Thoughts on our Ecumenical Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, 3rd – 10th March 2020

I’ve been involved in church unity activities in south London for more than twenty years, and I can truthfully say that this ecumenical pilgrimage to the Holy Land, sponsored jointly by the Anglican and Roman Catholic dioceses of Southwark, was one of the most significant and moving ecumenical events I have taken part in. My wife, Morwenna, who is a Reader (licensed lay minister) in the Church of England, came with me, and we had the privilege of having Bishop Christopher Chessun, the Bishop of Southwark, and our own Bishop Paul Hendricks as our spiritual leaders. They were ably assisted by the Anglican Dean of Southwark (Canon Andrew Nunn) and by Fr Phil Andrews, who is on the staff of St George’s Cathedral and shortly to become Archbishop John’s private secretary.

The pilgrimage took place at the beginning of March 2020, during the second and third weeks of Lent, under the darkening shadow of increasing concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic; we were not able to visit the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, and had to fly home a few hours earlier than planned to avoid the risk of being stranded in Israel because of travel restrictions.

I’m not going to give a detailed itinerary or describe all the sites we visited. You can read an excellent account (with some great pictures) in the blog produced by Canon Wendy Robins, director of communications for the Anglican diocese, who was with us.  In this article, I’ll just add some personal observations of my own:  first on the pilgrimage itself and then on the ecumenical aspects.

Why does visiting the sites where Jesus actually walked, and where pilgrims have prayed for centuries, makes such a deep impression? I think it’s because it’s so material, so expressive of the reality that God really did become a human being who walked and talked, was born and died, in a specific place and at a specific time in history (‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’). We were able to venerate physically the birthplace of John the Baptist, the rock on which Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and the site of the Crucifixion; I guess it’s like Orthodox Christians kissing an icon. (Of course, scholars argue about how historically authentic some of these sites are, but somehow it doesn’t really matter. Someone quoted T. S. Eliot: ‘You are here to pray / Where prayer has been valid.’)

Jerusalem (where we started our pilgrimage, before moving to Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee) was incredibly crowded with pilgrims and tourists; this meant for example that only a few of us (not me) were able (eventually) to get into  the Aedicule, that part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which encloses the actual tomb of Christ. The crowds were partly, no doubt, a result of the West Bank having suddenly become unvisitable because of Covid-19 restrictions; also the Jewish festival of Purim was being celebrated while we were in Jerusalem. The crowds, combined with very warm weather, made much of  that part of the pilgrimage quite tiring for those of us who were no longer in the first flush of youth. However, this seemed quite appropriate as we pushed our way through the streets of the Old City along the Via Dolorosa, praying the Stations of the Cross on the actual route that Jesus took to his crucifixion. We had to dodge out of the way of construction traffic and bin lorries: no doubt their first century equivalents were around on the first Good Friday.

And, on a lighter note, perhaps there would have been street vendors too. The ones who accosted us were very ingenious in finding ways of attracting us to their wares. ‘Special juice for corona virus!’ shouted one, with a tray of what looked like cranberry juice.  When we identified ourselves as coming from London, an Arab decided that shouting ‘Lawrence of Arabia!’ would be the thing to get us on his side; ‘I was born in Finchley Central, innit?’ was what a Jewish guy preferred.

There were two other visits I found particularly memorable. One was to the Comboni Sisters in Bethany. They who work mainly with the Negev Bedouin people, who are unable to live in the traditional way in their home areas and many of whom are very poor. We looked down on the Israel/occupied territories separation barrier or wall, which runs through the middle of the Sisters’ garden and means that their other house, nearby but on the other side of the wall, is accessible to them only by means of a two hour detour. Even closer to the other side of the barrier there is a nursery school; we could look down on the roof and see the scorch marks left by the Molotov cocktails which angry Palestinians had thrown at the barrier.

I shall also remember our visit to Cana in Galilee. The last time Morwenna and I were there (more than twenty years ago) married people were invited to renew their marriage vows in the church. This time we were all instead invited to give thanks, silently or aloud, for our marriages or other significant relationships. This was very moving.

One of the most striking differences from our earlier visit that I noticed was how ubiquitous the use of mobile phone cameras by visitors to the holy sites has become. I personally found this very distracting and not conducive to prayer. Some people gave the impression – and I may be doing them an injustice – that taking photographs was primarily what they’d come to do! But, as Morwenna pointed out to me, it’s only natural that people should want to take back pictures to share with their friends who’s not been able physically to visit the sites. And in any case, I thought, if there’d been mobile phones around in the first century, no doubt people would have been snapping away during the first Holy Week!

To turn to the ecumenical aspects of the pilgrimage, we in the Archdiocese of Southwark Christian Unity Commission have as one of our objectives forming closer relationships with the Anglican dioceses with which we overlap, which we do most obviously with the diocese of Southwark. In my view, this pilgrimage was a model of how that objective can be taken forward.

At the social level, we were all completely at one.  The organisers had taken pains to ensure that there were equal numbers from each denomination in each of our two coaches, and everyone cheerfully mixed together at meal times.

More importantly, there was a very real sense of Christian unity at the spiritual level.  We all said morning and evening prayer together; it was led alternately by Anglican and Roman Catholic clergy. There was a Eucharist nearly every day, again alternating between the two denominations. At each celebration, a vested priest or bishop of the other denomination stood near the altar, read the Gospel or preached the homily.

Obviously we were unable physically to share Holy Communion from each other’s altars, but everyone came up for a blessing if the celebrant was from the other denomination. (I have subsequently gathered that many of the Anglicans were not familiar with the practice of giving a blessing to non-communicants at the Eucharist, and that they found it very moving.) I think most if not all of the Anglican clergy who accompanied us represented the (Anglo-) Catholic tradition of the Church of England, so it is perhaps not surprising that our two liturgies were so similar in structure, ceremonial and, to a large extent, language (though we all had to be given careful reminders about when to say ‘And also with you’ and when to say ‘And with your spirit’!)

And, as I find is often the case at ecumenical gatherings, everyone sang magnificently. Not surprisingly, during the second half of our pilgrimage, when we were based in Tiberias, we got to know that old favourite ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’   (‘O Sabbath rest by Galilee’ ‘Beside the Syrian sea’) quite well!

In conclusion, writing in my capacity of chair of the Christian Unity Commission for the Roman Catholic diocese, I would like to express the hope that now the precedent of joint pilgrimages between the Roman Catholic and Anglican dioceses of Southwark has been set, our bishops will seriously consider doing it again. There are plenty of pilgrimage sites nearer than the Holy Land! And it would be good if at some stage the possibility of involving Christians from other traditions as well could be looked at.

Robin Orton