A deacon's tale from Australia to the Holy Land

Aaron Eime relates his fascinating journey from Australia to Jerusalem.

 Aaron Eime: Preparing to bring the word. (photo credit: AARON EIME/SELFIE)
Aaron Eime: Preparing to bring the word.
(photo credit: AARON EIME/SELFIE)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Aaron Eime is the deacon of Christchurch in Jerusalem’s Old City. An Australian by birth and a publican by experience, he is not the obvious choice for such an elevated role. So how he came to this position is no less intriguing.

Eime was at university, in his native Australia, when he had a revelation that changed his life:

“I was inspired by a debate at university on evolution versus creation,” he recalls. “A microbiologist told us that he studied cells at the smallest level, and the sheer information that is written inside each of those cells defies explanation. ‘Where does all this information come from,’ he asked. That’s the sort of thing that woke me up.”

What was surprising about this revelation was that Eime (a German name from the area of Saxony) had been brought up in a Christian family.

“My mother was Anglican; my father was Lutheran. I grew up having to learn the catechism, Bible stories, and so on. I consider that very valuable. It helped shape my world view. I went to a Lutheran school where it was customary that all students were taught German. On Sundays we would go to a very traditional church. In the evenings, my mother would take us to the local charismatic Anglican community. No robes or collars. It was a church with a free spirit. So my early experience of Anglicanism was very much rather liberal. Even so, just because I was brought up in a Christian environment does not mean that I was automatically a believer.”

 Celebrating the marriage of a new couple. (credit: DANIEL GOODENOUGH) Celebrating the marriage of a new couple. (credit: DANIEL GOODENOUGH)

Born in the outback, in a village some hours’ drive south of Perth, the 12-year-old Eime moved with his family to Queensland. It was there that he went to university.

“At Queensland I studied psychology and sociology, in particular industrial psychology, which is institutions, systems and large groups of people who relate to the institution as if it was a living organism. If you have bank, for example, its employees speak of it as if it is a human being. When things change it can bring a shock to the system, for employees. That’s when you need industrial psychologists to deal with this change, because the employees are protecting the bank.” This background seems to have stood Eime in the good when dealing later on with the church as an institution.

Although he now had found his faith on his own, Eime did not go straight into ecclesiastic work.

“I was working in restaurants during the day and afterward I was working as a youth worker with street kids.” But his heart was set on traveling the world.

“In fact, when I met Michelle, my wife-to-be, I thought to myself: ‘This is dangerous because I had plans to travel around the world.’ So I said to her: ‘Marry me, but you won’t be able to settle down until we travel around the world. It’s our one opportunity. Pack a backpack and let’s go.’

“We went to live in Canada, America, England, paying our way by picking up jobs. Mainly I worked as a publican. I paid my way through university by working as a bartender. I was good at it and moved into management for a British Brewing Company called Whitbread. Whitbread operates hotels, bars, restaurants all over the world. I worked and managed several bars and restaurants for Whitbread.”

Although it seemed a standard trip for young people to make, for the Eimes it was also something of a pilgrimage:

“In England we traveled all over visiting lots of different churches. In each one we asked: ‘How do you read the Bible? How do you guys pray?’ It opened my eyes. In Australia we had blinkers on. Perhaps the Kingdom of God was a little larger than we thought.

“While in England I finished a contract. We had a 1973 VW van and we loaded it full of food and set off to explore Europe. We also wanted to come to Israel, not in order to stay, but because it was in the Bible. We thought of what it would be like to read and sit in the Galilee, or to go in to the desert and read some of the relevant Biblical stories. So we drove from London. This was in 1998. It was a very different world. Every country had a different currency. We camped all over the place. We saw the most amazing sites, brought back so many stories, met so many people. We’re glad we did it. By the time we drove into Israel, we had been away from Australia for three and a half years.

“We came via Haifa, then went down to the Dead Sea. In the evening when the tourists left, we came across some large Arab Bedouin families of maybe 30 or 40 people. None of them would intermingle with each other! They stayed with their clan. With typical Middle Eastern hospitality, like Abraham, they would say: ‘Come, come and eat with us; not with the others.’ So we brought whatever meager food we had and joined their barbecue. It was fantastic. We couldn’t understand a single thing they said, but they were willing to share, to sing and to dance. We also drank what we thought was Arabic coffee, but it was somewhat stronger than that – whiskey!

“We picked up our guidebook and looked for a place to rest. We found a place that was advertised as a nice place with a garden. We came to this old Anglican Church in Jerusalem. We saw this community of Arabs, Jews and gentiles from all different places. The people were working together, praying together, even a Muslim. So we asked them what’s going on, normally you people are fighting each other.

