WE WERE on a tour in the Middle East during last month’s political convulsions which culminated in the resignation of Liz Truss as Prime Minister. Since we had only indifferent and irregular WiFi, we were never sure what surprises were in store when we logged on.
In Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt, our local guides were fascinated by — and well-informed about — the machinations of British politics. It can be uncomfortable to see ourselves as others see us, especially in countries where British rule or influence was once so strong, and is not always fondly remembered.
Israel held its fifth general election in less than four years on 1 November. A workable governing coalition has been hard to achieve. The Israelis know all about political instability, but could not understand why Britain should be experiencing it when the governing party was elected with a majority of 80 only three years ago.
“What’s gone wrong?” was a frequently repeated question, to which our group had no agreed answer — perhaps in itself an illustration of the problem.
WHAT surprised me was that there were so many American groups in Israel again. Covid no longer seems to deter. I’ve been to Israel and the Palestinian territories quite frequently over the years, but I’d never seen the Garden of Gethsemane so crowded.
Some guides on our trip were clearly more prepared for an American group, and found our British reserve puzzling. One insisted on listing for us the ten things in which Israel led the world. Understatement was not among them.
It made me wonder whether guides for foreign tourists in England would attempt something similar. I started to make a list, but didn’t get beyond choral evensong and self-deprecation.
SOMEONE who was not much given to self-deprecation was Herod the Great. His name still gets mentioned frequently in the Holy Land because of his massive building projects. There may be nothing left above ground of the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, but at both Masada and Caesarea the scale of his ambitions becomes clear.
The creation of the artificial harbour at Caesarea, including breakwaters extending hundreds of metres into the Mediterranean, would be a huge engineering achievement today. To have built them 2000 years ago is astonishing.
The extent of the slave labour and loss of human life goes largely unrecorded, of course. Not that Herod would have troubled about that. His capacity for executing members of his family, including his children, led Caesar Augustus to comment “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son” — a sarcastic reference to Herod’s observance of Jewish dietary laws; a reminder, too, that Herod was never more than a puppet king, despite the grandeur of his palaces.
Ours was neither a pilgrimage group nor one comprising Christians only, but, at Capernaum, next to the ancient synagogue and beside the Galilean lake, we paused to reflect and pray. It seemed entirely natural and welcomed. The teacher who says that the meek, the poor, and the peacemakers are blessed cuts a strikingly different figure from Herod, let alone Roman emperors and governors.
The benefit of hindsight
SOON after our return, I was speaking to a newly formed group of retired clergy. I’m now in my fourth year of retirement, and have reflected recently on what has shaped my life — the influence of parents, but also my years at university, and the experience of my first years in parochial ministry. I’ve wondered whether this looking back at my formation and education is simply the result of returning to Cornwall, where I spent most of my childhood. But it seemed that others had experienced something similar.
Some of the most decisive moments in my life now appear to have taken place without any realisation on my part that anything very significant was happening. On my first Sunday at the University of Lancaster, I wondered whether to rouse myself from teenage slumbers to go to the service at the Chaplaincy Centre. It did involve declaring my then fairly lukewarm faith to the student with whom I was sharing. The influence of those I met at the chaplaincy helped me to offer myself eventually for ordination.
No such possibility was in my mind on my arrival at Lancaster. I could easily have turned over in bed on that first Sunday, and scarcely encountered the chaplaincy at all. On such things does the course of life turn.
MY VOCATION to the priesthood did not impress one of my university teachers. He was a professor in the department of history, and a leading scholar of the English Civil War (my special subject). He told me it was a waste that I was giving my life to the fading Church of England, and tried to persuade me to stay on to complete a Ph.D. thesis on the Protectorate of Richard Cromwell.
Apparently, I was unusual in showing any interest in Oliver’s son: “Tumbledown Dick”, as his critics dubbed him. “We need a biography of Richard Cromwell,” I was told, even though he led the country for such a short period of time, and his political career ended in complete failure.
Richard Cromwell was Lord Protector for nine months, which, in the light of recent events, seems a reasonable innings. I gather there’s still no proper biography of Richard Cromwell, but that may be one retirement project too many.
The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich and now an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro.