The Holy Sepulcher as a Collective Action Problem

Inspired by last month’s announcement of an agreement to repair the Church of  the Nativity in Bethlehem, over the break I read an interesting recent book on the church’s sister shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which many Christians believe to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Like the church in Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulcher  is shared among monks from three different Christian communities, Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Latin (Roman Catholic), according to something called the “Status Quo,” a kind of customary law dating to Ottoman times, which governs possession and use of the church in minute detail.

It is not an entirely harmonious relationship. Monks from the rival communities not infrequently come to blows in disputes about use of altars. Only a couple of weeks ago in Bethlehem, monks got into a fistfight about who had authority to clean parts of the Church of the Nativity in preparation for Christmas celebrations. You might think these fights are driven by theological differences, but those are somewhat secondary. Under the Status Quo, cleaning an area is an assertion of possession. So communities bitterly resent unauthorized attempts to tidy up. Similarly, because paying for repairs likewise indicates possession, the communities often block each other’s attempts to repair common areas of the church, like the roof. This can lead to delays in necessary maintenance that place the church in danger of collapse.

From a Christian or even conservationist perspective, all this is very disedifying. From the perspective of a secular lawyer, however, the Status Quo is fascinating. In Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue Their Holiest Shrine (Oxford 2008), Hebrew University Professor Raymond Cohen describes the decades-long process by which Armenian, Greek, and Latin monks negotiated an agreement to make essential repairs to the Holy Sepulcher, which had reached a terrible state by the middle of the last century. Working within the Status Quo,  the three communities, each of which distrusted the other, somehow worked out a modus vivendi that allowed them to save the shrine. (One important prod: the communities’ fear that if they didn’t reach agreement on saving the church among themselves, secular authorities would intervene and upset the Status Quo in a way each would find unpleasant). The process led, if not to affection, then to a kind of  mutual regard among the monks – at least some of them. Cohen’s story is one of the triumph of rationality over a massive collective action problem: inspiring, no matter what one’s religious commitments.

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