SA Anglican ministers break ranks over church’s anti-Israel stance

Reverend John Atkinson, left, and Rev Allan Smith

Originally published in Jewish Report

“What do you do when the leadership of an organisation you’ve spent your whole working life serving adopts a policy or position that your conscience won’t tolerate?” asks Reverend John Atkinson. He is one of four local Anglican Church ordained ministers who recently spoke out against the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s (ACSA’s) anti-Israel doctrine.

Atkinson, along with Reverends Dave Doveton, Dudley Greenshields, and Allan Smith also wrote a letter to the United Orthodox Synagogues’ Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, thanking him for taking a stand against ACSA’s approach to Israel, especially in the light of his recent open letter to Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Dr Thabo Makgoba. In that letter, the chief rabbi said the archbishop was “making a terrible mistake that endangers your own church”.

After receiving the letter from the four ministers, the chief rabbi invited them to meet him, which both parties said was very positive. “We wanted the chief rabbi and the Jewish community to know that there are many Anglicans who would find these policies offensive and a contradiction of our faith,” said Atkinson. “We may be sanctioned, but we aren’t afraid. Standing for the truth and against antisemitism is much more important.”

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The group believes that ACSA’s anti-Israel resolution “expresses the ideological perspective of a small but influential elite, and by no means is representative of the average Anglican in Southern Africa. This is why we have made public our rejection of anti-Israel decisions and policies in our denomination”.

Between them, the four ministers have about 160 years of service looking after congregations within their denomination. Two of them were lecturers in theological institutions. All of them have a wealth of experience in their chosen professions.

They are close to retirement, so their careers are unlikely to be negatively impacted by speaking out. “It won’t make us popular, but that doesn’t worry us,” said Atkinson. “There are more people who would speak out if their careers wouldn’t be impacted.

“The average Anglican hasn’t thought about the Middle East at all,” he said, so the Jewish community needs to know that it’s not like three million people have turned against Israel. The ministers will therefore work to increase education and awareness.

He was moved by the meeting with the chief rabbi, and hopes that it “will open the way for greater dialogue between our communities and a greater appreciation of the values we share”.

Delving into why they have taken a stand, he said “this crisis of conscience was precipitated by a resolution that was passed at the highest decision-making body in the denomination in 2019 to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions [movement] and call for a boycott of Israel. The resolution also called on local bodies within the church to adopt these measures.

“Since then, the chief rabbi has had discussions with the Anglican Archbishop, only to be rebuffed. This has been of particular concern because of rising incidents of antisemitism in South Africa,” said Atkinson.

In the letter to the chief rabbi, they wrote, “We want to convey our assurance to you that not all Anglicans support the aforementioned [anti-Israel] synod resolution. Indeed, we are appalled that people in our church would even think of proposing such an antisemitic stance and shocked beyond belief that the synod would uncritically and without any debate pass the resolution.”

A synod is a council of a church, usually convened to decide an issue of doctrine, administration, or application.

They said they weren’t against the criticism of any state and its policies, “but the one-sided diatribe against the government of Israel elected by the people of Israel and the total alignment with certain militaristic organisations bent on the destruction of the Jewish homeland is beyond belief”.

It had caused “much grief and disappointment, as it casts a slur on all of us. The simplistic analysis ignores the role of other countries and organisations who play a direct and indirect role in geopolitics and conflict in the region, and one suspects is meant to advance a propagandistic narrative and shut down other points of view. Certainly, no representative of the Israeli state was invited to give their perspective at the synod.”

The ministers said that “to lay all the blame on the Israelis amounts to scapegoating, which as you are all too painfully aware, is a classic hallmark of the scourge of antisemitism”. They were also deeply disturbed by the resolution calling on them to boycott Israeli companies. “What a terrifying reminder of the horrific genocidal acts against the Jewish community in Europe,” they wrote.

They disagree with the assertion that the present state of Israel isn’t tied to “the historic Jewish nation recorded in the sacred Scripture that we as faith communities share. We believe that it’s a thinly veiled attempt to undermine Israel’s right to exist, and is against the historical record. This, too, is a mark of antisemitism.”

They questioned why a church which is based thousands of kilometres away from the conflict “should be so committed to the promotion of one narrative and the total exclusion of the other. If our church is so concerned about the lives of Palestinians, why was it silent about the deaths of 3 383 Palestinians in Syria? We believe the answer is obvious.

“We would like to assure you that we will remain faithful and vocal about Israel’s right to exist and defend itself against attack,” they said. “We will continue to engage with other Christians on these issues to ensure that the pro-Palestinian narrative isn’t the only voice that is heard.”

“The significance of their letter struck home to me powerfully,” Goldstein said. “It shows that there is another voice within the Anglican Church and the Christian community in South Africa, so many of whom love and support Israel and appreciate its role in the world.

“We can easily make the mistake of thinking that certain politicians or religious leaders speak for the country when they come out with such anti-Israel vitriol,” he said. “This letter is indication of a much broader movement of South Africans who have a completely different view. It’s important for us to know that we have many allies and friends across the length and breadth of this country. That’s why I wanted to meet with this group who wrote to me, to express to them on behalf of our community how much we appreciate their friendship and their partnership in getting this message out.

