In January 1842, a German-born Jew named Michael Solomon Alexander entered the old city of Jerusalem and began his work as the first Anglican Bishop in the Holy Land. As a young man he had taught Hebrew in England, and there he was later ordained a rabbi. Soon after, Alexander became a follower of Jesus in 1825 after meeting several Anglican clergymen who introduced him to the Gospel.
Not surprisingly, he was ostracized by the Jewish community although he remained proud of his heritage after coming to faith. Alexander was a lecturer of Hebrew and Rabbinic literature at Kings College London when he was chosen to be the first Anglican bishop in the Middle East. In addition to other work, he translated the Book of Common Prayer and the New Testament into Hebrew. He was an early advocate of the need for Christians to learn Hebrew and Jewish sources from the Second Temple Period in order to better understand their faith. He was also convinced that the people of Israel would return to their Promised Land, and once there, that God would pour out his Holy Spirit upon them, and upon all mankind.
When Bishop Alexander arrived in Jerusalem, he had no cathedral and almost no congregation. He set to work sharing the Gospel with his Jewish co-religionists and began building Christ Church. Although little is known about his personality, Bishop Alexander is remembered for his compassion. At that time, Jerusalem was a dirty, decaying town in a forgotten corner of the Ottoman Empire and in response to the poverty and unsanitary conditions, Bishop Alexander established the first modern hospital in the Holy Land. The small impoverished Jewish community received ill treatment from both Muslims and Christians alike. He was quick to help the poor, especially those Jews who had lost their livelihood after becoming followers of Jesus of Nazareth. At his enthronement, the Archbishop of Canterbury charged Bishop Alexander to open a college for the education of Jewish and Gentile believers. But after only three years in office, Bishop Alexander died unexpectedly in 1845 and did not live to see the completion of Christ Church.
There had been many delays. Political and religious opposition from the Ottoman Turks had to be worked through. Then, no one local was found capable of building a modern structure with such high ceilings and thin walls, so stone masons had to be brought in from Malta. Finally, in 1849 the simple Gothic building was completed. From the outside it differs little from many Anglican churches. However, once inside the building has more similarity to a synagogue than to a local parish church. The communion table and stained-glass windows contain Jewish symbols and Hebrew script, and like all synagogues in Jerusalem, the church faces the Temple Mount. On the Eastern wall of the church, the words of Jesus and the Apostles’ Creed are engraved in Hebrew. In fact, the church was so Jewish in appearance that in 1948, when it became necessary to prove to a angry Jordanian Army that the unusual building was indeed a Christian house of worship, the then rector Rev Hugh Jones, hurried to the souk to buy an olive wood cross to place on the communion table.
Even though relatively new by Jerusalem standards, Christ Church has a fascinating history and is the only church in the Old City that fully acknowledges our ancient Jewish roots in its liturgy, symbols, and architecture. Christ Church is indeed one of the most unique churches in Jerusalem.
For the complete story of the personalities and political intrigues surrounding the establishment of Christ Church, see “For the Love of Zion,” by Kelvin Crombie (available in the Immanuel Book Store or the Heritage Centre).