Archbishop hosts reception to celebrate a decade of Christian Jewish relations
Wednesday 5th December 2012The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams hosted a reception to celebrate a decade of Christian Jewish relations, during which he reflected upon the importance and significance of the relationship between the two faith communities in the UK and internationally.
In a speech addressed to guests the Archbishop reflected on the current state of Christian Jewish relations, focusing on “the immense importance of building up the next generation of dialogue”, the commitment to “an unrelenting opposition to any resurgent of anti Semitism” and the building of “a society in which we know we can trust one another because we know that the other’s promises are true and valid and strong”.
Archbishop Rowan was joined in speaking by the Bishop of Manchester and Chair of the Council of Christians and Jews the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews Mr Vivian Wineman and a member of the Lambeth Jewish Forum, Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers.
The afternoon was an opportunity to celebrate the important part that Christian Jewish relations have played in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ministry over the decade in which he has been in office. The event highlighted the work of the Council of Christians and Jews as the CCJ celebrates its 70th anniversary, and the Church’s relations with the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
A transcript of the Archbishop's address follows:
Looking back over these ten years, I’ve found an enormous range of profoundly enriching experiences to look back on. And some of the most enriching have been those which I want to use this afternoon just to underline what I think are the priorities for years ahead.
Some of those experiences have been, as Bishop Nigel has suggested, in dialogue with young people. I remember in this room, a few years ago, welcoming some of the young school students who had accompanied the Chief Rabbi and myself to Auschwitz on our visit. It was a bitterly cold afternoon and this hall can be extremely unwelcoming on occasions like that, but there was no lack of fervour and commitment and warmth in the discussion that emerged around the table. Lord Sacks and I were convinced that we shouldn’t leave that visit just as a memory to look back on in isolation, but that we should make the most of the relations built with some of the young people who had accompanied us so that it would be possible to lay down some kind of marker for the future. Likewise, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with Lord Sacks at a school in Pimlico, London, some years ago for Holocaust Memorial Day, and the regular experience of sharing a platform with the Chief Rabbi on that occasion here in London and also in Liverpool. Those two are amongst my most vivid memories of recent years. Because, as we look around the world of Christian Jewish dialogue, there is – saving the presence of a good many people in this room – a certain preponderance of the “over-45s” in this world and we desperately need to create a new generation as committed and as imaginative as the generation above and the generation above that.
So I want to use this occasion to underline the immense importance of building up that next generation of dialogue, working with our schools and our universities to keep this dialogue and this relationship alive and well. Of course, to locate this priority in the context of schools and universities is to say that we have to go where it’s difficult. Because I guess that everyone in this hall this afternoon will know that in the university context especially there are some very particular pressures, which Jewish students will speak of very eloquently at this time. We need to be there as people committed to Christian Jewish understanding. We need to be there facilitating, assisting real honest and fruitful conversation, rather than the sterile stand-off that so often happens with its inching towards prejudice and exclusion. That, for me, is a priority that we can all recommit to on this occasion and I believe it is of the first importance. Young people, when engaged in dialogue, will often quite rightly say things that are not scripted or expected. That is why we encourage it, because we can’t simply go on rehearsing familiar kinds of argument, familiar kinds of point or familiar courtesies. We need to have our world opened up afresh by a new generation.
I suppose, over these ten years, the whole enterprise of trying to set up slightly more durable structures for dialogue has arisen from something of the same motive. We’ve wanted to go beyond mere politenesses, we’ve wanted to have some kind of lasting vehicle for talking candidly with one another. Reference has already been made – very generous reference – to the Lambeth Jewish Forum, and internationally I’d want to mention the Anglican Jewish Commission. The dialogue with the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has been one of the most notable new developments of the last ten years, and it originated basically with a conversation in Jerusalem with the Chief Rabbis who wanted to know why the Anglican Communion wasn’t doing as much as the Roman Catholic Church to promote dialogue with the Jewish community. Now, there is nothing that will get Anglicans moving as quickly as the suggestion that in some respect Roman Catholics are doing better. So we hastily responded and put together what was initially a personal relationship between the Rabbinate and Lambeth Palace but which very rapidly turned into a Commission, regularly meeting and exchanging papers of very high quality and dealing with wide-ranging and often quite neuralgic issues. I think the work of that Commission has been of quite remarkable excellence and penetration over the years. It hasn’t very often broken the surface of the media or public awareness, but that doesn’t matter. Something is being built there, something of great value and lasting significance. I’ve certainly profited enormously from absorbing the work that’s been done by members of that Commission on both sides. And in that context, as Vivian [Wineman] has so characteristically generously said, it is unavoidable that we confront those most difficult topics around the State of Israel and the regional political crises that constantly afflict the State of Israel and its neighbours.
I want to say two things very briefly about that. The first is, Vivian, to look back on a couple of occasions when the Board of Deputies has been kind enough to have me as a guest and when I have been allowed to raise awkward questions without being silenced. I’ve been heard, answered, challenged, but not at all discouraged. It was some three years ago, at the City of London school, your old school, where I had the privilege of a public conversation in front of a large mixed - and largely young -audience discussing some of these very difficult topics and being allowed to raise some of the questions that preoccupy so many of us about the policies of the State of Israel, about the settlements and being able to raise those with candour and to discuss them freely. That freedom of discussion is a very hard-won thing and always fragile, because the history of Christian Jewish dialogue is a history of imbalance in power. It is not surprising that Christians regularly feel in this relationship that they’re never gong to be in credit given a history like that. We are quite hard to trust, if I may put it bluntly, in such a context. That it is possible at all to raise some of these questions is an enormous tribute to the courage and generosity of Jewish partners in this, and also (if I may say so) to the persistence of Christians in wanting to go on engaging - I am grateful to both for this. These issues are still as hard, as agonizing, as they were a few years ago and they’re not likely to get any easier, but that is what leads me to my second observation on this.
