Led by African Primates, evangelical Anglicans head for Jerusalem in June 08
The brochure issued by the organizers of GAFCON (Global Anglican Conference) to be held in Israel from June 22 to 28 states the following:
“Anglicans face global challenges. There is no better place than the Holy Land for those committed to the authority of scripture to meet, pray and address the reformation of the church and to equip it for mission.
An initial Consultation in Jordan will include the pilgrimage leadership,
theological resource group, those bishops serving in majority Islamic settings and other key leaders.
The Jerusalem pilgrimage includes visits to Biblical sites and will focus on
worship, prayer, discussions and Bible Study, shaped by the context of
the Holy Land.
Participation in the Global Anglican Future Conference is by invitation only from the Primate, or lead Bishop, to their Bishops, clergy and lay people. Jerusalem pilgrimage from June 22 to June 29 2008.”
Here I do not wish to consider the ecclesiastical politics behind these two meetings and why only certain persons may attend, but, rather, to reflect upon the concept of pilgrimage as a physical activity and as a biblical image.
In the OT images of pilgrimage point first of all to the annual pilgrimages made by Jewish men and families from many places to festivals held in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the NT these pilgrimages form the background to important moments in the life and saving work of Jesus, the Messiah. Then, in both Testaments, pilgrimage becomes a metaphor for the shape of the earthly life of the godly person, who is headed in one direction to the goal prepared by God, life with him in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Under the Mosaic covenant, Jewish males were required to go to Jerusalem at festival time three times a year to worship in the Temple, where the LORD was present in his Shekinah glory (Exodus 23:17 & Deuteronomy 16:16). Many Psalms portray such pilgrimage—see especially Psalm 84-- and of these the most dramatic are the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), sung by pilgrims as they processed to the Temple.
At the same time, the use of pilgrimage as a metaphor is deeply embedded in the Old Testament, as the people of the covenant, and the godly within the covenant, are pictured as travelling with their God to the future that he has prepared for them. The book of Isaiah is rich in such imagery—e.g., God will make a highway through the wilderness for his people to travel upon, and he will provide protection for them as they travel (35:8; 40:3; 52:7,12) to his final goal.
Turning to the New Testament, Jesus, the faithful Jew/Israelite, makes the pilgrimage to the Temple with his parents and again during his ministry. And then his destiny is taken up with his final and unique pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there to fulfill the will of his Father in heaven in his passion, death and resurrection. He died as the Passover Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world, at Passover time.
But for the first Christians, pilgrimage was not physical but rather a powerful metaphor, often used in the New Testament—not least in the Letter to the Hebrews and in 1 Peter. The goal of the Christian life of faith and faithfulness is not the earthly Zion but, rather, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. Many fine Christian Hymns portray this theme as of course does John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
So while the New Testament often recommends, commands, and requires the absolute necessity of the pilgrimage of faith to the future kingdom of God, it does not—unlike the OT—have any instruction or commands concerning physical pilgrimages to specific places, not even to Nazareth or Jerusalem. Paul desired to go to Rome not for pilgrimage but to preach the Gospel. The whole burden of the apostolic faith is to turn people around so that they do not face the gates of hell in their sinfulness, but, walking with Jesus by grace in faith face the glorious gates of heaven and life everlasting in glory.
Pilgrimages by Christians through history
Since the Jewish Bible is the Christian Old Testament, and since it was read in the Church as the Word of God, it is not surprising that the idea of physical pilgrimages should begin in the Church from the fourth century onwards, maybe earlier. Some well-off pilgrims went to the “holy land” while others went to the graves of martyrs or to places where monks lived in isolation. Later on in the Middle Ages, there were pilgrimages to places where saints had visions and revelations, to the cathedral churches of dioceses on Mothering Sunday, and to a variety of other holy places.
At the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the reformers generally rejected the use of physical pilgrimage, usually for the practical reason that it had become deeply affected by themes of salvation by human merit, the mediation of the BVM and the saints, superstition and indulgences. Instead, they made much of the biblical metaphor of pilgrimage as that which all believers were to experience (in illustration see, for example, the content of many of the official homilies of the Church of England in two books, under the title, The Homilies – order from www.edgewaysbooks.com ). Since the sixteenth century, the general Anglican Evangelical approach has been to make little if anything at all of physical pilgrimage as a religious duty, and to treat as educational any visits to ancient Christian sites and to “the holy land.” Here education suggests a growth in useful knowledge which leads to the more profitable reading of the Bible. In contrast, the spiritual worth of physical pilgrimage has been revived in anglo-catholic circles, but not to the extent of medieval practice.
Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, June 08, GAFCON
This claim by the GAFCON organizers is worth reflecting upon in this context: “There is no better place than the Holy Land for those committed to the authority of scripture to meet, pray and address the reformation of the church and to equip it for mission.”
This claim at first site seems reasonable—after all if one can see Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Jericho one can better imagine the biblical scenes and thus profitably use the Bible.
However, on reflection, it seems to be contrary to the statements of the resurrected and ascending Jesus, who promised that he would be with his disciples wherever they were; and until the end of the age (see Matthew 28, Mark 16). In the period between the Ascension and the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus, there is no special or unique place to meet him for by his Spirit, the Paraclete, he is universally available through all space and time. Therefore he is and will be present in Jerusalem and Lagos and Canterbury, when his faithful people call upon him in faith. And Christian mission and the like can be fruitfully discussed and prayed about anywhere in the world—though some places may have better physical facilities and communication possibilities.
But, let us be clear, there is no unique spiritual power, insight and knowledge available when believers meet in Jerusalem— that is, until the Lord of glory returns and visits the ancient Zion, but then there will be no need for an Anglican Pilgrimage!
It is possible—indeed probable— that there is some special influence upon the African Primates which causes them to make this exaggerated claim for Jerusalem.
Several people have suggested to me that there is such an influence, and it is this. Muslims have a duty, as set out in the Koran, to make the special pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In countries like Nigeria, the Muslims make much of this duty and proudly display a sign of their complete pilgrimage; in response, in the competitive religious atmosphere, Christians sense that they need a viable alternative duty with similar powerful imagery so they can be, as it were, on equal terms with their neighbors. So the idea of pilgrimage to Jerusalem (with all the rich OT background) is becoming for Christians a powerful alternative to pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims. This Conference therefore probably illustrates that for the contemporary African Anglican Experience the need for pilgrimage as in Old Testament times is real-- but by modern transport and for the purpose of dialogue with and then evangelization of the Muslim.
For the Europeans involved this Conference is to be seen along with the many educational visits made to Israel, but having the special quality of being in the company of devout African Christian leaders.
www.pbsusa.org firstname.lastname@example.org February 20, 2008