Should you, by any chance, have been in the vicinity of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, on the evening of Wednesday 26 November last, you might perhaps have heard one of the most blatant pieces of anti-Israeli propaganda to have come from the bowels of the Established Church of England in modern times.
At that fashionable church, on that day, there took place a unique pre-Christmas act of Christian, or more correctly, Anglican, devotion. Advertised, on the church’s official website, as “Nine Alternative Lessons and Carols for Palestine”, the service consisted of prose and poetry readings interspersed with “traditional carols with untraditional lyrics to highlight current reality in the Holy Land”.
Let me give you a flavour of these “untraditional lyrics”. The carol While shepherds watched was extensively rewritten; the congregation sang:
While shepherds watched their flocks by night/All seated on the ground/Some occupying soldiers came/And bulldozed all around
And in place of the traditional words of In the bleak midwinter there were sung verses like:
In the bleak midwinter/Refugees make moan/Olmert stands like iron/Bush is like a stone
Lest some of you are tempted to point out that the “alternative” lessons and carols were not fundamentally anti-Israeli, and that a number of Jewish groups (“Jews for Justice”, “Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods”) were complicit in their composition, let me stress that the impact of the rewritten lyrics was not just to focus criticism against particular acts of a particular Israeli government, but to demonise the Jewish state:
They terrorise a people/A war-crime and a sin/Their winding “fence” can make no sense/Revenge can still get in (to the tune of O Little Town of Bethlehem).
But the precise content of the verses, and the fact that Jews were complicit in their writing, are much less important than the setting in which they were sung. This was not outside a church, or in some nondescript assembly hall. It was in a place of worship which is an official constituent of the Church of England.
Accordingly, the entire charade must have been sanctioned not just by the rector of St James’s (the Reverend Charles Hedley, who having initially defended the service has now said that he would “think hard” if asked again) but by the Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres.
But from Dr Chartres there has been a deafening silence on this matter. And his boss — the Archbishop of Canterbury — also appears to have been struck dumb by the incident.
Christian protests against the profanation of a religious festival, and the virtual desecration of a Christian place of worship, have been left to a few courageous individuals, notably Geoffrey Smith, director of Christian Friends of Israel, who rightly characterised the entire sick stunt as “cynical” and “appalling”. And I should add that a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has also condemned the event as “deeply offensive”.
There is a brutal irony behind the genuine plight of Bethlehem and its inhabitants. Deborah Fink, of “Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods”, has claimed that the rewritten carols were simply meant to tell people “what is actually happening to Bethlehem”.
Deborah, I’ll tell you what is “actually happening”. There has indeed been an exodus of Christians from this city, but this is the direct result of Islamist intimidation and persecution.
Last year, following a spate of attacks by Muslim Arabs upon Christian Arabs in Bethlehem and its environs, and the seizure of Christian land by Islamist thugs, leaders of the city’s Christian community appealed to PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas, to the Vatican, and to European governments. Naturally, nothing was done.
A leading Bethlehem Christian, Samir Qumsiyeh, spoke out: “The situation is very dangerous. I believe that 15 years from now there will be no Christians left in Bethlehem. Then you will need a torch to find a Christian here. This is a very sad situation.” Mr Qumsiyeh’s house was fire-bombed.
The truth is that since the city was handed over to the PA in 1995 there has been a mass exodus of Christians, who now comprise less than a fifth of Bethlehem’s population. This has nothing whatever to do with the actions of any Israeli government.
But that’s not what the St James’s carol service was about. The carol service had nothing to do with the pursuit of truth, but everything to do with officially sanctioned Anglican hostility to the Jewish state.