1. After attending eight out of nine worship services for the week, I sat down and realised that I had heard an amazing number of languages in the various liturgies. These included: Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Danish, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Latin, Norwegian, Polish, Spanish, Swedish, Syriac, and any number of difficult-to-identify languages spoken during a long free-for-all prayer on the Thursday at the Upper Room. As an admitted linguaphile, this great variety pleases me to no end. It also underlines the liturgical diversity present in Jerusalem, with all the richness and tension that brings.
2. All the host churches represented denominations with episcopal polities. Bishops had a strong presence throughout the week, getting seats in chancels, and being asked to give benedictions at the end of the service. (One after the other, all the bishops present would bless the assembly, each in their own liturgical fashion.) While there is a great diversity of churches in Jerusalem, those churches which prefer either a Presbyterian (by regional committee of congregational representatives) or Congregational (each congregation governing itself) governance compose only a very small minority. For the first time, I had a visceral sense of how much of an anomaly Presbyterians really are. It is one thing to know the fact that the largest Christian denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, has bishops, but quite another to feel the sheer weight of Christian history coming from all of these churches which have bishops. I was struck, too, by the kind of authority which each bishop embodied by the virtue of their office: the authority to bless. Consecrated themselves into various historic successions of bishops, each had been granted the ability to speak and make a sign of blessing which together invoke the presence and protection of God. Thus, as the several bishops passed by after services, many people would show signs of reverence, reaching out to touch them, as if seeking even the smallest echo of the blessing which bishops carry incorporated in their consecration. For me, coming from a church which speaks of “corporate bishops”–each regional presbytery fulfils the function of a bishop–this embodiment of blessing in an individual office is somewhat strange. However, it does make tangible the continuity of hope and faith.
To all fellow Presbyterians, out there, don’t worry, I’m not advocating that we adopt an episcopacy any time soon. The embodiment within bishops of the authority to bless (and to give to others that authority, too, let us not forget) would require a discussion of how to ensure equality and the empowerment of all members of the church first. At its heart, a presbyterian system tries to provide checks and balances on the abuse of power. But perhaps we need to talk even more about how to relate to different models of church government through liturgical and theological reflection.
I’m curious what readers might have to say on this, both those who come from churches without bishops and those from churches with bishops, and those from other faith traditions altogether. What are your thoughts on the type of authority wielded by bishops, especially when the relations between faith communities depend on the relations between bishops, as they appear to do here in Jerusalem?
3. Praying for Christian unity takes on a heightened sense of urgency in regions where Christians make up a minority. After a week of Christians from many traditions making space for one another, breaking bread together and trying to learn to be comfortable in one another’s presence, I am left with the question of how this affects relations with people of other faiths. Yes, there were prayers that all people would work together for justice and peace, but does seeking unity among Christians help in bending in care towards those who maintain different ways of relating to the divine, or is it about creating a single front against common adversaries? Or, perhaps, it is about needing to start somewhere…one step at a time….