When I was nine years old, the Anglican Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf came for tea. We took lunch out in the garden, under the trailing bougainvillea and the white Omani sun. It was a particularly memorable visit as, mid-sandwich, his chair gave way and the clergyman sagged through the rattan.
Another Anglican bishop more recently found himself in a tight spot in the Middle East. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, came under fire during his five-day tour of Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages voiced deep disappointment at being left off the bishop’s itinerary.
The tour was, overall, a welcome sign that the newly appointed archbishop considered the fate of some 12 million Middle Eastern Christians a priority. Unfortunately, the disappointment expressed by the Palestinian minority revealed a sense of the neglect so often articulated by Christian minorities in the region.
At its heart, this isolation represents part of the bigger picture of international church relations, in particular the distant relationship between the congregations in the Eastern and Western churches. This separation has been centuries in the making, dating back to the early split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The differences mainly revolve around church politics: over the structure and function of the church, including the role of the pope. This gap was significantly widened following the Reformation and the spread of Protestantism throughout Europe.
Not that much has changed since the time of feuding Roman emperors, as the modern-day Christian denominations remain divided over theology and ecclesiology. That is not to say a rapprochement is impossible; the fundamentals of the faith are shared and there have been many recent attempts to reconcile their differences. Pope Francis, for one, has made it clear he is seeking to bridge the thousand-year-old schism between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches.
In Britain, the Church of England is going some way in reaching out to Middle Eastern Christians but, as with the Catholic Church, the ties are often confined to the ranks of High-Church officialdom. At another lunch with a gaggle of Anglican bishops and vicars, the Bishop of Europe chatted enthusiastically about his tours to the region and a reverend’s wife shared stories of religious exchange and Bedouin encounters in Palmyra. Yet, some ordinary Anglicans are surprised to hear there are still Christians in the Middle East.
Away from the pointy hats and robes, Christian communities in the Middle East and the United Kingdom are often totally alienated from one another. The relationship between the two currently feels like that of long-estranged relatives, rather than the close-knit church family that is so encouraged in the Christian faith. The inanimate relics of Eastern Christianity are often paid more attention than its modern-day adherents; nowhere is this paradox more obvious than in the Holy Land. The church is, after all, not a building but the people.
Both sides could greatly benefit from an introduction. At a time when many Christian communities are coming under increasing pressure in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, the support of fellow believers would be hugely beneficial, both practically and spiritually. In a letter describing the current suffering in Syria, a Damascus-based minister stressed that “this is the time of the church!”
Equally, Western congregations have a lot to gain and learn from a relationship with their Middle Eastern counterparts. Their hospitality, community, spirituality, strength and, at times, asceticism and mysticism add greatly to the Christian experience, not to mention keeping the faith in the face of persecution.
In the echoing naves of London’s cathedrals the active monasteries and churches of the Levant, Iran, Turkey and North Africa seem a very long way away indeed. They are not. London is home to Christians from all across the Middle East: Chaldeans, Syriacs, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, and more besides. Just outside the gates of Lambeth Palace—the central office for the archbishop’s national and international ministry—may be a very good place to embark on improved ecumenical relations. This would not be an enterprise in neo-colonialism or new-age mission, but one of fostering Christian fellowship that transcends historical, cultural and theological separation.