The Vicar of Baghdad
By Timothy George
If Jesus came back to the Middle East today, I think he would look a lot like the Reverend Canon Dr. Andrew White, the Anglican Chaplain in Iraq and Vicar of St. George’s Church. The “Vicar of Baghdad,” as he is called, carries out his work in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. He does the kinds of things every pastor does: He preaches, performs weddings, baptizes, offers communion, gives counsel and comfort to his congregation, makes mince pies for his church members at Christmas. He also presides at funerals—lots of funerals. One Sunday on his way to morning worship at the church, Canon White counted sixty dead bodies strung up on lampposts and discarded along the road, victims all of the latest round of post-invasion sectarian violence.
Who is Canon Andrew White, and what does he think he is doing in a place like that? He answered that question in the opening words of a speech he gave not long ago at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “I need to be perfectly honest with you,” he said. “I love Iraq more than any other place in the world.”
Today Christians of all kinds are under attack in Iraq and might be facing extinction soon. This is part of the larger trend of what has been called “religicide” in the region: the intentional killing off of a particular religion within a given region or area of the world. Around the year 1900, Christians constituted a sturdy minority of some 10 percent within the Middle East; today that number is down to some 1-2 percent and declining rapidly. Not so long ago, Iraq could count some three hundred Christian churches. Today only a few dozen are left in the entire country.
Most Westerners have a short-term memory about Iraq. We think: Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime, the Gulf War and the 2003 coalition-led invasion. But, though Saddam is gone, conditions on the ground are worse today for Christians than they were eleven years ago—not unlike the man from whom one demon was expelled only to be possessed by another, more virulent variety (cf. Luke 11:24-26).
But there is a longer history to be remembered. Baghdad was once the center of a thriving Christian civilization, intellectually and culturally robust, spiritually deep, and focused on missionary expansion, especially to the “countries of the sunrise.” Two recent books tell this story well: Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (2008) and Robert Wilken, The First Thousand Years (2012).
According to Christian tradition, the apostle Thomas stopped by Baghdad on his way to India and gathered the first Christian congregation there. The ministry of Canon White at St. George’s recalls those apostolic foundations. The congregation sings praises not to “Jesus” but to Yeshua. The Lord’s Prayer is recited in Aramaic, the language in which Jesus gave it to his disciples. Canon White is called abouna, “father” (related to the New Testament word abba), by his parishioners.
Although Canon White turns fifty this year, he has had enough adventures to fill several lifetimes already. First trained in medicine at St. Thomas Hospital in London, he responded to a “clear call” to ministry and studied theology in Cambridge and at Hebrew University. (“Most people love either Israel or the Arabs,” he said. “I love them both.”)
At age thirty-two, he was appointed as Canon of Coventry Cathedral, which houses the Church of England’s International Centre for Reconciliation. That was the same year he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that has affected his speech and left him walking with a cane. His own sufferings have made him more sensitive to the sufferings of others. St. George’s Church is not only a center of worship; it is also a medical clinic, a pharmacy, a dentist’s office, and a food distribution center. “We give food relief—a bag of groceries for each person after prayers,” White said. Canon White cares for the hungry and dispossessed because he follows the Christ who did the same—and because no one else there will.
At 6’3”, Canon White is a formidable presence despite his visible affliction. But his tall, broad frame is filled with the soul of a gentle pastor. He is a soldier of Christ who fights without a gun, one who understands irony and also has a great sense of humor. He encounters everyone he meets with the love and hope he finds in Jesus Christ. No doubt this is why he has been such an effective agent of reconciliation and an honest broker in many hostage negotiations.
Because he has earned the respect of religious leaders on just about all sides, Canon White has been able to promote dialogue and mutual understanding in a region where the best efforts of our most skilled diplomats have not met with success. For example, he works closely with both Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq; he has broken bread with Yasser Arafat and carried on discussions with Hamas and leaders in Israel. White was once summoned to a late evening dinner with Uday and Qusay Hussein, the infamous sons of Saddam. We don’t just deal with the nice guys, White said. “The nice guys don’t cause the wars.”
Before becoming the Vicar of St. George’s in Baghdad, Canon White was the Church of England’s Middle East envoy, a position once held by Terry Waite. In 2005 White established the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME). When asked where he stood theologically, White replied: “Islamic leaders are very orthodox, and they want to know that you are as serious about your faith as well. The fact that I am orthodox in my faith means that I can get a lot further with Islamic leaders. I believe in God; I believe what the Bible says; I believe in everything I’m supposed to as an orthodox Christian.” The one group within his own Christian community that seems to irritate him most are those he calls “wooly liberals.”
I can cope with anything. I can cope very well with orthodoxy—Greek orthodox, Syrian orthodox, Armenian orthodox—I can cope with Anglo-Catholicism, evangelicalism, charismatics. I just can’t cope with the wooly liberal bit in the middle that doesn’t believe much.
Canon Andrew White’s remarkable ministry has come with a price, not the least of which is his transcontinental commuter marriage. His wife and children still reside in Hampshire in England, and he tries to get home to see them for several days each month. Back in the Middle East, by necessity he wears a flak jacket over his clerical collar and cross. He is in and out of helicopters, war zones, and armed caravans with the alacrity of a gospel-toting James Bond. One of Canon White’s gifts is the ability to face mortal danger and not be afraid. He tells others what he hears Jesus saying to him: “Don’t take care. Take risks.”
For his humanitarian and reconciliation work, Canon Andrew White has received numerous recognitions and awards—from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian organizations alike. This spring he will be presented with yet another one, the William Wilberforce Award. This annual award is given by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview to honor those whose life and witness have made a lasting impact. When I called to tell him about the award, he was delighted. “You know, my first parish was in Clapham, the home of William Wilberforce.”
You can meet and hear Canon White at the William Wilberforce Weekend , May 2-4, 2014, in Chantilly, Virginia. You can also see a fascinating documentary (part I, II, III, IV) about Canon White’s life and work produced by ITV in Great Britain.
Published 2/24/14 at First Things.
is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and is chairman of the Board of Governors of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.