When Caryl's among the carols

Baptists are usually philosemitic but one church’s plans for Christmas sound like anti-Israel propaganda


Christmas is coming. The signs are unmistakable. Shops are already offering seasonal goods seasonally wrapped. Shopping centres are bedecked with the glitter and tinsel we associate with the onset of Christmas festivities. But the most obvious sign — for me at any rate — is that the purveyors of Palestinian victimhood have once again elbowed their way into the Christian season of goodwill.

A year ago, I used this column to draw attention to a service of Christmas carols that took place in the fashionable St James’s Church, in London’s Piccadilly.

Advertised as “Nine Alternative Lessons and Carols for Palestine,” the service (you may recall) took the form of prose and poetry readings interspersed with carols, the lyrics of which had been deliberately rewritten in order to demonise Israel — the Jewish state.

I pointed out the obscenity of such a display taking place in a house of worship that is an official constituent of the Church of England. Clearly there were others, far more influential than I am, who thought along similar lines. The rector of St. James’s promised that he would “think hard” if asked again to host such an event. And a search of its current website would seem to indicate that this Christmas lesson has been well and truly learned.

This church's 'Voices for Bethlehem' evening is not its first pro-Palestinian event

That is the good news. The bad news is that websites do not always reveal the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Discussing the events of last year with a friend recently, I was urged to visit the website of another London-based house of Christian worship, with a history every bit as prestigious as that of St. James’s Piccadilly.

My friend referred me to the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, a venerable institution dating from 1848 and about which I happen to have some knowledge, because this church was built by Sir Morton Peto, a Liberal MP and one of the great railway contractors of Victorian England, whose remarkable life featured (a long time ago) in my Oxford doctoral research on British railways and party politics in the 19th century.

My friend, as I say, urged me to visit the BCBC’s website, and in particular to scrutinise its list of events for December. I duly did so. Coffee mornings, talks, Bible study, prayers — there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

Then my friend directed me to the email newsletter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. There, under events planned for Tuesday December 1, was the announcement of a Voices for Bethlehem evening, to include a brass band, a choir, carols and “seasonal readings” by — among others — Caryl Churchill, whose play Seven Jewish Children, portraying Jews as an evil people, caused such a furore earlier this year. The venue for the Voices for Bethlehem evening is, I regret to say, the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.

I have to admit at once that the evening of seasonal entertainment planned at this church for December 1 may be entirely benign. The Baptist movement has a long history of philosemitism and of support for the Zionist movement, though it was not always thus and there have been darker moments when some Baptists have turned distinctly anti-Jewish.

Be that as it may, the entertainment planned for December 1 may indeed be entirely beyond reproach. But, if so, why does it not appear on the BCBC’s website? Is the event that it is hosting on that day something it would rather the general public did not know about?

I put these questions out of genuine ignorance. Last week, I tried to arrange a meeting with an official of the BCBC, but the coincidence of a gathering of the Baptist Union Council apparently made this impossible. A telephone interview failed to answer any of my concerns. But I have discovered that this is not the first occasion on which the BCBC has hosted a pro-Palestinian Christmas concert.

The organisation “Christians for Zion” points out that such events have in the past been characterised by a “lack of Christian content” and by the inclusion of carols whose words have been changed “to include highly political and anti-Israel propaganda. All three speakers this year have a political motive unsuitable for a Christmas carol service.”

So the omens are not good. It is one thing for British Baptists to empathise with Palestinian suffering. What about Jewish suffering? Or does the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church finds the idea of Jewish suffering just too tedious?

Last updated: 4:46pm, December 10 2009

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