I am reflecting on our recent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and particularly on what has become known as ‘the immovable ladder of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’?! I really, really dislike the Church of the Holy Sepulchre! It is the most awful place and I only go there a) because we are part of a group and our group are touring the various religious and historical sites, and b) because although I have been before, I have never actually been into the actual Sepulchre itself – a fact I am determined to resolve on this particular visit. What I do ‘enjoy’ about this site, however – indeed what I find very amusing in one way, although totally heartbreaking in another – is standing in the courtyard in front of the main entrance to the Church and looking up at the high windows. There, placed by one of two of the windows, is a wooden ladder – left behind by some workmen – that has been there for almost 200 years because of an unresolved dispute.
The ‘immovable ladder’ is a religious symbol of all that is wrong with the Christian Church today. It is a powerful and iconic symbol of the divisions and religious disputes within the Church of Christ. Allegedly the site of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places in Christianity and has been the site of pilgrimages since the 4th century. Sadly, even this most venerated shrine has not escaped the negative effects of sinful human nature – vanity, pride and envy.
Even from its earliest days Christianity was subject to splintering – spawning numerous denominations and groups, all claiming to be the ‘true followers’ of Jesus Christ. The most prominent of these fought bitterly over the centuries for the dominance over the holy places in Palestine. During the time of Muslim dominance over the area – a government equally hostile to all Christian denominations – no one group could achieve a clear advantage over the others. As the disputes rolled on, the methods of gaining advantage became ever more dubious including outright bribery, blackmail, and the use of force. Even today, the current situation is an uneasy status quo, a kind of an fragile compromise.
The care of the Church building is shared by no less than six denominations. The primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches, with lesser duties shared by Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Orthodox churches. The whole edifice is carefully parceled into sections – some commonly shared, others belonging strictly to a particular denomination. A set of complicated rules governs the transit rights of the other groups through each particular section on any given day, and especially during the religious festivals. Some of the sections of the church however still remain hotly disputed to this day.
Arguments and violent clashes are not uncommon. In November 2008 the internet was flooded with videos of a fistfight between Armenian and Greek monks in one such dispute. A small section of the roof of the church is disputed between the Copts and Ethiopians. At least one Coptic monk at any given time sits there on a chair placed on a particular spot to express this claim. On a hot summer day he moved his chair some 20 cm more into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile act and violation of the status quo. Eleven were hospitalized after a fight resulting from this ‘act of provocation’?!
This state of affairs makes any agreement about renovations or repairs on the edifice impossible. The church is in a state of decay as a result. The famous ‘immovable ladder’ is a bizarre outcome of this religious stubbornness pushed to extremes. Some time in the first half of the 19th century, a builder placed a ladder up against the exterior wall of the church in order to make some repairs. This led to a dispute between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, resulting in the repairs grinding to a halt. The builder was unable to complete his work, never got paid, and eventually walked off the site leaving his ladder behind him. The ladder remains there to this day. No one dares touch it, lest they disturb the status quo, and provoke the wrath of others.
I know that it has become popular today, to blame the devil for everything. I recall a cartoon showing the devil standing outside a church crying. When someone asked him why he was crying, he pointed at the church building and replied, ‘Its those people in there – they blame me for everything!’ Actually a lot of what goes on in our world, and in the Church, is not the devil’s fault. All that old serpent often does is simply sit back and watch us make a real ‘pig’s ear’ of things all on our own!? The scandal of the disunity amongst professing Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a classic example of this … as is the ongoing disunity amongst professing Christians in every other part of the world today.
In his Second Letter to the CorinthianChurch, Paul reminds Christians of every generation that God has ‘reconciled us to himself in Christ, and entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18). In other words, it is not enough simply for us to be reconciled to God in Christ ourselves, but we are to go out into this broken, and hurting, and divided world and effect reconciliation wherever we can! Not simply reconciling men and women to God in Christ, but reconciling men and women to each other through Christ! Sadly, instead of modeling reconciliation the Church models division! How can we expect the world to take our message seriously when we don’t take it seriously ourselves.
Personally I am sick and tired of the way we continually tear apart the body of Christ with our self-righteous pontifications on the ‘soundness’ of ourselves, and the ‘unsoundness’ of others, instead of working hard for the unification of the Church. I am coming round to the view Richard Baxter, the 17th century Puritan (under whose ministry Kidderminster experienced a significant spiritual awakening), expressed when he advocated that the basis of Christian unity should be minimalistic – simply belief in ‘the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer’. Why are we charismatic evangelicals so reluctant to associate with other Christians who don’t think quite like us? Are we so arrogant that we think we alone ‘have got it right’? Are we so afraid that our concept of ‘the truth’ will be diluted by mixing with our fellow Christians who may see things somewhat differently to us?
When Julia and I eventually return to the Ministry we hope that it will either be in a Baptist Church that really wants to work with the other Christian Churches in the area, or with a Local Ecumenical Project. It really is ‘the only way to go’! When I was a child I loved to play ‘Snakes and Ladders’ – it was a great game for kids – but ‘when I grew up I put the ways of childhood behind me’ (1 Corinthians 13:11). It really is the time for us Christians to stop playing silly games!