REV. DR. John McCulloch was ordained and introduced to St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church just outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in 2018. A former head of Hispanic Studies at Glasgow University, he moved with his family from the rural Scottish county of Argyll, where he was a probationary minister in the Church of Scotland, to become Minister and Mission Partner in Jerusalem.
Born in Farnborough, England, but brought up in Paris, Madrid, Barcelona and Lanarkshire, McCulloch says that the job “leapt out” at him “despite its complexities.” Married with three children, he says he was drawn to the diversity of the congregation, which includes Palestinians and Israelis, expat Scots, pilgrims and international staff from NGOs – and the many partners that the Church of Scotland works with across Israel and the Palestinian territories. Many of them, like himself, are engaged in issues of religious reconciliation and social justice across the divides of the conflicted Holy Land. I interviewed him at the church.
When was this church established here in Jerusalem?
The church where we are sitting now, St. Andrews Jerusalem, was established during the British mandate. As you know, during the First World War, there were British regiments who were fighting the Ottomans. In 1917, General Allenby, depending on your point of view, “liberated” the city from Ottoman rule. The church was built between 1927 and 1929. It opened its doors in 1930. It was built as a memorial church for the members of the Scottish regiments who had fallen in the Great War.
Did Gen. Allenby actually come here to the church?
I believe he did. In fact, Allenby laid the first stone of the church.
Has this church been used as something else as well in the past?
The church has always been used as a church. The guest house was originally built with the view to being a theological seminary, a place where I suppose candidates for the ministry could come out and train. But it never really got off the ground and so it has always been run as some kind of hospitality venue.
Do you have other churches here in the Holy Land?
Yes, we have St. Andrews Tiberias on the shores of the Galilee.
You seem to have a very rich heritage here in the Holy Land?
The Church of Scotland really had a presence in the Holy Land since the 19th century with different missions. We had the school in Jaffa, which was set up in the late 19th century as a girls’ school. What is now the Scots Hotel on the shores of Galilee was a hospital from the 19th century. So yeah, there has been a presence of the Church of Scotland since the 19th century here.
You have a beautiful location here. Tell us a little bit about where you overlook and have you found some archaeology on this site?
The location is stunning. We overlook the Old City, have wonderful views across to the Old City and directly below us is the Hinnom Valley – the Gehenna Valley, which is where we originally get the word “hell” from. That was of course the place Canaanite religions used to sacrifice and burn the city rubbish, but they also used it to sacrifice children to the god of fire, to the god of Molech. That valley is between the church and the Old City, and also that is where the Green Line is as well. Prior to 1967, when Israel entered the Old City and opened it up, this would have been one of the few Christian churches on this side of the Green Line.
Is this Mount Zion?
No, Mt. Zion is opposite us. One side of the church looks out towards the Old City of Jerusalem overlooking the Gehenna Valley and on the other side, just behind us, is Bible Hill. Now as with a lot of issues to do with topography and history – and here it is difficult to prove – some scholars believe that Bible Hill was the hill where Abraham and Isaac left their donkeys and then descended into the Hinnom Valley and up to Mount Moriah for the sacrifice. And that is just adjacent to the church, so that is also a site of importance. But to answer your question about archaeology: some years ago in the rock on which the church is built – and you can see this outside because there is a kind of museum there now – they found burial sites of the Kings of Israel. And within the burial sites, they found a small fragment of a scroll, which is Aaron’s Blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you” and so forth. It is believed to be one of the earliest written Hebrew texts they found, and it is actually on display here in the museum. Obviously, when they built the church, they didn’t know that. It’s just on the rock on which the church is founded.
Do they know how old it is?
They say it’s from the First Temple period, and that is difficult to put an exact date on it. But the First Temple Solomon built would be approximately from 1,200 BC to 586 BC, when the Temple was destroyed, so somewhere between that time frame but certainly it is quite ancient.
How big is your congregation here?
The congregation has really varied in size. Obviously, when the church was built and opened in 1930 under the British Mandate, you might have had about 100,000 British personnel in Jerusalem. So the Church was very well attended. With the vicissitudes of history, it has dwindled, so at the moment we have a small congregation but it is very varied. We have some internationals, some Palestinian citizens of Israel who have always lived nearby in the area, we have some West Bank Palestinians with permission to come, and we have someone who lives on a settlement. In terms of size, it is small but in terms of diversity, it is ideologically and politically diverse. But really the church, as well as the small local community, serves pilgrims. When pilgrims are here – and we haven’t had any since Covid, of course – then you don’t know if you are going to have 10 or 15 people in the service or 60 or 100. It just varies, and also Jerusalem is a kind of revolving door, so families might come and be here for a year, and then their contracts end and they move on. That is just the nature of it.
Does that make it hard to be a pastor because a lot of your congregation will be in one week and gone the next?
Yes, absolutely. It is very, very challenging. Also, having a church where week in and week out you’re welcoming in normal times 30 to 40 pilgrims, makes it quite difficult in terms of the pastoral connections to the local flock. We are never just a unit and as you mentioned, people don’t stay long here. You build up a relationship with the kids – and we had a kids’ program going – and then all the families just leave because their contracts end and so you start again from scratch. Added to that, of course, Christians in the Holy Land, across Israel and the Palestinian territories including Gaza, represent less than 2% of the population. The number of Christians is dwindling and we are a minority here. There are other churches in Jerusalem, of course, so it is a combination of different factors.
