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Working on Anglican-Orthodox Unity in the Shadow of War

We thought it would be an auspicious time to visit the Holy Land. On October 3rd, my wife, Shannon, and I traveled to Jerusalem for the 50th anniversary meeting of the International Commission on Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue. What began as a meeting for the cause of unity between the second- and third-largest global Christian churches soon became a brutal morality tale for the broader work of peace in our world.

The commission gathered at the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr in Jerusalem, hosted by Anglican Archbishop Hosam Naoum, primate of Jerusalem and the Middle East, his wife, Rafa, and the excellent staff of St. George’s. The meeting was anything but routine. It was both moving and disturbing to work for Christian unity as war was breaking out around us. The delegations sat across from one another at long, white tables in the parish room of the cathedral. As the crisis unfolded, we labored on the draft of our paper, laughed, prayed, and occasionally squabbled over the choice of a word or an important point of Christology.

The Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue has a venerable history. Memorable doctrinal statements concern the authority of Scripture and the Church (Moscow 1976), the Trinity, prayer, and holiness (Dublin 1984), and the nature and various ministries of the Church (Cyprus 2006)—statements that now have the feel of another era of theology and ecumenism (John Zizioulas was the Orthodox co-chair until 2007).

The current series of projects began with the agreed statement In the Image and Likeness of God: A Hope-Filled Anthropology (Buffalo 2015) on the nature of human personhood as created in the image of God. The Buffalo Statement was intended as a foundation for further work on various ethical issues. It led to agreed statements on ecology (Canterbury 2020), physician-assisted suicide (Pendeli 2022), and organ donation (Jerusalem 2023). The Commission’s many statements are available through the Anglican Communion’s website.

In this year’s document, Organ Donation: A Hope-Filled Gift (the Jerusalem Statement), the two churches register their agreement on the sacredness of human life and the dignity of human bodies. We express broad support for the life-saving practice of organ donation, which in many cases can be act of profound Christlike love for one’s neighbor. We also note that significant ethical concerns remain, such as the widespread practice of individuals being coerced into donating their organs. Most challenging of all is the question of when a person is truly dead so that their organs can be ethically harvested, as when someone suffers full brain death, yet their heart is enabled to keep beating and their tissues preserved from decay by artificial respiration.

In its theological foundations, the Jerusalem Statement affirms both the dignity of human bodies as an essential part of the human person made in the image of God, and also the fleeting and corruptible nature of our earthly existence regardless of how advanced our medical practices may become. In light of these realities, the centrality of Christ’s suffering, death, and bodily transformation through the Cross and Resurrection, and consequently the hope of Christians in the resurrection of our own bodies, become all the more pressing for a Christian understanding of human life and well-being in our technologically advanced age.

This year marked the first time in over a decade that the Episcopal Church was represented at the Dialogue, since our participation had been curtailed through the disciplinary action of the Anglican Communion.

In 2024 the commission will take up new themes concerning the mission of the Church and the spiritual formation of Christians in today’s world when it meets at the Huffington Ecumenical Institute of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston.

Formal doctrinal work is of course only half the story of a fruitful ecumenical dialogue. The other half is personal, relational, and liturgical. The commission is already a fraternal group, with some relationships dating from over a decade ago. Our time in Jerusalem came with an extra sense of camaraderie and affection. The minority status of Christians in the Holy Land brings with it an extra impetus for cooperation and a desire for visible unity among the churches. We shared this ethos as we worked and prayed together.

The commission was graciously received by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, who serves as the de facto head of church leaders in Jerusalem. Patriarch Theophilos spoke movingly of the importance of Christian unity and a humble public witness in Jerusalem, in support of the commission’s agenda to work toward the visible unity of our churches. We also celebrated the fact the chrism oil used to anoint King Charles III at his coronation was consecrated by Patriarch Theophilos and Anglican Archbishop Naoum together in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a rare liturgical act shared by our two churches.

On the fateful day of October 7, our planned visit to Galilee was cut short by the violence erupting from Gaza. On our drive north to Mt. Tabor, we spied plumes of dark smoke off to the west, in the direction of Tel Aviv. We soon began to receive news that Hamas had fired thousands of rockets into Israel.

For four days we remained sequestered at the cathedral, where we continued to work and pray, to share meals, and breathe the air of the garden. On the fourth day, we finally ventured out for a private visit to the Holy Sepulchre. We were met with the bizarre sight of the Old City almost entirely empty in the middle of the day, as if in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Among the other visitors we encountered at St. George’s was a group of Swiss pilgrims led by an old friend, the Rev. Canon Nicholas Porter, who is the founding director of Jerusalem Peacebuilders, an organization that promotes peace in the Holy Land through work with Palestinian and Israeli youth. Given the acute need for such work in this present moment, the encounter seemed providential.