Thinking about it recently, the words that came to my mind were words that in Christian scripture Saint Paul addresses to the church in Corinth. He has spent most of his second letter to the church in Corinth addressing the most awkward, embarrassing and searching questions to his converts in Corinth - and frankly being very rude at times. And towards the end of this he imagines some of the reproaches and questions that come back: why do I ask these things, why do I say these things to you. And he says, “Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do.” Why does anyone ask searching questions like that except out of love, and what right has anyone to ask searching questions except out of love. If Christians want to raise such questions, if they want in trust, confidence and sometimes confidentiality to raise such questions, I pray God that they do it in love. That’s what we are all, I believe, challenged to do.
Out of the work of the Anglican Jewish Commission indirectly came a very substantial piece of work which the Anglican Consultative Council recently discussed: a study document on the phenomenon of Christian Zionism. But in that context the authors of the report offered a very exact and sympathetic analysis of the different meanings of the word ‘Zionism’ (which in itself a very helpful clarification of terms) and at the very end set out a series of propositions, very boldly beginning “We believe all Anglicans can and should sign up to the following…” and “No Anglicans can and should sign up to the following…”. In the first list, the study document proposed that all Anglicans should understand that there is no point in trying to engage in Judaism without considering the question of the land - Bishop Nigel’s point earlier. All Anglicans should sign up to the proposition that there is no point in engaging in this dialogue without acknowledging what I called earlier the imbalance in power in our history. And no Anglican should sign up to the idea that there is a solution to the regional problems that simply privileges one case, one history, one side, or that endorses or backs indiscriminate violence and the killing of civilians. And so the document goes on.
It is, I believe, a very skillfully crafted document and I was very glad indeed and rather moved when in a recent conversation with the Israeli Ambassador he expressed appreciation of the care and balance of that document. I believe we need to go on working at some of those things: as Anglicans, what can we and must we say together; what can’t we and mustn’t we say? The clearer we are about that, the better chance we have of some kind of trust being built up and some kind of candour in our conversation continuing to develop.
So, not an easy moment, but when is it ever? That being said, how much grace and freedom have we discovered with another? I believe a great deal. And my own sense of personal indebtedness to the friendships I’ve shared with many many people in this room and many others in the Jewish community – my sense of that is very sharp indeed. To take just one other kind of example, the friendships with the Woolf Institute and with Ed Kessler’s work in Cambridge have been to me of great inspiration and delight. I’m really pleased to see such a level of intellectual professionalism brought to bear in that context and I know that once again in subtle and long-term ways the work done there will spread and will shape a future.
Personal relationships are of great importance and I’ve already mentioned the friendship I’ve enjoyed with Lord Sacks over these years. Bishop Nigel has made some very generous remarks about that as well. I believe that Lord Sacks has reminded all of us in this country that the voice of (let’s be bold) “revealed religion” in public life is not after all the preserve of an eccentric minority but goes right to the heart of the questions most of us most need to hear answered, and he has done a great deal to shape a whole public discourse around this. Certainly his intervention at the Lambeth Conference gave us a new vocabulary for thinking about some of our problems. And I think that is the experience that many have had. To be alongside him watching him evolve this language and seeing how many bells it rings, that has been for me an education in itself.
But on a quite different note, I want to pay tribute to another relationship which may surprise you, and that is the experience of a face-to-face meeting with the Sephardi Chief Rabbi in Israel. Listening to him expounding scripture in the context of our dialogue meetings has been rather like listening to one of the great sages of the classical periods of Jewish learning. It has been a miraculously eye-opening and heart-enlarging experience to hear someone coming so much from the heart of a tradition unfamiliar to me and unfamiliar I suspect to many. It has been a point of contact with one of the most life-giving elements in the Jewish world of thought and prayer. And although our relationship has not been as regular and simply relaxed and social as that with the Chief Rabbi I value enormously those occasions when I’ve been able to listen and absorb what Rabbi Amar has had to say about scripture and realise something of that ‘holy envy’ that was referred to a little while ago, the holy envy of someone so immersed in a tradition of wisdom.
So - a great deal to give thanks for personally, a great deal I want to give thanks for collectively, and a great deal to give thanks for in terms of what I believe are the strong common commitments binding us all in this room. And of those commitments I would simply say that there are perhaps three worth flagging at this moment.
One of them I’ve already mentioned, and that is our commitment to raise a new generation devoted to dialogue and understanding in the same way. The second commitment we share is an unrelenting opposition to any resurgence of anti-Semitism or of any other variety of racially or religiously based exclusivism and the imbalances of power and the toxic threat of violence that goes with them. We all share that commitment. And I believe the third commitment is quite simply the commitment we share as people of faith to building together a society in which - to borrow shamelessly from Jonathan Sacks - relations of covenant, relations of mutual promise dictate how we relate to one another. A society in which we know we can trust one another because we know that the other’s promises are true and valid and strong. We all of us believe in our different vocabularies and approaches that that is possible because of the promise that God himself makes to us. The challenge is whether in our society we can build a promise-keeping ethos that will transform our social ethics and our common vision.
Together then, witnessing to that covenant-based vision of ethics, I think that nationally and internationally there are great things that we can do. We shall be able to do those things if we continue to be in candid, friendly, loving, challenging relation. I trust that what we’ve learnt together and experienced together in this decade all goes very well for that future, and I pray God’s blessing on that. Thank you once again for your attendance today and for all the gifts received from you in this context over these years. Thank you.
© Rowan Williams