Christianity is alive in the land of the Jews

Christ Church, the first Protestant church in this part of the world, has spawned dozens of institutions throughout Israel.

By DAVID SMITH
May 16, 2007 10:54

 
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Entering Christ Church, Sarah, a tourist from Kfar Saba, asks: "Is this a church or a synagogue?" Hebrew script and Judaica abound. Only one cross can be found, and it's usually kept in a back room. It was purchased in 1948 so Jordanians wouldn't mistake the building for a synagogue. The confusion is indicative of the church's purpose - to testify to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith to both Jews and Christians. Asked about her reaction, Sarah concluded: "It makes me feel we can all - Jew, Arab and gentile - live together under one roof." Christ Church, the first Protestant church in this part of the world, has spawned dozens of institutions throughout Israel. According to Christ Church historian Kelvin Crombie, these include the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Beit Immanuel in Jaffa, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Palestine Exploration Fund, and much of the Hebrew Christian movement. Its roots extend to 1799, when Napoleon was defeated by the British fleet at Acre and "evangelical Christians began to predict that Britain would henceforth be used by God in assisting the restoration of the Jews," Crombie writes in his book For the Love of Zion. Evangelical dreams were not simply of a Jewish homeland. They desired to preach the Gospel of Jesus to the Jews; to teach Christians the Jewish roots of their faith; and to secure the Land of Israel as the Jewish homeland. The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (LJS) was formed in 1809 to pursue these goals. LJS supporter Lewis Way appealed to European royalty at the Congress of Aix la Chapelle in 1818 to restore the Jewish people to their native land. Way and partner W.B. Lewis set out for the Middle East in 1823. The following year Way wrote of terrible abuses of Jerusalem's Jews by the city's Muslim majority under Turkish governance. "When will the king of England come and deliver us?" one rabbi pleaded. As a result of Turkish persecution, Way proposed that England establish a consulate in Jerusalem. When Egypt conquered the Holy Land in 1831 it was eager for British support and disposed toward such a diplomatic move. Consul William Tanner Young was dispatched in 1839. Danish minister John Nicolayson had arrived in Jerusalem in 1826, and soon appealed to the LJS for a church to be built in Jerusalem. Forbidden under Turkish law, the Egyptians accommodated the 1838 purchase of property for Christ Church. The year 1840 was critical for restorationist (Zionist) hopes. Britain signed a treaty with Turkey calling for Egyptian withdrawal from Turkey proper. Egypt refused, prompting the British and Turks to declare war and oust the Egyptians from the Holy Land. Turkish indebtedness to Britain facilitated several institutions envisioned by Lord Shaftesbury, a prominent proponent of Jewish restoration. These included a hospital "under the charge of an eminent physician," vocational schools, as well as boys' and girls' schools to aid the city's destitute Jews. Under Shaftesbury's pressure, British foreign secretary Palmerston urged the Turkish sultan to allow Jews to return to the Holy Land "under the sanction and protection and invitation of the Sultan." According to Crombie, "This was the first official proposal by a European power advocating the restoration of the Jewish people to their land… The events of 1840 had set in motion a process from which there was no return. The ultimate result was the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917." King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia had also aided Turkey in its reoccupation of the area, and was eager to use his newfound influence to establish a Protestant foothold in the Middle East. The king favored "that the Church of England establish a Bishopric at Jerusalem." Toward that end, his emissary met with Shaftesbury, Palmerston and Queen Victoria. Responsibility for finding the right person fell to LJS, who determined the new bishop should be of Jewish descent. Michael Solomon Alexander, a former rabbi, was consecrated to the new post in November 1841, and sailed for Jaffa the following month. Writers of the day enthused the Prussian and British public with news of "the successor of St. James" and "the first episcopal benediction that had fallen from Hebrew lips in 1,700 years." Alexander was in Jerusalem to lay the first stone of Christ Church in January 1842. The Turks were not pleased by the church's construction, so when France and Russia opposed the work (representing Catholic and Eastern Orthodox reservations respectively), building ceased in January 1843. Alexander and Nicolayson challenged the stoppage through diplomatic channels, forcing a debate at the House of Commons the following April. CONTRIBUTING TO the Anglican church's isolation in Jerusalem was the ire of the Jewish community. Crombie relates: "Three Russian Jews openly confessed faith in Jesus in October 1842. Such was the opposition within the Jewish community that the wives of the [converted] rabbis were compelled to separate from them." While the construction of Christ Church waited, the medical clinic developed. Dr. Edward MacGowan, who arrived on the ship with Alexander, was inundated with applications for medical advice, according to Crombie. In 1844 the first modern doctor in Jerusalem