findings in this children’s book, which has an innovative accompanying iPhone app. He also generously agreed to write a paper for the webinar.

(b) Aim and Context in the Project 

The aim of the webinar was to write a book, the first of three books by theologians from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, in preparation for the Lambeth Conference in 2020. These pre-Lambeth books are on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s three priorities: Reconciliation (Jerusalem, 2017); Evangelism and Witness (Dallas, 2018); and Prayer and the Renewal of Religious Life (being planned for 2019).

(c) Process of Writing, Discussing, and Revising

Muthuraj Swamy is associate professor of theology at Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India. He traveled with me to Jerusalem from London, en route back home after his three-month Mission Theology sabbatical at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He is the general editor and Asian editor of our project series of books with SPCK. Our other Continental editors are the Rev. Dr. Lydia Mwaniki (Africa), the Rt. Rev. Dr. Samy Shehata (Middle East), and Professor Joanildo Burity (Latin Amercia). The editors chose the authors for this writing-for-publication webinar.

Dr. Susan Lukens arranged the Zoom technology for the webinar at the college, which allowed us all to take part so effectively from 2 to 5 p.m. Jerusalem time each day of the seminar.

Earlier, nine papers had been written, and these were circulated to participants one week beforehand. They were taken as read, presented in summary form of 10 minutes, and discussed for 30 minutes during each session. The aim was peer-group learning and to provide suggestions for revision. The last two days of the week were left for the authors to revise their papers in the light of the discussions. The deadline for the revised papers to be emailed back was tight: midnight on March 31. It was an extraordinary exercise in fellowship and concentration.

(d) Authors and Papers

The following are the authors and titles:

  • The Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem: “Reconciliation and Justice in Israel-Palestine”
  • The Rev. Dr. Yohanna Katanacho, academic dean, Nazareth Evangelical College: “The King of Peace and His Young Followers”
  • The Rt. Rev. Dr. Samy Shehata, Bishop of North Africa, principal of the Alexandria School of Theology, and Mission Theology Middle Eastern Continental Editor:  “Reconciliation and Mission: Church as Communion in Contemporary Egypt”
  • The Rev. Dr. Lydia Mwaniki, director of theology, family life, and gender justice for the All Africa Conference of Churches, and Mission Theology African Continental Editor: “Women, Reconciliation and Mission an Africa: A Biblical Mandate”
  • Abiola Mbamalu, lecturer, Pentecostal Theological Seminary, Port Harcourt, Nigeria: “Christian-Muslim Encounter in Nigeria in the Light of Boko Haram.”
  • The Rt. Rev. Samuel Enosa Peni, Bishop of Nzara, South Sudan, who travelled to Kampala, Uganda, to have a better web connection: “Reconciliation and Peace Building: The Role of the Episcopal Church in South Sudan”
  • Muthuraj Swamy: “Reconciliation Grounded in Self-Criticism, Pro-activism and Justice: Lessons from Jesus’ Encounter with the Syrophoenician Woman”
  • Naw Myatt Hsu Mon, academic dean, Holy Cross Theological College, and our youngest female author: “Missio Dei in the context of Myanmar Anglicans”
  • The Rev. Dr. John Tsukada, priest in the Diocese of Tokyo: “To Be the Reconciled Polity of God”
  • Joanildo Burity, lead researcher and professor at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife, Brazil, and Mission Theology Latin American Continental Editor: “Mission and Reconciliation: Can Embattled Faiths Listen to Powerless Theologies?”
  • The Rev. Dr. Gustavo Gilson Oliveira, vicar of the Anglican parish of Bom Samaritano, Recife, and professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco: “Reconciliation, Conflict and Renewal: Dilemmas and Paths of Missionary Action in the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil”
  • Anna Kasafi Perkins, a Jamaican Roman Catholic theologian and former dean of studies at St. Michael’s Theological College, University of the West Indies, Kingston (who was not able to be with us for the webinar): “Reconciled with the Father,” a contextual analysis in the light of the Prodigal Son

Usually, during the final session of our conferences, we publish the revised papers on our site. The 12 papers of the webinar, four from each continent of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, will be published after further editing in our book and so were not put immediately on the web. We plan for the book to be published in 2018.

