Tantur Ecumenical Institute as an Evolving Institution

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Tantur has evolved since its opening in 1972. It appears to have shifted from exclusively an ecumenical academic institute to a lay, clergy, and academic ecumenical center which interacts with its local context. While other academic and interfaith centers exist in Jerusalem, I’ve come to sense that Tantur, as an ecumenical and interfaith institute, plays a crucial role in building bridges. Since I’m an academic who loves reading old, forgotten documents, I’ve gleaned a sense of Tantur as an evolving organization by being only the second person to ask for the early yearly reports of its various rectors.

Tantur as a community has been led by numerous, varied rectors. From 1972 through 1985, these rectors wrote public yearly reports. Yale Professor Paul Minear, a member of the Protestant United Church of Christ, served as initial interim rector in 1971. He was followed by numerous others of which I recognized the name of Father David Burrell, a prolific philosophical theologian, who served for one year 1980-1981. He was succeeded by British historian, theologian, and lay-Roman Catholic Dr. Donald Nichols who wrote memoirs about his Tantur experience. The next two rectors served lengthy terms. Father Thomas Stansky, a very distinguished Paulist priest who as a young priest participated in the inner-workings of Vatican II, served from 1988-1999,;Father Michael McGary, also a Paulist priest, served from 1999-2010. Since 2014, Father Russ McDougall, a Jesuit with many years serving in Africa, has served as rector. While rectors would probably quickly confess that they are not the most important members of Tantur, they nevertheless influenced Tantur’s directions and connections with the surrounding context.

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For the early years, the rectors emphasized the ecumenical and academic nature of Tantur. Jean-Jacques von Allmen, the Vice Rector wrote the first available report from 1972-1973. He set a precedent of recording the number of scholars (20 professors and 10 “Doctoral and Young Scholars,” a list of presentations (17 in English and 11 in French), the Tantur Public Lectures, and the Library holdings. The academic papers and presentations exclusively centered around Biblical studies and church history. Yet the academic focus never eliminated the ecumenical commitment of Tantur. His closing words are inspirational.

“When his Holiness Pope Paul VI granted me a private audience on 14th April last, he expressed his pleasure at the news which I brought him from Tantur, and he underlined once again the ecumenical character of the Institute. He recalled that if, on the road to unity we cannot achieve miracles, we can at least make efforts. Perhaps if these efforts are made in a spirit of humility, openness, imagination and faith, they will transform themselves into miracles. Tantur, only a few kilometers from the grotto of the Nativity, and only a few more from the empty tomb, will not refuse the task of becoming a place where, by dint of theological study and prayer, the miracle of putting together again the dismembered body of the Church of Christ may take place (1972-1973, 25).”

Without exception, the early years are marked by a focus on serious academic theological work in an ecumenical setting. In a way, this work sought to build upon important Biblical, historical, and theological work of the early twentieth century which contributed to Roman Catholic changes initiated by Vatican II. At Tantur, establishing friendships among representatives of various Christian traditions doing serious theological work was paramount. Tantur was not a “holiday home for retired intellectuals (1973-1974, 1).” True to its confessional and church roots, all of this occurred in a setting suffused with prayer and worship. The presence of the six Benedictines from Montserrat reinforcing the ethos of prayer and worship was not accidental or superfluous.

Beginning in 1974-1975, each Yearbook also recorded Tantur’s academic theme for the year. Some of the themes were “Gospel and Life,” “Aspects of Interfaith Dialogue,” “Concept of Salvation in Living Faiths,” “Prayer and the Mystery of Salvation.” On this last theme, Father David Burrell wrote: “Pain and suffering we know as we see the unmistakable indications that unity has not yet come. But there is deep and sustained, as well as sustaining, joy in what we do share. As the Institute spends much time studying prayer, it also happily engages in what it seeks to understand more fully (1974-1975, 13).”

At least as evidenced by the Yearbook, Tantur began to formally recognize its local context. In particular, the relationship between Tantur’s Christians of various denominations and the surrounding Jews and Muslims finally began to surface as an important part of Tantur’s self-understanding and mission. It appears the first explicit incorporation of this broader context involves Tantur’s academic programs. Father David Burrell wrote: “Two areas of study have emerged: Christianity in the Holy Land and the theological dimensions of the relations between Christianity and Judaism.” (1980-1981, 20)

The awareness of the context again surfaced in an important document mentioned by Father Burrell. On New Year’s Day 1981, the Advisory Committee released a report which sought to “clarify the goals of Tantur and to compose a contribution for its governance.” ( 1980-1981, 20) Of the seven goals, the first and third reconfirm Tantur’s ecumenical mission. It is in the sixth goal that Tantur formally recognized its surrounding context. Tantur is “to explore the historical and contemporary links of Christianity with Judaism and Islam.” While tucked away in the sixth of seven goals, this final statement became more and more important as the years proceed.