What sort of projects do you do here in the church?
The Church of Scotland, what the World Mission Council now calls “faith impact,” has about 40 partners across Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The church is really interested in building bridges, working for reconciliation, working for justice, and encouraging groups among our Jewish and Israeli brothers and sisters, our Muslim brothers and sisters, our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters, and also other organizations which are secular who are really wanting to do something about the injustice here, about ending the occupation. So the church works closely with an array of different organizations to that end.
Do you get the opportunity to go to Gaza?
Yes, I have been to Gaza quite frequently. As you know, the Christian community in Gaza is very small. It is estimated at about 800 of a population out of two million. In terms of geography, for those of you living in the British Isles, if you have ever been to the Isle of Jura, well Gaza is more or less the same size. In the Isle of Jura, you have about 200 people; in Gaza, you have two million! Yes, we go and we visit the Christian communities in Gaza. There are two churches we visit. One is the Greek Orthodox, which has been there since the 4th century, and the other one is the Catholic Church and the Near East Council of Churches in Gaza, whose members are Christian Palestinians. They do a lot of work on the ground there; they run hospitals, they run clinics, they run psycho-social centers and they really punch above their weight in terms of their numbers. They do a lot of very, very good work for Gazan society at a time which has been so desperate.
Does being a pastor here in Jerusalem open up the Bible more to you?
It does and I have to say, if I am honest, having been here several years you begin to take it for granted in a way. Don’t misunderstand me, but you know when you are preaching week in and week out by the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem, the first time you think, “Wow, this is amazing! This is the place where Jesus walked and was crucified and resurrected and ascended.” It’s incredible and I need to remind myself of that especially when we have groups here who may be in Jerusalem for a Sunday and this might be their only experience of the church here. We don’t want to lose that sense of wonder and goodness, and the importance of the place as well.
What are you seeing God doing here in Jerusalem at the moment?
Well, I am going, to be honest with you. With Covid and the current situation, it is a challenging context to do our ministry. I think, similar to churches across the globe, there is a decline in church membership and in people coming to church. Added to that, given that less than 2% of the population are Christian and many of them are in the West Bank, it is a very, very small percentage. So that is a challenge. But I see the work of the church as being much broader than just what happens on a Sunday morning. For me, the work with our partners, engaging with the Bedouin communities, Gaza, communities across the West Bank, and within Israel itself, that is where I see a small glimmer of hope – with people who refuse to see the other as the enemy, who refuse to allow walls of division and hatred to dictate the way they are – both from within the Jewish community and the Palestinian one. People are making the decision to cross those boundaries whether they are physical or psychological and to try and bring some degree of human dignity and justice. For me, that is where the hope is, but at the moment, if I am being honest, it is in short supply, given what we have lived through in the last few months – not just in Gaza but in the conflict across Israel.
For the Palestinian citizens of Israel and their communities – the 20% Arab minority – and some Israelis, I think this has really shaken this place to the core. Also, there was the eruption of violence across the West Bank, which we saw earlier this year.
Why did you come to Jerusalem?
To cut a long story short, most of my life I was in academia. I used to lecture in Hispanic Studies at Glasgow University and then I felt the call into the ministry. I had spent some time in Latin America and came into contact with many Catholic priests with a liberation theology background. In 2015, as part of my training for the ministry, I was able to come out to Jerusalem for two months and I served in this church, where we are speaking now, with my predecessor. Then some years later when I finished, he was up for retirement and the place became vacant and yes, I didn’t think twice!
Is there a specific calling to actually be here in Jerusalem?
Good question. I don’t know. I certainly felt a very specific calling to be here. I think having lived in Latin America, having immersed myself in liberation theology, I believe that the church has to engage with the crushed, the marginalized, the crucified – those who we exclude and scapegoat throughout history. The need to stand up for social justice is for me the original Christianity, the Christianity of Matthew 5 of the Beatitudes, the Christianity of Matthew 25. “When I was in prison, did you visit me?” For me, the original Christianity is the commitment to non-violence. Those are the roots of the early church here and that is part of what drew me back – the deep commitment of Palestinian Christians to non-violence, as it was in pre-Constantine times. I don’t know if that answers your question but I certainly felt called to be here.
Why do you do what you do?
I believe in the Gospel message, really. I think it is the answer in terms of societal transformation. For me, the Christian Gospel is unique because it maps what we see out there onto the human heart and it tries to build a bridge between them. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want to change the world, if you want a less angry world, be less angry. If you want a less violent world, be less violent. If you want a more generous world, be more generous. It is that kind of bridging, between the human heart on an individual level and the injustices we see in our society.
What is your prayer for the Church of Scotland here?
My prayer is that we continue to be a witness to our Jewish and Israeli brothers and sisters and to our Palestinian brothers and sisters as well, and so somehow contribute in some small way because what we do is a tiny drop in the ocean. But maybe contribute in some small way to bringing people closer together and to pushing for a situation where everyone have got equal rights and justice and the dignity that brings and if we can contribute towards that dialogue or towards that happiness in some small way then I think that would be my prayer.
What is your website for people who’d like to know more about you?
It is www.standrewsjerusalem.org