Anglicans from around the Communion took part in a 12-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land in June 2017, with the theme of “walking together”. Five primates as well as the Anglican Communion Secretary General, Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, accompanied the pilgrims. Among the highlights of the tour were visits to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee. In the September 2017 edition of Anglican World, Archbishop Josiah shared his thoughts on the pilgrimage, as did first-time pilgrim Alice Wu from Hong Kong.
The idea of “walking together” came out of the Primates’ gathering and meeting in January 2016. This pilgrimage idea was borne out of my desire to put into practice what the Primates gave to the Communion. We wanted to send a powerful message to the entire Communion that if the commitment is there, it is an idea that can be lived out. It was a diverse group from the West Indies, Canada, South Africa, Burundi, West Africa, Nigeria, the United States, the Middle East and Hong Kong. We had bishops, priests and lay representatives; high church and low church; married and single! Young Anglicans were represented as well as the not so young!
It reinforced a sense of what it means to be part of the worldwide Anglican Communion for the participants. For a good number, it was their first time of learning about the Anglican Church in other countries that looks very different in administration from their own. It was a new experience for those from African provinces to learn that bishops from the West are not as powerful as in some of the African provinces. The daily prayers and Eucharist were very unifying: all the participants felt like one family due to their familiarity with the liturgy.
My key memories are of walking down the mountain of the Beatitudes and seeing every member walking at his or her pace; it reminded me of the Communion. Though one family, we each are moving along the same road at our pace without coercion; that meant so much to me. Secondly, staying in Nazareth, at the home where Jesus might have spent his childhood was very moving. The night spent there with the Sisters, the privilege to have a first-hand experience of the tomb where the body of Christ might have been laid in Jerusalem made the whole account of the death and resurrection of Jesus more plausible to me.
The Sunday morning visit in the company of Primate Suhail Dawani to the Temple Mount / al-Aqsa Mosque was also very moving for me. That visit was a showcase of the deep and friendly relationship between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in the Holy Land. We had the minister responsible for this holy place accompany us all through and unlike the tourists, we had a guided tour of both mosques. I was so moved that I spent a significant time praying for these three religious communities and our Communion for reconciliation and understanding with respect for differences.
This pilgrimage was not an ordinary pilgrimage – a lot of prayers and discernment went into its planning, particularly the make-up of the participants. We felt the time spent together should be quality time for all and both Canon John Peterson and the Revd Phillip Jackson did a very good job in helping us to focus on our theme. The team blended very quickly, we bonded well and I did not notice any member feeling out of place. It was all one family coming from the different parts of our Communion.
There are several things this pilgrimage together has demonstrated: that members of this Communion are at different places in their journey together. That without prejudice or an attitude of being judgemental, we can journey together. That every tradition has some positive things to give to the Communion and that we can all share together from each other’s special blessings. That with an open mind, we can listen to each other’s faith journeys with some understanding and be together without necessarily agreeing on everything. The pilgrimage has taught us that we are a very diverse family, rich in our differences and giftedness, that our effectiveness would be in giving the opportunity to each to live out our Christ-centredness within our cultural environments. This journeying together has also shown that every part of the Communion has something to give to the other, we only need to create more opportunities for inter and intra activities so we can understand each other better.
Alice Wu, Hong Kong:
On our first night in Jerusalem, we were asked what our expectations were for this pilgrimage. As a first-time pilgrim, I really had no idea what to expect although I had a distinct feeling that it would be life-transforming. Perhaps it was ignorance that had led me to draw a blank when asked that question, but how can a first-time pilgrim know what to expect? I had studied the books on the reading list. I had tried to put names of places on the map – and yet, I knew, until I had set foot on these places, they would remain mere dots on a map.
Perhaps it was the fact that it felt wrong for me to have expectations at all. Expectations felt like drawing up a “to do” list, and if I have long outgrown making a demand list for God and mistaking that as praying, how can I reasonably try to shrink and fit God into my limited capacity to comprehend? Perhaps it was that and more.
When it was my turn to share my “expectations”, I was only able to admit that I had not dared to have expectations but that I had asked God to open my eyes, to see new meanings to “words” I know I have yet to fully understand. Like many pilgrims who have come before me, I say, now that I have completed my first “pilgrimage”, that words cannot adequately describe the experience. It was phenomenal; it was awe-inspiring; it was life-changing; it was eye-opening. It was all of those things and much more. It still makes me feel heady every time I think back on those 12 days. But I’m at once lost for words because even those words I had just used to describe the experience have taken on different and deeper meanings.
The experience of standing on Holy ground – each and every one of those sites on the itinerary – was overwhelming. I have never felt so deep the urge to be close to Him, to follow Him, and for the first time, I felt connected to the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak, only I wasn’t aware of my “illness” nor did I have her faith. Like plague building up in arteries, pebbles have settled in my heart, making my heart stony. As I stood in front of the Western Wall early on in the pilgrimage, I was struck by how underwhelmed – emotionless – I felt, even as women next to me wept and wept. It made me feel out of place, of being rejected as an outsider, of being exiled, as I stood there with my prayer beads. I did not go with a written prayer to be slipped into the cracks of the wall. That notion felt too contrived to be authentic to me. “The outsider” would come back to me throughout the pilgrimage, and each time it did after the visit to the Western Wall, it brought uncontrollable and unstoppable tears.
At Capernaum, as the group gathered at the ruins of a synagogue and contemplated on the Pharisees plotting to kill Jesus with the Herodians, I could not shake the thought that Jesus had come to Capernaum, having been rejected by His own people at Nazareth, only to be rejected again and plotted against. I also kept thinking of Jesus’s ministry to those deemed unclean and unworthy, to tax collectors, to those ostracised, to those relegated to the margins of society. And for the very first time, these were not words I read off the pages of the Bible. They felt real – real with raw emotions. As pilgrims, we are not supposed to bask in comfort; we are called to be rejected and to accept the rejected.
At the [Orthodox] Church of St George in Burqin, better known as “The Church of the 10 Lepers”, tears fell as the Gospel was read. Only one of the 10 turned back to praise and thank Jesus, and he was a foreigner, a Samaritan. Those tears kept falling – at Jacob’s Well, at the Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre, at the Prison of Christ at St Peter on Mount Zion, as we walked the Stations of the Cross. How many times have I turned my back to Christ? How many times have I walked away from Him after all He has done for me? How many times have I rejected Christ by turning away from the ostracised and marginalised?
At the holiest of sites, I felt awestruck by both the close proximity to the Divine and how far we are from being true pilgrims. The shoving, pushing, and invasion of space at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre made me realise how easily we, whether we are pilgrims on the Holy Land, or more importantly, lifelong pilgrims following Christ’s footsteps in our lives and in our communities, fall into the trap of monopolising God, and in the process, push, ostracise, reject and hurt those travelling on the same path.
I have failed to live up to being a true pilgrim, and what an underwhelming pilgrim I have been. But God has given me a new understanding, renewed hope – new eyes, a new heart and a new spirit. I had, unknowingly, touched the edge of the Lord’s cloak, and He had healed me of the pebble stones of my heart.
Today, I can finally say, just as Job said: I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.