On the final day, March 29, Anglican Communion News Service and The Living Church published encouraging articles on the webinar (see here and here).

2. Reflections on the Land of the Holy One

Muthuraj and I arrived in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, March 22. This allowed us time to settle into the context of the land of the Holy One, before the webinar. Photos and videos are available on our site.

St. George’s College kindly arranged visits for us to Bethlehem (Thursday), Galilee (Friday), Old Jerusalem (Saturday), and Masada and Qumran (Thursday). Our guide throughout was the genial, well-informed, and well-connected Bishara Khoury, liaison officer at the college. Hector Patmore, director of studies at the college, accompanied us to Galilee, Masada, and Qumran. On Friday, Muthuraj flew home to Mumbai, and I flew home to London.

Ein Kerem is the traditional site of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth and of the birth of John the Baptist. I was consecrated bishop on the feast of the birth of John the Baptist, and it was moving to pray the Magnificat and the Benedictus in situ.

In the Shepherds’s Field Cave, Bethlehem, traditionally associated with the message of the angels, we heard Christians from Kenya singing in Kikuyu. It was a joy to join in with them and share memories of St. Andrew’s College, Kabare. In the nearby Franciscan Round Church, it was wonderful to hear groups singing carols in Japanese and in Korean. The worldwide Church is drawn to Bethlehem. As we left, we met a young man carrying a sheep on his shoulders.

In the nave of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, restorations were taking place, and we saw paintings and mosaics that have been hidden for centuries. The Greek Orthodox and Armenians share the Cave of the Nativity and have separate parts of the church for their own services. The Greek sanctuary and Armenian transept are joined to the larger Franciscan church.

At the entrance to the latter, there is an excellent metal relief of the call of David, complete with Jesse and his wife, his older sons and, at a distance with the sheep, his youngest son, David. This was finished for Pope Benedict’s visit in 2009.

In Galilee, we enjoyed the modern Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, with its extraordinarily evocative portrayals of the Annunciation, on the walls of the nave, from around the world. In particular, I found poignant those from Cameroon, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and Canada. Beneath, are the first-century cave and the remains of the Byzantine church and of the Crusaders’ church. Four levels of depth to ponder. Nearby, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation has a beautiful iconostasis, separating the nave from the sanctuary, and a scintillating well.

Hector Patmore, whose Durham PhD dissertation was on the Targums, showed us the well at Nazareth. Some historians had questioned the existence of a village at Nazareth during the time of Jesus, but coins that date from this period have been discovered from the site of the well.

In the Church of the Synagogue, the traditional site of Jesus’ exposition of Isaiah 61, we read the Gospel passage (Luke 4:14-34). Jesus was accepted until he mentioned the two Gentiles: the widow of Zarephath, in Sidon, and Naaman the Syrian. Racism and nationalism enraged the congregation into a mob. They tried to push him over a cliff. He walked through the midst of them.

Our time with Dr. Yohanna Katanacho at his college was a time of deep learning and fascinating discussion. His PhD dissertation on the Psalms was written at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. He has also written a midrashic book on the Psalms, applying them to his current context. We discovered that we had previously been together in September 2000, when I gave a series of three lectures in Deerfield at the beginning of the academic year.

At the entrance to the Church of the Multiplication (of loaves and fishes) by the Sea of Galilee, we were fascinated by the large stone adult baptismal font and the early mosaics inside.

Our most moving time during our whole nine days was in Capernaum. Jesus was rejected in Nazareth and in Jerusalem. He made his home in Capernaum on the northwest edge of the Sea of Galilee, in the house of Peter, his friend. Hector shared his confidence in the historicity of the site, with its synagogue and very probable house of Peter. We prayed at the edge of the inland sea, by the excavations, and in the Franciscan church, which is somewhat incongruously shaped like a spaceship over the excavations. We felt extraordinarily close to the historical and risen Jesus.

