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Church of Ireland Synod: Church shores up power to call out atrocities

24 May 2024

Tim Wyatt reports from the Church of Ireland Synod in Armagh

Alamy

Palestinians carry boxes from trucks loaded with humanitarian aid which were brought in through a new US-built pier on the beach road of the Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, on Saturday

Palestinians carry boxes from trucks loaded with humanitarian aid which were brought in through a new US-built pier on the beach road of the Nusseirat...

THE Church of Ireland will explore new ways to intervene in global humanitarian crises, particularly when Christian scripture and teaching are, in its view, being misused to justify atrocities.

A motion, prompted by the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, was carried during an online session of the Synod on Tuesday evening. It called for the creation of an “enhanced mechanism” by which the Church could speak into such events more promptly.

Canon Elaine Murray (Cork, Cloyne & Ross), introducing the motion, recalled how she had learned from an Anglican Palestinian while at theological college how illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank had taken to calling local Palestinians “Amalekites”. “Those of us who know our scriptures know how chilling this is,” she said, explaining how the ancient Israelites were commanded in the Old Testament to exterminate the Amalekites for their resistance to Israel during the exodus into the Promised Land.

“This was the first instance I can remember of hearing the ancient biblical texts taken out of context to justify violent actions in the present,” Canon Murray said. “It scared me 20 years ago, and it scares me now.” The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, had himself referred to the Amalekites in interviews shortly after the 7 October attacks by Hamas, she said. As well as right-wing hawks in Israel misusing scripture to justify their war in Gaza, Zionist fundamentalist Christians had been guilty of this.

Likewise, the Russian Orthodox Church had endorsed President Putin’s war in Ukraine (a fellow Orthodox nation) as a holy war that God approved of, Canon Murray said; references to the Antichrist and “false prophets” had appeared in Russian war propaganda, too. Faithful Christians must challenge these extremists who misappropriated the scriptures, Canon Murray argued. The Church needed a mechanism to respond quickly to those “warmongers” who would “weaponise” the Bible. “Our silence speaks volumes, and we cannot be complicit in any ongoing evil.”

Dr Simon Woodworth (Cork, Cloyne & Ross), seconding the motion, praised the work done in Ireland to support people affected by the crisis in Israel and Palestine since 7 October, and noted the €210,000 raised by the diocese of Dublin & Glendalough to help to repair the Anglican hospital in Gaza. But the Church should go beyond being Christ’s hands and feet in the world, and become also his voice, he said. “Could we dare to be Christ’s voice when confronted both with unspeakable suffering, and the wilful misuse of the Bible to justify actions that are most certainly un-Christlike?” He said that he condemned both Hamas’s atrocities and Israel’s destructive response, but the Church should be more “forceful” in its rejection of violence, and critical of those who cited scripture to justify their actions.

Canon Paul Arbuthnot (Dublin & Glendalough) said that silence was not an option for the Church in the face of suffering and injustice. The diocese that he represented had used its voice to raise money for Gaza in a “chorus of Christian love”. He shared the sentiment behind the motion, but said that he could not support it, as he had not seen the supposed “deafening silence” from churches.

The Archdeacon of Glendalough, the Ven. Ross Styles (Dublin & Glendalough), agreed that it was unfair to accuse the Church of a “deafening silence”. The diocese was linked to Jerusalem diocese, which knew that Anglicans in Dublin were praying for them and standing with them.

Johanne Martin (Connor) said that she, too, backed the sentiment behind the motion, but was uncomfortable about some of its language. Both Israelis and Palestinians had rejected Christ and, therefore, had no biblically justified claim on the Holy Land or to their own political cause, she said. Both sides should be offered compassion, and their dispute resolved by justice and mercy, as any other would be.

George Woodman (Connor) said that he agreed with much of what Canon Murray said, but could not endorse a motion accusing Christians of “deafening silence”, as this was not true, as had already been explained. He suggested that perhaps prayer and service were a better response than sending out a formal church statement.

Lucy Michael (Dublin & Glendalough) recounted the desperate situation of Gazans, bombarded out of their homes, facing famine, trauma, and injury, while their hospitals had been mostly destroyed. She had heard “charity, solidarity, sympathy” from the Church since 7 October, but she had not heard clear-eyed denunciation of genocide in Gaza, which “broke her heart”.

Andrew Brannigan (Down & Dromore) proposed an amendment to remove the words “deafening silence from Christian Churches regarding the” from the motion, and replace the word “weaponised” with “used”. The Synod had already heard that there had not been “deafening silence”, he said, and less emotive language would be helpful. Timely responses were good, but not if they came in a rush that would mean that the Church could get it wrong. He insisted that any such mechanism to comment on situations could not become overtly political, especially where there were strongly held views on both sides, even in humanitarian crises. Avoiding both the blame game and being led simply by what was hitting the headlines would also be vital. He said that he would cautiously support an amended motion.

The Bishop of Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe, the Rt Revd Michael Burrows, backing the amendment, suggested that it could be further improved by replacing the deleted “deafening silence” phrase with something such as “mindful of the continuing need for a strong Christian voice”.

Mr Brannigan resisted this amendment of his amendment, and Bishop Burrows withdrew his suggestion.

The Archdeacon of Belfast, the Ven. Barry Forde (Connor), thanked the proposers of the amendment for instigating a conversation on the atrocities in Gaza, but said that the best mechanism for the Church to speak into such events was through the Synod itself. It was a shame that there was not a simpler motion before them to condemn the violence in Gaza and call for an end to all abuses. Who else should the Church trust to speak for it, if not its elected representatives — bishops, clergy, and laity — on the Synod, he asked.

George Kelly (Meath & Kildare) proposed another amendment to the amendment, replacing the word “identify” with “consider”. This would liberate the Standing Committee to conclude, after exploring the issue, that there might not be a good mechanism.

Archbishop McDowell said that this was unnecessary, and did not put the amendment to the vote. Mr Brannigan’s initial amendment was carried.

The amended motion was then carried by 279 to 48.

 

That this Synod, mindful of the current situation in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded since the appalling events of October 7:

requests the Standing Committee to identify an enhanced mechanism by which we as a church community may publicly speak to such gross humanitarian situations in a timely and Christian manner, especially when sacred Scripture and the Word of God is being used (whether in Israel/Gaza or in Russia/Ukraine) to justify atrocities and acts of war;

• further requests that progress in this matter will be reported to the General Synod of 2025.

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