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“I’m sure that their letter will encourage others to come forward. Often people feel intimidated and don’t want to speak out. We need to create an environment in South Africa where all citizens can come forward and show their support. There is an enormous groundswell of the silent majority of South Africans who support Israel. I met this group to encourage them to get the message out so that more people can come forward and express their true views.”

Going forward, the ministers will work to “encourage the support [of Israel] in the Anglican population and beyond”, according to Atkinson. “The Jewish community can assist us in this endeavour by communicating with Christians they know about Israel and the Jewish perspective of the Middle East.”


  1. Liberal and liberation theology has been the stance in the Anglican Church here in South Africa since Desmond Tutu became Archbishop.
    Many Anglicans do not endorse this, so I do wonder how they remain in this divided and compromised denomination, although I understand that many local churches have not compromised.
    Liberal and liberation theology has also been prevalent in the Anglican Church in the UK and the Episcopalian Church in North America.
    Gavin Ashenden, former Chaplain to the Queen, resigned when he could not accommodate the prevailing compromise. He wrote this blog:

  2. I disagree with the Israeli government’s violation of the human rights of Palestinians. It is the Israeli government’s behaviour that I dis-approve of, they may or may not be practising Jews, it has nothing to with it,

    • What exactly do you know about the incredibly complex history of this situation pontificating from you sofa thousands of miles away? The only ones violating the rights of the Palestinians are Hamas. Call them to account and there might be a chance for peace? Unless you actually approve of using the Palestinians as human shields, stockpiling arms in civilian areas and kneecapping your opponents? Then when even the Arab countries start to see through the Palestinian victim industry, Hamas rains down 4000 plus rockets on civiilian targets all over Israel, Muslims, Jews, women, children. Who cares? Clearly you don’t.

  3. Hugh G Wetmore

    There are many sides to the Palestine-Israeli question, and “Liberation Theology” is not one of them. I quote from “Why Israel?” (Porcupine Press 2019 p525) “Open Shuhada Street (OSS) is an initiative started in January 2009 in Cape Town by anti-Zionist Jews to promote human rights in Israel and Palestine to raise awareness about the lack of freedom in the West Bank and Gaza reflecting the greater injustice of the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories. OSS wants full civil rights for all israelis and Palestinians and an end to the occupation” It is a simple matter of “Justice and Righteousness and kindness to the alien” as God requires in the Torah. If Jews themselves recognise the illegitimacy of their unjust rule in the OPT, then perhaps the Anglican Church may be right in siding with them. There are many sides to the Palestine-Israeli question. Christians must side with God for “kindness, just and righteousness in humility” (Jeremiah 9:23,24). Ezekiel 21 says that God Himself is an enemy of an unfaithful Israel Don’t we agree on this? This moves us to pray for Israel to repent and conform to God’s Law. We should also distinguish between “Zionism” and “Judaism”, just as we previously distinguished between Apartheid and Afrikaners. Some Afrikaners (e.g. Ds Beyers Naude) were anti-apartheid and pro-Justice. There are many sides to the Palestine-Israeli question.

    • Any chance of calling the Palestinians, especially Hamas, to repent? Or is that outside your idea of “righteousness?”

  4. You are right, there are many issues in the conflict; way back after World War II, when the Levant was a wasteland of desert and wandering tribes, France, the UK and Russia divided up the land they won from the Ottoman Empire. A tiny slip of land was given to the Jews, with all the vast surrounding lands granted to the Arabs, not least of which was rightly to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca and other Arab leaders, who supplied considerable manpower to the Allies for the overthrow of the Ottomans.
    With the consistent and enduring Palestinian rejection of any and all peace initiatives with Israel, most recently during the U.S. Trump presidency where the Palestinian boycott and dismissal of a plan the people did not get to see “was terribly frustrating for ordinary Palestinians.” It calls into question the commitment of the Palestinian leadership not only to peace but to the very welfare and safety of the Palestinian people. The latest was a detailed portfolio of projects to stimulate economic growth with the aim of doubling the Palestinian GDP and creating more than 1 million new jobs as well as reducing poverty and unemployment rates. Taking into account all the peace initiatives to end the conflict between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs over the last 83 years, commentators suggest we must consider the possibility that the Palestinians – or at least their leaders – do not want to establish their own state.
    Their sight is set on the big prize, the annihilation of – and their occupation of – the entire state of Israel.
    What the Arabs today claim as Palestine is a impractical patchwork, not designed by Jews or Arabs, but originally by the UN in 1947, which was accepted by Jews and rejected by the Arabs. Since then, the United Nation’s biased and discriminatory attitude to Israel has sabotaged the world’s attitude and feelings toward Israel and the Palestinians. In the most recent round of hostilities 4,300 rockets were launched from Gaza at Israel (of which over 600 fell in Gaza itself). No UN resolutions have ever been passed condemning the PA, Hamas, Al Fatah, Hezbollah, recognised terror organisations, etc that use children as human shields, murder journalists and carry out warfare against civilians…. Since the UNHRC’s creation in 2006, it has made more resolutions condemning Israel alone than on issues for almost the rest of the world combined.
    Yes, it is a gemorse, a balagan, a birds nest and bowl of spaghetti of made and broken promises to both sides by foreign entities for more than the last 70 years. It is my prayer that all these historic issues festering with bitterness may be set aside to recognise the de facto situation on the ground and to cease hostilities for the mutual benefit of both sides of Abraham’s family.