Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)
The leadership conference run by a local church in the centre of London might not appear to herald a season of opportunity for those whose heart-cry is for the TJCII vision. But Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), in London’s fashionable area of Knightsbridge, is no ordinary local church. It is a multi-site church with 11 congregations worshipping on Sunday and a string of church-plants across the capital. It is also the birthplace of the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity running in 163 countries, already attended by over 22 million people. HTB is certainly the most influential church in the UK.
In his opening address at this May’s conference, the senior leader and Anglican Vicar, Rev’d Nicky Gumbel, disclosed that 2012 had been a year in which he discovered the extent of his own Jewish heritage and the painful past that it carried, with many members he had never known lost in the Shoah. His family had been researched by a museum in Berlin and he had been linked to Jewish relatives he had never known, or known about. All this was by way of a sermon illustration, but it did set a scene for what was to follow.
The conference’s first main guest speaker was the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Rt Rev’d Justin Welby. The British Press are notorious for digging up skeletons from unexpected places with which to embarrass unsuspecting public figures. That’s what journalists do, and so it was no surprise when, on his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of 2012, Justin Welby was given such treatment. What was a surprise to him, and to everyone else, was to discover that he also had a German-Jewish father, and an unknown family lost in the Shoah – and this already alongside a personal history of positive statements about Jewish people and a heart for reconciliation.
What these two men make of their recently begun journey into their Jewish past, and the implications this might have in their respective positions of leadership in the church worldwide, remains to be seen. But a clear sense of direction was offered by the conference’s next guest speaker. Following immediately after Justin Welby, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vienna, was Rev’d Gumbel’s second interviewee of the morning. The topic of conversation was to do with leadership in the church but the conclusion to the interview was as much of a surprise to the audience as what had gone before.
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Rev’d Gumbel invited the Cardinal to bring a closing message with the words, “There are five and a half thousand people here. There are thousands more watching this online and I know everyone has appreciated your presence here. Is there any message you have to encourage everyone here?”
The Cardinal responded,
“Yes, I want to say one thing: I was so impressed with what you said yesterday, about your father and what Archbishop Justin told about his father. You have both German-Jewish fathers. And I think the deepest wound, in the Body of Christ, the unique Body of Christ, is the wound between Israel and the Gentiles. And in your body, and in your life, and in Archbishop Justin’s life, and a little bit also in my own life; I think we are called to ask the Lord to heal this deepest wound when it is His time.”
And so it was that at this year’s HTB Leadership Conference, attended by 5700 people with a live stream watched by a further 60,000 online, a Catholic Cardinal in a Protestant country publically created (or acknowledged) a season of opportunity for the church in the UK to play its part in healing the deepest wound in the history of the Body of Messiah – this healing being precisely the vision of TJCII. And he invited the Church of England’s two most prominent leaders to play their own leadership role in the process. Has the significance of the moment been fully understood? How will we respond? Time will tell.