“They told us about the history of the place, inspired by William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade, who also created the Anglican Society to share the Gospel, as well as showing an interest in the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. The Anglican Church came into being in an age of reform, which was also a time of the earliest Christian Zionism emanating from England.

“We asked ourselves: ‘Why had we never heard of it before?’ They shared their history with us and then asked us if we would volunteer, making beds, assisting people in the services, learning a bit about the politics. One month became three. Then someone said: ‘You should go to university and study something about the background of all this.’ I had a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but it had nothing to do with religion. I wouldn’t get any credits at all. Nevertheless, we were encouraged to go and study, although at this point, after a year of volunteering, we were beginning to be short of money. I applied and received a scholarship at The Hebrew University to study Jewish civilization, particularly the Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Bible from the years 300 BCE to 300 CE. I studied at the Rothberg International School. The courses started in English but slowly they introduced more and more Hebrew, helped by an ulpan, until the exams – which were all in Hebrew! Suddenly you realize: ‘I’ve done an entire exam in Hebrew on the Hebrew Bible!’

“When I finished my degree it was time for me to teach. We left Israel for Denver, and I became a teacher in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which is a mega-church. It had a membership of 9,000 people – each worship service held between 2,000 and 3,000 people, so they would do three services every morning. People would come to the Bible study before or after a service, so I would have to do three Bible studies. I didn’t need to be an ordained priest. In their system I was allowed to teach Bible studies.

“I didn’t quite enjoy the experience because of the sheer size. You could easily get lost among the crowd. I had classes of 300. There were at least 2,000 people in these classes – so many that on Sundays the police used to come to direct traffic. As long as there were 5,000 people in a building, the armed police had to be present. I also didn’t enjoy the consumerism of the Americans. I guess I remained a country boy at heart. At this stage I also began to look back at my Anglican roots. Suddenly, I had become the teacher of Jewish tradition and its impact on Christianity.

“I had a friend who was acquainted with the bishop of Bolivia, who was searching for a mission worker in the Holy Land. It’s not ‘mission work’ in the old sense of standing on street corners and preaching, but is more relational and tries to promote dialogue. When we are studying texts my observation is only one way of interpreting it, someone else may have a legitimate alternative. At that point, I took the orders of priesthood with the bishop of Bolivia. My ordination certificate is actually in Spanish. The Bishop then sent me back to Jerusalem. My studies and my knowledge has required that I teach in Jerusalem, online, but also go abroad to travel and teach.

“My favorite journeys, however, have been to China. I used to do this every year for about a month. These journeys have now been curtailed because of corona. I was sent by Christchurch, which is an Anglican mission, to the Christian community, which numbers about 10% of the population. That may not sound like a lot, but then you realize that we are talking about a huge number, both the official and the unofficial church. There are more Christians in China than in the USA! Christians are everywhere and their numbers are growing. But they have no tradition of reading the Bible, which means that they approach holy texts with no checks and balances. There are unfortunately bad people who misread the texts in explaining them and use the Bible in a manipulative way.

“To prevent this I would create a Socratic dialogue, in which we would sit and read the text together and then they would ask questions, a technique I learned at Hebrew University. I keep on asking questions, like, ‘What was motivating the rabbis at the time,’ or, ‘What’s not in the text, what is missing.’ The Chinese don’t have a history of looking closely at a text and analyzing it. The main event in Jewish-gentile relationships came after they first translated the Hebrew text. For the first time gentiles could actually engage with the text. It resulted in more God-fearing people.

But there was also a negative backlash, some people saying that this is all rubbish, misinterpreting it and so forth. So there was a bit of both. The Chinese, by contrast, were taught by their pastors who couldn’t read Hebrew or Greek.

“This is how you became a pastor in Chinese societies. Say you have a large building, maybe 60 stories high. The inhabitants refer to it as “My village.” One day one of the people in this village acquires a Bible and “comes to faith,” i.e he or she believes in God. They leave their materialism and their communism behind. He goes home to his loving wife and one child and declares “I’ve become a Christian!” The dutiful wife follows him but then they ask: “What do we do?” In China you have controlled websites, so there is little possibility of reading about Christianity in an unexpurgated form. The information that they get is the information that they are allowed to receive. But they do have bibles of their own. There is no need to smuggle them in.

“The original Chinese translation of the bible was done by a Jewish-Catholic convert. The language that he chose reflected the majesty and poetry of the original Hebrew. It’s an excellent version of the original.

“But back to our model Chinese man. He has a neighbor, and the neighbor says to him: ‘You’re looking different these days.’ So he explains to him that he has become a Christian. So he asks ‘What’s that?’ He invites him back to his apartment and tells him: ‘We read the Bible and sit on the floor and pray.’ Before you know it, 30 people in the building are sitting on the floor praying and reading the Bible. Then they say: ‘We shall probably start a church, but who is going to be our shepherd?’ They choose the man who started the whole chain. Not because he is knowledgeable, but because he was the first one to discover this new faith.