began the city's first modern hospital. Eventually, due to pressure from Jerusalem's rabbis, Jewish support was raised to establish a hospital nearby to shield Jews from the missionary influence. Decades later, when the Anglicans moved their hospital to its present location about a mile from the Old City, Bikur Holim Hospital followed. The first of its kind, a vocational school teaching olive-wood crafts - a profession still practiced in the Jerusalem area - opened in the early 1840s. Concurrently, a bookstore ministry began and a mission station in Safed was established. By 1845 Turkey succumbed to diplomatic pressure from England and Prussia, sending word to the governor of Jerusalem to allow building to continue. Bishop Alexander was not to see the church consecrated. The year after permission to continue building was issued, he fell ill on the way to Egypt. That evening he and his wife requested a private supper in their tent. He died hours later, three years before the church was completed. By the 1880s the First Aliya was occurring as Russian nationalism and oppression against minorities grew. When a Jewish woman was involved in the assassination of Alexander II, the government incited a series of pogroms against its Jewish community. Idealistic Jews, misled by promises of land upon arrival, hurried to Jaffa and soon faced starvation. According to Crombie, many of these camped out on LJS property, as the traditional Jewish community in Israel refused to help the secular newcomers. In July 1882, the London Jewish Chronicle printed: "The streets of Jaffa, partially also Jerusalem, are full of immigrants who in vain seek a helping hand… were it not for a number of American ladies and gentlemen… and also the English missionaries, many of our miserable Russian brethren would have perished from sheer want." Israeli historian Shulamit Laskov records that this help "was not conditional on conversion." Such refugee assistance depleted LJS finances to the point that the London office sent a delegation to determine if the expenditure were justified. It upheld the local workers' decision, insisting they had properly exercised Christian charity, thus saving many lives. Later that decade, George Blyth was sent to assume the Jerusalem bishopric. Tensions were immediate, as Blyth represented the High Church Anglicans while the local LJS workers were more evangelical. One supporter wrote: "I feel I cannot help that society while it helps support a ritualist Bishop." Blyth saw reconciliation with the Eastern Orthodox and Arabs as primary to his ministry. Using private funding, he bought property in east Jerusalem to build St. George's. As Arab nationalism grew, this church identified with it. Today former St. George's Canon Naim Ateek is the leading voice in Palestinian liberationtheology. At the century's close, Anglican restorationist William Hechler, chaplain at the British Embassy in Vienna, read Theodor Herzl's Der Judenstaat. Hechler arranged a meeting with Herzl, and the two made plans to meet with Grand Duke Friedrich and eventually the Kaiser (with whom Herzl met twice). Herzl invited Hechler to come to the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. During the Arab riots of the 1920s many Jews found protection within CMJ (Church's Ministry among the Jewish People, formerly LJS) property, or recovered from injuries in the hospital. The students were excused from the boys' school so they might help transport the injured. During tensions in the 1930s a CMJ worker was killed while traveling on a bus to Jerusalem. The 1930s represented a mixed picture of England's restorationist hopes. While Christian Zionist Colonel Orde Wingate taught special operations to 3,000 Hagana troops (Moshe Dayan among them), the White Paper was approved, limiting Jewish immigration. Tensions again increased after World War II as Jews vigorously pursued statehood and British foreign policy placated the Arabs. By January 1948, many of the British nationals had been evacuated and the city's Jewish population was in need of medical facilities. Part of the mission hospital was given to Israeli authorities; it was handed back in 1962. In spite of 1948's astounding victories against the Arab armies, Israel lost control of Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, as well as the Old City. "Christ Church was now completely cut off from the Jewish people," Crombie writes. It was at this time that the church's lone cross was purchased. The rift between CMJ and the bishopric widened in the ensuing years, as the diocese continued to compromise with Arab nationalism. This reached a peak in 1979, when PLO executive member Elias Khouri became assistant bishop of the Jerusalem diocese. In contrast, Christ Church has endeavored to maintain its commitment to the Jewish people as well as ministering to all of Jerusalem's diverse population. Indicative of this challenge, presently Christ Church has two weekly services: an Anglican one conducted in English and a non-denominational, Israeli-led service in Hebrew. People of varied backgrounds and ethnicities are welcomed at both. Crombie concludes his work by stressing that today at Christ Church, near the place where King Melchizedek and Abraham exchanged bread and wine, messianic Jews and gentiles still receive communion together. They are "eating the same bread and drinking the wine from the same cup - a cup that had been given to the Anglican Jewish Bishop Alexander and inscribed with the Hebrew words, 'to Melchizedek, King of Salem.'"

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