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Embrace complexity, urges Archbishop Welby in Middle East lecture

07 September 2023


The Archbishop of Canterbury with the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, praying at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, in 2017

The Archbishop of Canterbury with the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, praying at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, in 2017

WHILE all Christians are “called to be reconcilers”, peace in the Middle East can come only from within the region, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

“I’m extremely conscious that there do not exist, ready-made solutions from this vantage point or any other outside the region,” he said in a lecture on Wednesday. “We’re not there. There is not our home. It’s not our base. It’s not where we find our life and our roots. I am speaking as a white, British Archbishop of Canterbury.”

He spoke of the region as “complex and fraught” and enduring civil war, occupation, political violence, foreign military intervention, youth unemployment, gender inequality, limited social protection, and very widespread human vulnerability, owing to poverty and unmet basic needs. “That’s not even a remotely adequate list of the trials of this region,” he said.

But “ours is a ministry of reconciliation,” and there had to be hope. “The thing about the good news of Jesus Christ is it sort of erupts all over the place. It’s messy. It starts to change things dramatically,” he said. “The point is, our reconciling God is at work in and across the Middle East. Always against the odds, and usually against our expectations.”

Archbishop Welby was speaking on reconciliation in the first of St Martin-in-the-Fields’ series of autumn lectures. The other speakers were the Revd Su McClellan from Embrace the Middle East and Daniel Munayer, the executive director of Musalaha, which facilitates reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Archbishop Welby referred to the pressure on Christians in the Middle East. “We could go into great depth about the challenges facing the Christian population, who made up 20 per cent of the whole population in the Middle East 100 years ago, and just four per cent today, about 15 million people.” The future of Palestinian Christians in and around Jerusalem in the occupied territories was in real jeopardy.

The Middle East without the historic presence of Christians would be “a tragedy of epochal size”, he said. “If Christians go from the Middle East, it is cutting the heart out of the Christian body. It would be terrible beyond description.”

Archbishop Welby wanted to tell some of the positive stories about Christians from the region to facilitate “a sort of political speed-dating”, so that there was greater understanding.

“Whenever we speak of the Church in this region, we’re acknowledging the first flowering, the very home the root of, of the Christian faith, not some transplanted, strange community from the West that doesn’t belong there,” he said.

“But, also, we can’t see Christians in the region as the people that are done to, but we must see them as active citizens in their own communities. They do the most extraordinary things. They’re a blessing to those around, and they set a pattern that enables people of different religious traditions to be inspired to live together well.”

Reconciliation involved “two key things, and this is where it does get rather sensitive”, he said. “The first is listening, when what you want to do is shout. . . When you’re being abused, what you want to do is abuse back; when you’re being attacked, you want to attack back. Listening is particularly hard work when hope is in short supply.”

And the second was sacrifice. “It seems to me that the theological answer, the biblical pattern of the action of God, [means that] the stronger party needs to make the first move. The more powerful . . . is called to a sacrifice.”

Later, in answer to a question from the audience, he again emphasised the complexity of reconciliation: “We have to avoid binaries. It is almost never ‘this or that’. We have to understand that human beings are sinful, all of them. We have to understand that, as a result, complexity comes in disagreements and conflicts and in injustices. . . We have to understand who has the power; and it is very complicated. And, in reconciliation, oversimplification is a disaster. We have to embrace complexity.”

In his lecture, Archbishop Welby acknowledged that reconciliation in the Holy Land was contingent on justice and security. “People need to know that not only is their suffering recognised, acknowledged, and . . . dealt with; but also that it is not going to happen again, or at least there’s a very, very good chance it will not happen again.”

His own prayer echoed that of the Archbishop in Jerusalem, he said. “I pray for a just peace and a secure peace, a two-state solution along 1965 lines, with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

“Again, we must acknowledge that the hope of that is in short supply. I am just about — despite my Eeyore tendency — I am just about constitutionally inclined, as a Christian, to be hopeful: not hopeful about myself or about other human beings, and never optimistic — they’re very different things — but to be hopeful about the power and the action of God, and the faithfulness of God and the love of God, which is so cosmic as to absorb hatred.”

He was “deeply concerned” about the current Israeli government. “I grieve to see a coalition that includes far-Right racists and the erosion of some rights for Israeli Arab citizenship,” he said. But he was grateful for the voices of those who were resisting this.

“The words of President Herzog in July, condemning attacks on Christians and showing his own efforts to restrain the alarming change at the state of the Supreme Court, may not be succeeding at the moment, but I praise God that he’s trying.”

In his talk, the Archbishop referred to the Difference course, developed at Lambeth Palace, which has identified three strands — curiosity, presence, and reimagining — as at the heart of reconciliation. “Let us be curious about the global Church and particularly about the Middle East. Let’s be curious about what makes them tick. Let’s listen. Let’s be present: attentive, suffering with them in their stories of hope, resilience, forgiveness, and commitment to the common good.

“And let us join with them in their prayers as we together allow the Holy Spirit to teach us to reimagine a world built on the righteousness and justice of God’s reconciling love. The righteousness and justice which is undefeated by all the powers of evil and will have the last word.”

The series continues.


Read letters responding to the Archbishop’s lecture here

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