I was incredibly lucky to be at a service in St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem as part of a congregation made up by the ex pat community, other tour groups, a party from the Order of St John and members of the scattered Anglican congregations from Lebanon, The Palestinian Territories and Israel.
The Brits sang in English and the gathered congregations in Arabic. We were given the service order and hymns in English. The tunes and the words of the hymns were unfamiliar but I came to the conclusion they were designed to allow the two languages to co-exist as we worshipped the One God. The liturgy was either in Arabic or English and the sermon was preached twice: once in Arabic and then in English.
I could have joined pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the past – this was my husband’s fourth visit – but I had not wanted to go since I feared the modern Palestine or Israel would be too distant from the land the Old and New Testament described. But this pilgrimage had been planned for three years by my husband for Christ Church Wanstead and he is not intending to repeat the journey so if I was to go this was it.
The places which seemed as close as we might experience to the land of Israel 2000 years ago were the Eucharists which were celebrated in a garden overlooking the Sea of Galilee and in a desert location between Nazareth and Jericho with attendant hawkers.
Apart from these two occasions, I mostly marvelled at the churches that had been built over the years mostly by the Roman Catholics (we stayed at what might have been the Mount of the Beatitudes in a guest house run by nuns) and some of them are enormous (the Church of the Annunciation was the most impressive despite the OTT grotto) and must have been very expensive to build – but the Holy Sepulchre is the one I will remember. Because our Jerusalem hotel was just outside the walled city, we were able to visit early in the morning before the crowds with their cameras.
We visited the Museum containing the scroll of Isaiah (with water spraying on the roof to keep it cool – it was 37 degrees), the Chagall windows at the Haddassah hospital and the Holocaust Museum – so we did some Jewish centric things.
The write ups of our fellow pilgrims majored on the Eucharists, the opportunity to develop friendships and the journey to Bethany. Bethany is in the West Bank and very close to Jerusalem but it is Third World compared to First World Israel. A journey which should have taken 20 minutes but took 90 minutes as our coach driver negotiated chaotic traffic. There is no police force in Bethany and cars parked in the roadway, drove on the wrong side of the road and over central reservations – and shop keepers would come out and direct traffic. Our guide was an Armenian Christian who lived in Bethany and who had to negotiate this chaos by public transport and through border controls each day we were in Jerusalem.
But we were lucky to be in Jerusalem when there wasn’t any trouble and we could walk around freely in the Old City with its bazaar, cats, muezzin calls and overwhelming sense of a place which is holy for all three Abrahamic faiths.