A survey of CofE Bishops reveals a moral vacuum
on Israel and Palestine
This survey was planned by a coalition of ten Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular groups that were concerned about the position the Church of England had taken vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine under the leadership of Archbishop Justin Welby. It was executed by CAMPAIN (the Campaign against Misrepresentation in Public Affairs, Information and the News - www.campain.org).
An Open Letter of April 25th raised a series of issues, but the most immediate concern was over Welby’s denial of the existence of apartheid in Israel, as expressed in his talk of September 6th, 2023, in St Martins-in-the-Fields, London. This placed him at odds with the views of late Archbishop Tutu, the Anglican Church of South Africa, renowned international and Israeli human rights organisations, Palestinian Christians and the United Nations.
The purpose of the survey was to ascertain whether other CofE bishops shared Archbishop Welby’s opinion, and if so why.
What we did/methodology
Between the 2nd and the 6th October, CAMPAIN emailed 110 senior clerics on behalf of the coalition, using the standard letter (see Annex below). The clerics included two archbishops, 35 diocesan bishops, 66 suffragan bishops and seven retired bishops for whom we could find addresses. Each email contained an attached letter asking the bishop concerned whether s/he agreed with the assessment of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s and other authorities: that apartheid existed in Israel. We also asked that if they did not agree with this assessment, they should state their reasons.
Significantly, we wrote to the Bishops before the violence that was shortly to erupt on October 7th in and around Gaza, and our question was solely about the polity (apartheid or otherwise) that existed prior to those violent events. However, given the scale of this violence and the publicity it gained, it could be expected to colour some of the responses.
All but five of these letters (i.e. 105 letters) appear to have gone through to their destination without a hitch. It is possible that some emails ended up in spam folders, but our use of an address with a domain name (firstname.lastname@example.org) greatly diminishes this possibility. In the case of 33 respondents, we obtained a formal acknowledgment or an automatic message confirming the message had been received.
Of the five letters we can confirm did not reach their destination, three were for suffragan bishops in the Chelmsford diocese (Barking, Colchester and Bradwell), one was for Bishop Ipgrave of Lichfield who is on sabbatical until December 18th, and the other one was for Exeter which is currently without a Bishop.
Fifteen bishops provided some sort of comment on our letter, for which we thank them – see Table 1 below. However, if we assume that 105 letters reached their destination, the response rate was about 14.3% and, as we shall see below, only four bishops answered the question about the existence of apartheid in Israel.
Table 1: responses and comments from individual bishops
Rachel Treweek, Gloucester
“remains committed to justice and peace in Israel-Palestine, not least through her connections with Embrace”, but “would not be adding her name to the letter”
Jonathan Gibbs, Rochester
expressed deep concern about “the dreadful situation that is unfolding in Israel/Palestine”, but would not be joining in any statements about the situation, as he believed these would inevitably be partial and quite possibly unhelpful.
John Thomson, Selby
the Bishops in the Diocese of York had made their position public in their ‘Joint Statement on Violence in Israel and Gaza’. He later said: “I am not competent nor willing to make public statements about the history and possible futures of such a complex and contested reality particularly given the highly charged situation now prevailing”.
David Williams, Basingstoke
said he was “in regular contact with the Reconciliation team”, and that “our own response to Palestine and Gaza follows the lead of the Reconciliation team”.
Ric Thorpe, Islington
"thank you for your email and letting me know about the work that you are doing - - -. More than ever, we need to pray".
Eleanor Sanderson, Hull
responded from South Africa where she had just paid her respects to the late Archbishop Tutu. She went on to say that our letter was very helpful in identifying more conversations that she needed to have as she continued “to serve in this part of our Communion”. However, she was still relatively new to the CofE and had “not yet encountered any clear understanding of a shared position”.
Jackie Searle, Crediton
“unable to comment at the present time", and refers us to the House of Bishops statement dated 31st October 2023.
Andrew Rumsey, Ramsbury
“I recognise the deep grievances on both sides of the current conflict and am a supporter of the work of Amos Trust in the region, of which you may be aware".
Martin Gorick, Dudley
“I share your desire for lasting peace in the Holy Land. Can I refer you to the statement made by the House of Bishops collectively today?”
