The Churches of the Holy Land – Orthodox, Catholic or Evangelical – have been quite busy during the course of this year! Hardly had the Christians of this biblical land assessed the true significance of the pan-Christian inauguration of the new millennium in Bethlehem last December, that a constant stream of visitors and conferences has kept the churches quite busy!

The Churches of the Holy Land – Orthodox, Catholic or Evangelical – have been quite busy during the course of this year!  Hardly had the Christians of this biblical land assessed the true significance of the pan-Christian inauguration of the new millennium in Bethlehem last December, that a constant stream of visitors and conferences has kept the churches quite busy! The Greek Orthodox hierarchs arrived here in January to celebrate Christmas at the Basilica of the Nativity, and then again in June to participate in a pan-Orthodox Scientific Symposium. The spiritual leader of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church world-wide, Catholicos Karekin II, also travelled to the Holy Land and celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem. Later in March, Pope John-Paul II fulfilled his life-long yearning to come on a personal pilgrimage to Jordan, Palestine and Israel.  And finally, the Greek Catholic Church held last week its own international theological symposium.  All this, and we are only halfway through the year 2000!

But what do such movements show?  Do they point toward a deepening of the unity amongst the diverse churches?  Do they mean that the ecumenical movement has been growing stronger year in year out?  Or do they subscribe to an observation made some two years ago by HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Honorary President of MECC? In an interview for the MECC Kairos newsletter, he thanked God that the Heads of Churches are meeting regularly, and that their hearts are being drawn together. However, despite the handshakes and smiles, he added that each church is looking for its own survival at the expense of the communion between the churches. Is the truth being compromised today between optimism and pessimism?  What do Christians themselves think?

Although I have been involved with the ecumenical movement in an institutional sense for well over a decade now, I cannot purport to possess any firm answers!  Rather, like the famous Galilean carpenter who built a door for his house but omitted to add a lock to it, I can only say that my article will also model a door but not provide the reader with a key!  I can merely offer thoughts, but you have to look for the solutions in your own hearts and minds.

Let me first highlight a few encouraging or discouraging signs that constitute the tapestry of the churches here.

· As traditional and historical bodies with an overwhelmingly indigenous Palestinian constituency of Living Stones, the churches must boldly and proactively acknowledge ownership of this ecumenical movement and therefore learn to better share and steer their witness together;

· Education and empowerment of new generations are imperative, leading to more openness by the churches and to fuller participation by the laity  – youth and women as much as men. Twenty-five years ago, the Second Vatican Council included in its many documents one on the ministry and life of priests. Entitled ‘Presbyterorum Ordinis’, the decree spoke movingly about how priests should engage laity in their ministry, making sure to use fully their gifts, talents, experience and competence.  This decree offers a wonderful vision for any Christian parish life, and maintains the momentum that keeps a parish alive;

· Strengthening of partnerships between local / traditional churches in the Holy Land and those churches much newer to this land.  This should also apply to the relationship between those churches and the corresponding churches or organisations from the developed and western worlds. The newer churches should evince respect and  appreciation of the ecclesiology, history and tradition of the early Church – even if they find them anachronistic;
· Clearer interpretation, understanding and application of the Status Quo strictures and their corresponding hierarchical problems with regard to some of the holy sites.  Essentials need not be violated, but non-essentials, fudges and misconstructions ought not impede the growth, renewal and forward movement of the Church;

· Funds, fund-raising and impudent financial power or leverage should not become overarching goals of ecumenism.  Professor Choan-Seng Song, President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, has often stressed that the spiritual coffer invariably precedes the financial coffer;

· In a world of inter-dependency and efficiency – let alone of globalisation – all churches should nurture a stronger sense of stewardship and probity.  This should be coupled with an enhanced management style that promotes viability, transparency and accountability.  The churches have at times the resources but lack the know-how.  Alternatively, they have the know-how but lack the resources;

· Emigration is not solely or primarily the fault of churches.  It is also due largely to the prevailing political and socio-economic reasons which have stifled the lives and livelihoods of many a local Christian here;

· The church relations and the ecumenical movement here are not fundamentally different from that of countless other countries or regions.  It is too facile to aver that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence;

· Although the Church is universal, its application here is local, indigenous and contextual; 

· Missionaries, volunteers and pilgrims from abroad ought to take on board the local identity of the church and not be tempted by a well-meaning religious separatism that encroaches upon the local reality with a different agenda, set of expectations or priorities.  Politeness by the churches should not always be taken for assent or indifference;

· Denominationalism is not favoured, but it should not be replaced with other isms such as Para-institutionalism.  It is not wise to tackle one problem by creating another or to substitute one carbuncle with another;

· Churches here do not enjoy unlimited resources to be all things to all people – from schools, to hospitals and hospices, from old peoples’ homes to flats for young couples. We must rid ourselves of the cultural trait of dependency upon others, always expecting more from the other, or else whinging endlessly about our wants;

· Many Christian foot soldiers are interested in working for the churches and the ecumenical movement.  But they are either volunteers who do not find the time in today’s world for concerns other than their immediate ones of family and kids. Or else, one comes across a small number of poorly-paid men and women whose calling and socio-economic needs are different from those of ordained clergy;

· Better appreciation that ecumenism means inclusiveness. If you do not agree with my Armenian religious practices, do not immediately assume that I shall agree your Lutheran practices either!  There are theologies, theosophies and practices in this small parcel of land that might not always subscribe to our own vision.

Overall, I must admit I am fretful about the fate of the Christian faith in this biblical land.  The haemorrhage we are witnessing today – in terms of qualitative witness as much as of quantitative numbers – is alarming if we truly believe that this is a land of two peoples and three religions.  But what is an important indicator to me of the dire need for self-appraisal and self-examination has less to do with statistics that could easily be doctored than with the relationship of the Christian faithful with their institutional churches and church-related organisations.

As with many other places across the world, it is evident that church affiliation, attendance or loyalty here is declining in all the Christian denominations. Moreover, it is safe to say that there is an uneasy feeling that the Church is either out of touch or else peddling its own narrow and solipsistic interests.  But what is equally evident to me is that Christianity as a ‘religion’ is being gradually replaced by expressions of ‘spirituality’ that are a long way away from institutional religion. Such a spirituality often has little doctrinal content, and few people have more than the vaguest remnants of religious language to express their experience of God.  Rather, their spirituality seems based upon a Nietzsche-inspired longing for meaning and a quest for belonging. The vivid reaction to the best-selling book ‘The Celestine Vision’ by James Redfield world-wide is a manifestation of this quest for alternative definitions and sources. This longing might be suppressed, or even repressed, but it cannot be destroyed.  It reminds me of St Augustine’s famous phrase, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.”

What is the Church to make of this unsettling contrast between institutional decline, ecumenical obscurantism and re-emerging spiritual awareness?  I believe that the major focus of the Church should not lie simply on filling empty pews. Perhaps more serious is the realisation that we are not in touch with the ways in which God the Holy Spirit is communicating with us.  In the final analysis, ought we to perhaps recall Thomas a Kempis whose statement might also hold an answer to the present predicament, “An humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than a deep search after learning”?   I truly wonder sometimes ..?