“It is a culture in which people easily submit. Then they begin inviting teachers. But they teach, not for one or two hours, but eight hours! They would sit and write every single thing you say. No one leaves, even to go to the bathroom. No one asks for a break. They just diligently sit and absorb everything you say. I have to say: ‘Guys, let’s pick it up tomorrow!’ But for passion and enthusiasm, it’s very encouraging, although at the same time there is always a doubt about what exactly they are absorbing. They tried to stick to what they saw.

“There was one group, for example, that had been exposed to a Catholic order, including their canonical vestments. So when we met, all 100 of them were wearing white robes. All except me! Where was mine, they asked. I seem to have forgotten it, I said, can I borrow one of yours? But that’s what they thought a church was. Other groups followed the more causal American style of church.

“Altogether I spent about five to six months in mainland China, an equivalent time in Hong Kong, a little time in Taiwan and one week in Mackay. Some of these churches have been influenced by the West, and it is much easier to speak to them about the Jewish roots of Christianity and how that tradition reads the Bible. I would do my best to make a discussion and sense what was bothering people. Then I would pursue a line that was relevant to the questioner. Hopefully I’ll get to work again with that community when COVID is over.

“There was one small group of about 30 people off of mainland China, living on a small island. They included a leading architect, a top doctor, a successful stockbroker-business man – all very well-financed. They asked me to be their shepherd. It was a great offer, living on this island and watching the nightly display of fireworks from the mainland. The temptation was very real. But it would have taken us away from Jerusalem, and there are some things about this city, this land and this people that has so impacted my work that I could not accept their offer.

“When I leave Israel the thing I miss the most is the Sabbath. There is not a day like it anywhere on the planet. Even if you go to America, you don’t get the same sense. When they say: ‘But Sunday is the sabbath,’ I respond by asking them to show me where any of the commentators tell us that Sunday is the sabbath! Even Paul, who many think started the church, said: ‘I don’t care which day you worship God because in the Temple you worship God every day.’

“My family celebrates Shabbat. We light candles, we say the prayers and the blessings. We have our best meal, but unlike the Orthodox Jews, we will turn on the TV and watch a movie. We will play games with the kids, go for a walk, but won’t go shopping. It is a day for the family. But then we will also go to church on Sunday and worship.”

As the official researcher at Christchurch, Eime is highly critical of some of the directions that the church has taken:

“There is a concept called replacement theology, which is still ingrained in a lot of churches, by which Christianity is meant to have ‘replaced’ Jews and Judaism as the chosen people and religion. Jokingly: I believe in replacement theology – I believe some of our theology needs to be replaced! The idea of supersessionism – whereby God abandoned the Jewish people and had a new Bible and a messiah – is very poor theology. Much of the initial theology is heavily influenced by the Jewish-Christian sects of the late Second Temple period. The Hebraic view of the Torah, covenants and the Kingdom of Heaven are strongly present in the initial Jesus movement. However, once you reduce the number of Jewish believers in Christianity by the sheer number of gentiles, you begin to see the change. The gentiles may be using similar language, but they are looking at the text in a different way. One of the missions of Christchurch is to go back to that late Temple period and ask how are we meant to read this or that text. What are we supposed to make of the Kingdom of Heaven as Jesus preached. They were under Roman occupation, so what does that mean? I think that is what my task is.”

Eime has a number of roles in his church:

“Christchurch as an Anglican church has properties around Israel, most of them now guesthouses and retreat centers. We have an international school in Jerusalem offering the international baccalaureate. I have a pastoral role at the school. The Anglican School predominantly serves the children of diplomats, although 30% of the pupils are local Israelis, that is Palestinians and Israeli Jews. They tend to come from wealthier backgrounds, because of the high cost of the school’s fees.

“We have had the merit of teaching some future diplomats, children of various prime ministers, journalists. So we hope we have influenced these pupils with tackling the tasks of making the world a better place. Currently we have about 320 pupils, the maximum being about 360. The age range is from three to 18. Most of our teaching is in the English language. However, we also run a Hebrew stream for those wishing to study for the Israeli matriculation (bagrut). Half the staff is Jewish, some of whom are even Orthodox, which some people find a little surprising.”

How does this unique mixture work?

“What we have tried to create is an environment that is very respectful of your faith’s tradition and encourages dialogue. Let’s not try and browbeat each other but let us celebrate our differences. If I wish someone a Merry Christmas and they are offended then I’m sorry, but being offended doesn’t make you right. If we’re celebrating Passover – we might like to join you. Most of our Jewish teachers have been at the school for a very long time. They have an impact and our students love them. We are really looking forward to the end of this pandemic so we can return the school to accept more international kids. We also hope to bring in more teachers from abroad – although we have some problems with the Interior Ministry.”