James Grier, Plymouth
reluctant to make any kind of statement: “Having listened to so much in recent weeks I realise more and more how little I know and understand of such a complicated situation - - - - I do believe that Palestinians have been and are being treated unacceptably badly and that the international response is not balanced or appropriate.”
Retired Bishop Richard Llewellin
“I entirely agree with all you say in your letter to me - - - - I am saddened by the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury seems unable to understand what the true situation in Israel and Palestine really is, and his refusal to contemplate seeing Israel as an apartheid state".
Retired Bishop Michael Doe
"As a Trustee of the Balfour Project, and an active member of Sabeel/Kairos, I am deeply concerned with these issues and would normally welcome most initiatives which seek peace with justice in Palestine and Israel. However, I fear that a frontal attack on the Archbishop, particularly isolating the apartheid issue, could be counter-productive. Some of us are working on other approaches which may be more likely to succeed. My other reason for not going public on your letter is that one of your supporters has circulated the letter as if it is supported by the Balfour Project”. (Note: this was a mistake of Balfour Project staff, not ours).
Retired Bishop Bill Musk
“I did my doctoral dissertation (I was living in Egypt at the time) through the University of South Africa and visited the country to defend my thesis and sit my exams - in 1984. I was greatly saddened by the apartheid system still evidently in force then. I have never visited Israel but my observation from a distance would be that in various respects it looks as if the government there is in reality operating a form of apartheid”.
Retired Archbishop George Carey
replied negatively, though his response suggests that he did not understand the question. Indeed, he wrote back angrily on October 22, treating the assertion of “Israeli apartheid” as if it were a justification for the killing carried out by Hamas on October 7th. He appears not to have recalled that we wrote to him five days before that event.
Retired Bishop Michael Langrish
He has been actively engaged with the Middle East and, particularly Israel/OPT, for forty years. He has been significantly concerned with the events recently unfolding in and around Gaza, and the responses, particularly in his capacity as Patron of three Charitable organisations that are actively engaged.
He said “the language of apartheid needs to be used precisely and with great care. So there is a very significant difference between the Anglican Church in South Africa passing the blunt resolution “declaring Israel an Apartheid State” and the far more nuanced comments by e.g Kairos and Sabeel about the ‘existence of Israeli apartheid’? The description of Israel as an ‘Apartheid State’ is – as I have discovered – too easily refuted by supporters of current Israeli policies as they note the very considerable distinction between how non-whites were treated in law and practice under the Apartheid regime and the status and experience of the Israeli Arab citizens of Israel. This then shuts down the necessary debate about the real issues involved. My own approach has to been to speak along the line of Israel having had a series of Governments who have pursued apartheid-like policies, particularly in regard to the OPT and contrary to their responsibilities under international law as an occupying power. This is not so easily dismissed and requires engagement”.
“In the present circumstances especially where, not just inflammatory but loose, language is daily adding to an appalling humanitarian crisis and tragic personal suffering, how important it is to avoid simplistic slogans, and to both speak and acts in ways that draw out the real issues that need to be urgently addressed, not least the very specific criminal actions (by any party) that are obstacles to both the short term relief of suffering and end to bloodshed, and the long term necessity to identify the building blocks that will make for peace built on justice and truth and beginning to offer hope where there is so much despair”.
“I attach for your interest a reflection for FHL that I wrote 24 hours after the Hamas attacks and which has now received wide currency”. In the third paragraph of this document Bishop Langrish provides a poignant quotation about a “massive political (and) moral failure” on the part of the USA, the EU and the international community, in being “mostly content to maintain the status quo as long as it was mostly Palestinians that paid the price”. Bishop Langrish goes on to say that “events such as those of this weekend don’t occur in a vacuum - - -”. He adds that “any realistic diplomatic process must also face and engage with other issues and concerns”, including “Israel’s need for confidence in long-term security and the genuine fears of many Jews - - - -“.
 CAMPAIN, Sabeel Kairos, Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD-UK), Jewish Network for Palestine, Islamic Human Rights Commission, Jewish Voice for Labour, Muslim Association of Britain, Convivencia Alliance, Peacemakers and Protecting Palestinian Families (c/o Sharen Green, Wimborne, Dorset, email@example.com)