On the way home, we crossed the Jordan River, where it enters the Sea of Galilee, and then later saw from a distance the traditional site of the Mount of Temptations, before having a delicious dinner in Jericho and driving up the road to Jerusalem, without falling among thieves.

In Old Jerusalem, we first visited the Pool of Bethesda, the site of the story in John 5 of the man healed by Jesus, and the Franciscan Church of St. Anne, where we were greeted again by the Kikuyu Christians from Kenya, whom we had seen in Bethlehem.

We walked the way of the cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and within it saw the traditional site of Golgotha and the edicule (the Turkish word for little house) that has been built over the traditional site of the tomb of Jesus. Four days beforehand, there had been an ecumenical opening service, celebrating the renovation of the edicule, after nine months of cleaning from centuries of candle soot.

Six ancient Christian churches have charge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic (Franciscan). To say the least, they are not always in agreement. The key to the church is kept by a local Muslim. It took Israel’s warning of closure on health and safety grounds for them to agree to the cleaning and renovation of the edicule, which was carried out by Greek conservationists. In part of the Syrian chapel we saw two tombs carved from the rock, which have been dated to the first century A.D. At the entrance to the Coptic Church, there was a large banner of the 21 martyrs who were beheaded by ISIS in Libya. Next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the Russian Orthodox Church. It also has excavations dating to the first century AD and a large second-century cistern. The Lutheran Church, the only Protestant Church in Old Jerusalem, is nearby.

On Thursday, we travelled to the Dead Sea to visit Masada and Qumran and ponder two of the four groups mentioned by Josephus, the Jewish historian: the Zealots and the Essenes.

We reached Herod the Great’s fortress of Masada by cable car. Between 73 and 74, it was besieged by the Romans: the last post of the Jewish rebellion against Rome by the Sicarii rebel zealots. It was a moving visit that produced discussion about resistance to imperialism, rejection of compromise, and, according to Josephus, heroic suicide.

At Qumran, Hector described the probable link to the Essenes, who rejected the Temple in Jerusalem and formed a pure community in the desert. They practiced ritual cleansing and communal meals, and wrote the manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which they hid in the caves nearby at the approach of the Roman army. We discussed flight from the world, purity, and scribal particularity.


Simon Sebag Montefiore, in the epilogue to Jerusalem: The Biography, comments:

For 1,000 years, Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years, Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic; and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword, the manganel, or the howitzer. (p 622)

He then goes on to describe beautifully early morning worship:

It is now one hour before dawn on a day in Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is open: Muslims are praying. The Wall is always open: the Jews are praying. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is open: the Christians are praying in several languages. (p 628).

In St. George’s Cathedral, we began each day with an early service of Holy Communion and finished it with Evening Prayer. On the Sunday, we heard Archbishop Suheil preach powerfully in English and Arabic at Holy Communion.

Muthuraj and I would like to thank profoundly the community in St. George’s Close, who welcomed us with such hospitality: Archbishop Suheil Dawani; Dean Hosam Naoum; chaplain David Longe and his wife, Sarah; and at the college, Susan Lukens; Hector Patmore and his wife, Lydia; finance officer Rana Khoury; liaison and logistics officer Bishara Khoury; administrator Genia Stephan; chaplain John Reese and his wife, Hazel; and all the support staff.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and his wife, Caroline, will be visiting Jordan, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem for nine days in May this year, together with the Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, and the Bishop of Lichfield, Michael Ipgrave, both key members of the Anglican Inter Faith Network.

Archbishop Suheil liked the concept of our webinar very much and said he would investigate using it to meet with his clergy in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. He also kindly invited me to lead his clergy retreat at St. George’s College on Feb. 20-22, 2018.

So, next year in Jerusalem.


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