There are other problems, particularly since Christchurch describes itself as an Anglican mission.

“The word ‘mission’ is loaded with history – positive and negative,” admits Eime. “As soon as you say “mission” you get this immediate reaction. If, as some of our critics charge, we are converting people, then they would presumably show up for prayers. But where are they?”

What of the impact of Israel’s renaissance on churches?

“In our church,” explains Eime, “there is the tendency to be more evangelical and conservative. We read the Bible largely literally. This means that the trend is for the church to be pro-Israel. Our society was founded by very Zionist-type Christians, many of whom were all for the Balfour Declaration.

When, in 1948, the State of Israel was founded, there was tremendous jubilation in our church, though some of them thought that it was time to leave. Having helped start the process, it was now time to leave. In fact, when I was here in 1998, the society was very close to selling all its properties and leaving Israel. The person who stopped it was the then-mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert. They were going to sell the Anglican school to the ultra-Orthodox Ateret Cohanim! Olmert stepped in and said the Anglican School is a historical building and can only be sold to a like-minded Christian organization. He didn’t mind if it was sold to a Catholic or Protestant organization as long as it was Christian. The society recognized the importance of Israel and began to combat antisemitism within the church, and teach the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. It was hoped that we could create an incubator for the modern-day priest, as the largest Protestant group in the Protestant world, not just in the West but also in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Today, your ‘average’ Anglican is 30, black, female and has two kids. In the West, the average is closer to 60, married with grandchildren, and is white. Worldwide, the average Anglican is young, and comes from one of the countries in Africa, Asia or Latin America. What we are doing is exposing them to Israel – the land, the people, the language, and the biblical roots. We are very supportive of groups that are studying the Bible in Hebrew, such as the Bible Translators Group. It’s surprising to some that there are more Jews in the Catholic Church than in the Protestant one. That is because if they come to faith, they tend to convert to the more traditional church that looks more like the synagogue, with prayer books, ordered service, calendar dates, seasons, and canonical clothing! It’s very easy to read something in the Bible about Aaron the High Priest’s clothing, and then to look at the Catholic priests and think that this is what is written in the Bible. This is in contrast to the jeans and T-shirts of your average Evangelical American.

“In Anglican liturgy worldwide, we say the Shema not in Hebrew but in English. But here in Israel we do it in Hebrew. It shapes how you think about the land, and the people of Israel. Instead of saying: ‘I’m the chosen people’ you’ve just said the Shema in Hebrew. You’ve joined the commonwealth of Israel. It’s not that they are joining your community, but rather that you are joining their community, but without having to become Jewish.

That was the great debate in the late Second Temple period, when streams of gentiles came into the synagogue. What did you do with them? Do you keep them as God-fearers or do you make them Jews? Some Jews called for full inclusion for these people to become full Jews. Others thought they should remain outside the Jewish people. You find many of these God-fearers in antiquity, sometimes they would comprise 40% of a Jewish congregation!

There was also a reverse effect. Some Jews embraced paganism, renounced their circumcision and so forth. But it generally had a positive effect. For example, the people of Israel received the Ten Commandments. But they were also meant for others. There used to be a picture of the Ten Commandments hung up in Christian people’s houses.”

In his role as pastor, Eime has observed an extraordinary phenomenon, especially around Christmas time when many secular Israelis visit his church:

“This surprised me at first. Secular Israelis come. Some partake of our special mulled wine and listen to Christmas Carols and ask about the sermons and say that they don’t understand. Others come along and say that they really enjoy the event. When we finish the ceremony of nine carols, I announce that we have finished our Christmas Eve celebration and that now we continue with our service. This is for Christians, so you can leave. No offense is meant but this a Christian worship. We don’t want people to be coming and going. If you are here you have to stay for the whole event. We’re going to read from the Bible, we’re going to sing some songs. When we stand could you please stand, when we sit can you do likewise. But to my surprise, most of them stay!”

Eime has now spent 22 years in Israel as a priest. 

“My official title is deacon of Christchurch. We have a rector, which is Latin for rabbi-teacher. Dependent on your tradition, I am called Father Eime (an Anglo-Catholic idea), others call me pastor. I prefer to be called by the name Aaron, except when I’m having an argument with someone, and tell them to address me as Reverend Eime!”

For the past few years, Eime has been attending weekly lessons in Jewish texts – Bible, Talmud, Midrash and Jewish thought, in Hebrew, and with Jewish participants. Nothing intellectual fazes him. He is a true seeker. Of his time here, he says: “Our roots are ever deeper there. Our children are being conscripted into the army. Micah, our firstborn, is in Nahal, and Atarah, our eldest daughter, will begin the process soon. It will only be a hop, skip and a jump before they marry some of the locals!”  ■