When I was 18 I spent a year in Israel - travelling, working and generally having my life transformed. I come from a low-Anglican family with an odd mixture of traditional evangelicalism and charismatic elements. While in Israel I met people from all kinds of denominations who had an impact on me, in particular a travelling ex-gangster turned Pentecostal preacher and a conservative Brethren community in Haifa. One of my more negative experiences was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus' death and resurrection. What I sensed then is summarised neatly in a recent article from Times Online: Warring monks threaten destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I can hardly think of a greater tragedy. It's things like this that test my faith most of all.
Here are some key quotes:
Rival denominations often battle for access or space and the congregation at the annual Easter service sometimes resembles the terraces of a boisterous football match. The keys to the main entrance of the church have been held by a Muslim family since the 12th century because the Christians do not trust one another.
— In the 19th century a ladder was placed on a ledge above the main entrance to the church. A priest from another denomination accused the man of trespassing and a row began that has yet to be resolved. The ladder is still there
— In 1995 the church announced it had reached a decision on how to paint a part of the dome in the central part of the structure — but only after 17 years’ debate
— In 2004 during Greek Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Greek Orthodox faction and a fight broke out. There were several arrests.
— Another fight broke out on Palm Sunday this year when a Greek monk was ejected from the building by a rival faction. Police were attacked by the feuding monks and several people were taken to hospitalProbably the worst of all is the story of the Coptic bishop turning to the Israeli authorities ... but I'll let you read that.
I'm speechless. I honestly think the church would serve a far better function if it was torn down and turned into a public urinal.
[Hat tip: Bible and Interpretation]
Update: Sister Macrina, of A Vow of Conversation, and shared some interesting thoughts on this. Here's an encouraging anecdote:
In thinking about this I was reminded of a conversation I once had with the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III, when he was still bishop of Jerusalem. I was left to make small talk with him when the abbess I was accompanying was unexpectedly called to the telephone. Not knowing what to say I commented on the divisions of the Churches in Jerusalem and, in typical western liberal Christian fashion, lamented how terrible it was. I was quite taken aback by his sharp response, which basically reprimanded me for commenting on things that I knew little about, although he was too gracious to put it quite so bluntly. He proceeded to tell me how the Churches in Jerusalem were working together and how their leaders met regularly to discuss matters of common concern, accounts of which I later heard from other sources as well.