Monday, January 14, 2008

Jerusalem—place of pilgrimage for African Anglicans?

There has been an Anglican bishopric in Jerusalem since 1841 and for part of its history it was an archbishopric. Now it is part of the Anglican Province of the Middle East.

When it was established in 1841 by Britain and Prussia, it was intended to serve a very practical purpose, that is, of serving the Anglicans and Protestants in the region. Nevertheless, there was present then in the Evangelicalism of Britain and Europe a strand of what is usually called pre-millennialism and this played a part in the establishment. This mindset looked for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel in relation both to the future millennium and to the Second Coming of Christ.

A century later such belief as this fuelled understanding the fulfillment of prophecy and was a major factor in the political movement that actually led to the settlement of Jews in Palestine and the encouragement of the creation of the modern state of Israel.

In the U.S.A. there has long been, and still is today, a deeply held belief amongst many Evangelicals in particular that the State of Israel is a sphere and place in this century where prophecy has been and continues to be fulfilled. In fact, this interpretation of the yet to be fulfilled (mostly OT) prophecies on the radio and TV programs, in books, on DVD’s and at conferences is a multi-million dollar industry. And if we add to this interpretation and exposition the trips to Israel to see the sites mentioned in the Bible, and to notice the places where prophecy has been and will yet be fulfilled, then the multi-million dollar business grows a lot more—as it also does if we were to count the money from Evangelicals sent to and used by the lobby for the State of Israel in Washington D.C.

Of course, there are many who go to Israel because they support the state of Israel as such and admire what it has achieved. For them the question of prophecy has no appeal, and the sites referred to in the Bible are only of minimal interest.

I myself have been once with a group of clergy to visit the sites and to pray there. I was taking a party of students there in 1967 to work on a kibbutz but we never got there because of the war of that year!

Enter another dimension

It would be a mistake to think that it is only European and American Evangelicals who are fascinated—sometimes obsessed—by the search for the fulfillment of prophecy in, or with regard to, Israel. Other Evangelicals from other continents and countries also share this passion and do so as part of their piety and discipleship of Jesus the Christ.

One large African country, often in the news, where there is a large number of Evangelical Christians and where their Christianity is very much Bible-centered is Nigeria. Here there is a very favorable rating by Christian citizens of the State of Israel, and, not surprisingly, there is in the churches a fascination with the land of Israel, both as holy land and as the place of the fulfillment of prophecy. Indeed, so strong is the attachment to Israel, and to the city of Jerusalem, that there has emerged in recent years the idea of the Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the equivalent of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (Nigeria of course has many Muslims). And to Bible-reading people this idea of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem can easily be justified from the Old Testament law where Jews are required to attend Jerusalem for major feasts (thus the great crowd at Pentecost-Acts 2).

In fact it has been suggested—and a Press Release from the Nigerian House of Bishops, and Pastoral letter from Archbishop Akinola on December 11, appear to confirm—that one of the powerful motivations for the calling of the “Global Anglican Conference on Mission” in Jerusalem in June 08 for Anglican leaders are these themes:-- the fulfillment of prophecy soon to occur there, the meeting where the people of Israel and Jesus himself lived, and the making of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even as the Israelites used to do. (This kind of motivation surely trumps all calls to make the July Lambeth Conference at Canterbury, an old center of the tired and failing Church of England, of primary importance.)

To the secular-mind of the West, such a motivation to go to Israel is difficult to grasp or to appreciate. However, to Nigerian people who live with their Bibles, who read the Old and the New Testaments as word of God, and who have in their Protestant history received pre-millennial teaching that has somehow become part of their vital tradition of interpretation, the most spiritual thing to do is to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In fact, Archbishop Akinola has stated that he wishes all the Bishops (over 170) and their spouses, together with other clerical and lay leaders to attend. And he has begun to raise money to cover the massive bills.
The Anglican world often surprises us!

One dimension of the surprise is that both the present Bishop of Jerusalem and the Presiding Bishop of the Province of the Middle East are opposed to this pilgrimage in June 08. Epiphany 2, 2008.

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