by Jean Mayland
from Signs of the Times No. 37 - Apr 2010

Ralph and I were fortunate to have our week by the Red Sea in Egypt again this year. Ralph very much wanted to go to St Katharine's Monastery once more, and so off we went driving in the coach through the awe inspiring wilderness of Sinai with its barren rocks, formidable mountains and miles of sand.

The week before we went, Egypt had had an extraordinary eight hours of rain - the first for 40 years we were told by the guide - funny I thought that those 40 years keep turning up! As a result this time we actually saw some pools in the wilderness - little oases which were delighting the Bedouin.

On the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity leaflet just before I left home I saw Bob Fyffe had written about the Ecumenical Movement being in the wilderness. (We used to talk of an ecumenical winter- at least it is warm in the wilderness!) In the long long journey towards women priests and bishops we of MOW and WATCH have often talked of being in the wilderness and have held wilderness liturgies or celebrations of joyous steps on the way by imaginary oases.

Gay and Lesbian people also talk of journeying though the wilderness and striving for the 'Promised Land'.  The last blessing of a Civil Partnership to which I went was held in a marquee and the preacher spoke  of gay people being in the wilderness and worshipping in a tent like the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land.

I began to think that this wilderness must be getting rather crowded. Still on our journey we did not see crowds, just a few Bedouin. There were a lot of coaches and small crowds at the monastery as people hastened to go round before we all got turned out at 12 noon. There was the well where Moses met Zipporah, conveniently situated by the burning bush just in the shadow of Sinai - the mountain of law giving!

Guides, whether Christian or Moslem told the same stories, and people seemed to be drinking them in. This rather cynical former tutor on the Old Testament did not believe a word of it - yet the place is hallowed by centuries of prayer and the icon gallery also contained a fantastic lot of old manuscripts which thrilled me.

Soon after our return I went to evensong in Hexham Abbey and came home to find Ralph watching Ann Widdecombe on the tele. He was thrilled to see St Katharine's again. I was angry that Ann Widdecombe was so literalistic and dogmatic and drove Stephen Fry to the point where he had to walk out or he might have hit her!

A critical theologian tried to speak but was firmly dismissed as a secular atheist. How I would love to have done battle with her!

As Professor John Robertson says in his book The Old Testament World - 'the history of Israel begins with Israel. That is, it begins with an association of tribes that were occupying the Samara and Bethel Hills and possibly parts of Lower Galilee around 1230 BCE'.

The narratives of Abraham and Moses and the journey in the wilderness he describes as belonging to a different category of writing, one with a religious purpose rather than an historical one. Behind the story of the flight from Egypt and the desert wanderings there may well be a historic experience of very small group of tribes who became absorbed in the rest of the nation. What is significant is the foundation story of faith it enshrines and around which collected stories of the experiences of other tribes. The Exodus stories formed a kind of magnet around which the iron filings of the stories of the other tribes were gathered and fused into the story of the nation... The wilderness/covenant story became the faith basis of the whole community - its credos - and eventually became written down either just before or after the Exile as the story of all that gave them their identity and their relationship with God.

To me this is much more thrilling than Ann Widdecombe's literal interpretation. In my view it is part of the essence of MCU to help people to see that critical theology makes things more exciting and wonderful than literalism.

What a brilliant story is and truth is enshrined here! It was a story that gave the Israelites new hope, new inspiration, time and time again. It was a story hung on to in the concentration camps of the Second World War.

The escape, the wilderness, the promised land: these concepts, this imagery have inspired black slaves in the West Indies,  Africans suffering from apartheid, women longing to be priests, gay and lesbian people searching for equality and full acceptance, and now those who have given their lives for the ecumenical movement... There is, I believe an ecumenism of the marginalised, a fellowship between oppressed groups that should teach us all sensitivity and care. We have all learnt from our wilderness experience.

The wilderness is terrifying but it is also stunningly beautiful and even in the wilderness there is much to be enjoyed.

There are many times when 'going through the vale of misery we use it for a well and the pools of it are filled with water'.

Jean Mayland is a retired priest and former Co-ordinating Secretary and Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.