Thankfully, we managed to finish our task — a blessed distraction during several days of watching and waiting — completing the Jerusalem Statement while the nascent war occupied our prayers. We took some confidence from the belief that Jerusalem is relatively safe by comparison due to the limited range of Hamas rockets and the inherent protection of the Islamic holy sites, which a radical Muslim would not want to destroy.

We heard warning sirens several times and the occasional explosion. At 8:59 a.m. on Monday the 9th, in the midst of a working session, an alert sounded on my phone from Israel’s Home Front Command app telling us that rocket and missile fire was expected to hit our area in 90 seconds. We sat on the floor against the thick stone walls and prayed and checked our phones and kept working on our paper. The explosion was not terribly close, but it was not too far away either.

As the conflict rapidly escalated and no reprieve was in sight, it became clear that we must flee for safety. Members scrambled to find new flights or other ways out of the country. As alarming as it was to know that we were in an active war zone, over time it became even more difficult simply not to know how we would get out, with family and friends more worried with each news story that appeared.

American flights were cancelled immediately, leaving no secondary options. Meanwhile, the State Department gave no information about how American citizens would be evacuated or our travel rerouted. Although we had registered through the proper channels and spoken to otherwise helpful workers in the U.S. Congress, Senate, and Embassy in Jerusalem, we were essentially on our own. Before long we learned that over 500 other Americans had the worse fate of being trapped in Gaza, not to mention those taken hostage by Hamas.

On a third-hand suggestion from a friend connected to the Senate Armed Services Committee, we decided to leave by car through Jordan. On Thursday the 12th, five of our group rode north in a taxi through the West Bank past the Israeli security checkpoint to the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, where we crossed the River Jordan and made our way back south to Amman. From there we flew to Dubai and eventually back to the United States.

The irony was everywhere apparent that our work for Christian unity took place in a region where Jews, Christians, and Muslims are being torn apart by violence. How ironic, as well, that our work this year focused on life-saving medical procedures while human life was being senselessly taken away. The news on our return of the bombing at the Anglican diocesan Al Ahli Arab Hospital — a catastrophic loss of human life, Christian ministry, and interfaith mission — was the most bitter of all.

In an email I sent to my parish soon after the conflict began, I lamented the horrific violence that Hamas had inflicted on Israeli and other civilians. I also noted that most Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinian Arabs, some of whom are also Israeli citizens. We are called to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6) in every respect — for the peace and well-being of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the mystical body of Christ encompassing God’s people throughout all ages, and for the peace of the present earthly city and its war-torn land. We pray, too, for the ministry of Archbishop Naoum and for Palestinian and Israeli Christians in the Diocese of Jerusalem, for whom this sort of conflict has become a way of life. For we know that, in this age, the work of unity will never end.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Good to hear that the excellent work of this Commission continues! And that one of ours represents the Episcopal Church. In my book, Choose the Narrow Path: the Way for Churches to Walk Together (December 2023), I rely a great deal on the 2006 Cyprus Statement, for me a high-water mark of ecumenical dialogue. I also decry the lack of connection between ecumenists’s work and the rest of the Church. It matters deeply “that we all may be one.” Please keep up the good work, and yes, let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem writ large.

  2. Grateful to read this account and have confirmed the safe return of the Beeleys for whom we were praying!
    Another perspective on “the peace of Jerusalem” (following the Psalmist’s example in prayer) was experienced on my pilgrimage there in April last year. As Ramadan was ending, coinciding with Passover and Orthodox Easter, our group from St. Thomas’ 5th Ave. & Nashotah House was advised not to venture to the plaza at Dome of the Rock since reports of potential violence urged caution. In compliance, three of us set out before dawn to walk to the church of the Holy Sepulchre for opening prayer & Mass. As we approached the Damascus Gate, literally thousands of Muslim worshippers were emerging from their final night’s feast on the Temple Mount. In a brief conversation as to whether we should proceed, I suggested we hug the wall single file, extending the greeting “Asalaam aleikum” as we made our way slowly, like salmon swimming upstream! We were delighted and blessed by the return greetings – including many “good mornings!” in English – from persons of every age! Emerging from the crowd as the narrow street opened up at the church’s entrance, we huddled in thanksgiving for safe passage and that the Peace of Jerusalem truly exists in hearts and souls, just waiting to be expressed. May this deep Shalom be realized among the Abrahamic faiths, especially today by warring Israelis and Palestinians.

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