The Rector’s Report for 1981-1982 looked backwards and forwards. The Rector, Dr. Donald Nichols, looked backward. “For the ‘miracle of Tantur’ is not an idle phrase. Nor is it of my own coining. It was coined by a scholar who assured me that no other phrase does justice to the manner in which good community has been achieved at Tantur over the years against all probability. For, as he explained, you would never a priori have believed that community could be generated out of groups of academics who come to the place in pursuit of their own interests, and, at certain periods of the Institute’s history, have even come and gone like travelers on Grand Central Station, which is hardly a promising locus for community (1981-1982, 25).

Furthermore, Dr. Nichols looked forward as the inter-religious reality of Tantur begins to emerge more visibly. Dr. Donald Nichols wrote: “The reality is that Tantur has become more and more part of the local community. More and more local people, Christian and Muslim, Jews and Arabs, are ready to make the daunting journey up our long drive; and they are beginning to feel at home amongst us. Much of the credit for this is due to those Tantur scholars and their families who go to help in the Bethlehem Home for the Physically Handicapped, at the French Hospital, or the crèche in the Children’s Village. Once again, grace becomes visible when we bus the physically handicapped up to Tantur for a party, or when some of them are taken for a treat to the cinemas (1981-1982, 26).”

The Rector recorded a sad event of 1982-1983 when the monks of Montserrat left. “But even with his eyes firmly closed any Rector of Tantur would have been able this year to see how painful a break in is life and continuity has afflicted the Tantur community with the departure of the Benedictine monks of Montserrat (1982-1983, 29).” He connected St. Benedict to Tantur: “Those of us who have watched the monks of Montserrat so faithful in their attendance at the liturgy and working day after day in the library recognize in them that same spirit of St. Benedict of which Newman speaks so eloquently.”

The final three Rector reported themes for each year: 1982-1983 “Principles of Conciliation in a Divided Church and A Threatened World, 1983-1984 “Israel, the Church, and the World: Religions Face the Future,” and 1984-1985 “Dialogue toward Interfaith Understanding.” These themes reflected a changed situation. Tantur now embraced its local and international context including its social and political dimensions. While not ignoring the ecumenical and scholarly nature of its beginnings, Tantur now organized seminars and tried to build informal relations with its surrounding the Israeli and Palestinian citizenry.

Having embraced its surroundings while keeping the spirit of an ecumenical organization had not been easy. Three changes can be noted. First, for a period Tantur had an “Institute of Peace” led by the Quaker and future rector Landrum Bolling. The emphasis upon violence and war continued even though the “Institute of Peace” was discontinued. I could not uncover the reason for its discontinuance. I wonder if Tantur saw that it could serve more as a “bridge” between communities than as an activist organization pushing one particular agenda. Secondly, the sensitivity to its particular location as an organization intersecting the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim people in 1981 grew to assume a dominant role. In many ways, the recognition of this context probably already existed among staff, for many local Palestinian Arab Christians (and probably Muslims) worked, and still work, as support staff for Tantur. However, this recognition became an important part of Tantur’s Missional priorities. Finally, Tantur recognized, probably as much for financial reasons as any other reasons, that scholars are a small and not wealthy group. Tantur had to assure its continuation by appealing to a broader range of potential participants. Thus, it began to anticipate short-term renewal programs that appealed to scholars, pastors, and lay people.

The recognition of its context created the possibility of friendships. The mission of Tantur to create possibility of dialogue, and even bonds of friendship, between individuals often estranged is crucial. I suspect that it is because of these friendships that Tantur’s visitors regularly take trips to Al-Haram al-Sharif, or for Israeli’s the Temple Mount. There they are guided by the Minister of Antiquities as they visit even the interior of the Dome of the Rock. Such visits are rare these days for almost all non-Muslims.

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Today, the current rector Father McDougall encourages other activities. Tantur’s ecumenical nature is reflected in that it provides an office for two Protestant missionaries, one from the United States’ United Methodist Church and one from the British Methodist Church. Furthermore, Father McDougall and other staff participate in Jerusalem’s Interfaith Prayer Circle which is held once a month. Tantur itself offers “Tuesdays at Tantur” where an invited speaker makes a presentation to an audience of 25-75. As Father McDougall says, “People see Tantur as a place that is safe to meet, a bit of a crossroads.”

Thus, Tantur has evolved. It is born of a vision to create a place where ecumenical friendships between academics could be forged while doing serious theological work. It has sought to respond to the local and broader context in amazing ways. The last Rector’s Yearbook report wrote: “Tantur is still spoken of as a place ‘of great promise.’ Such comments should not only keep us humble, facing the reality of still having to prove both the validity of the original dream and the approaches that have been taken toward its implementation. They should also remind us that all of life is a journey of discovery and that human institutions require continuing reevaluation and renewal.” As others have said, “Tantur is a miracle.”

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