Bishop Ipgrave is Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews.
Many thanks to him for a fascinating lecture, and to Winchester Cathedral for organising it.
In honour of Licoricia of Winchester:
Christian-Jewish relations in England
Winchester Cathedral, 19th May 2022
I am deeply honoured to be invited to contribute to this series of lectures to mark the legacy of Licoricia of Winchester. In fact, this is a bit of a Licoricia month for me – two weeks ago I was in Oxford, for a service in Christ Church Cathedral to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Synod of Oxford in 1222. That synod, introducing the reforming zeal of the Fourth Lateran Council to the English Church, was responsible for a series of anti-Jewish decrees which would have shaped the environment in which the young Licoricia grew up. But the family connections with her are closer still – Licoricia’s second husband was the fabulously rich David of Oxford, whose house was next to where Christ Church stands now.
So our gathering in Oxford was a moving event, made all the more poignant as we heard Jewish music and Hebrew recitation of the scriptures in the cathedral built almost on the site of Oxford’s medieval synagogue. We recalled with sorrow and shame a painful chapter in the story of Christian-Jewish relations in this country. In a powerful reflection which she gave during the service at Christ Church, the Jewish scholar and writer Rebecca Abrams (whose book on Licoricia I await with eager anticipation) reminded us of other disgraceful turning points in the history of medieval England’s treatment of the Jewish community – notably, the first appearance anywhere in the world of the so-called blood libel, in 1144 in Norwich, and the first permanent expulsion of an entire Jewish community from any European country, by edict of Edward I in 1290. Given that sad and negative history, it is particularly important that Winchester’s Licoricia statue positively celebrates the achievements, the prosperity, the influence and the courage of this remarkable Jewish woman in medieval England. It stands to us as a reminder both of the continuing vitality of Jewish life even in the darkest and most difficult of times, and also of the many ways and places in which Christians and Jews have lived and worked together. Despite ecclesiastical rulings like those of Oxford which sought to distance the Christian and Jewish communities, our histories were intertwined (until the royal decree of expulsion severed the relationship), and we have been living and growing together again for almost four centuries since the return of Jews to this country.
However, Licoricia ended her life tragically, murdered in her own house; and her youngest son, Asher, was imprisoned in the great castle of this city. Rebecca Abrams reminded us that there, in his captivity, Asher scratched on the wall of his cell a reference to the Torah portion Emor, from the book Leviticus. That portion includes the verse Lev 24.22: ‘You shall have one manner of law, as well for the alien as for the citizen’: a cry for God’s justice for all people from an oppressed Jew in this Christian kingdom.
Overall, it has to be said that the story of Christian-Jewish relations in thirteenth century England is a sorry one; and it is itself just one English chapter of a longer European history, first of Christian anti-Judaism and then of secular antisemitism. The legacy of those centuries is still with us, and they need to be addressed. That is what we were trying to do in a small way in Oxford two weeks ago; it is what Christians ecumenically have been doing in all the churches for over six decades now; and it is what a recent document called God’s Unfailing Word has tried to do for the Church of England in particular. That report was published in 2019, and I want to take it as a reference point for what I am saying tonight about Christian-Jewish relations. Its full title is God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Pastoral Perspectives on Christian-Jewish Relations, and it is quite a long and dense document – as you might expect from something written by a Church of England working group (which I had the duty and the joy of chairing) – so I want to take three simple words to guide us through some of what it is trying to say. Those three words are ‘remember’, ‘repent’, and ‘rebuild.’
Remembering is both easier and more difficult now than at any time in human history. In terms of retrieving information, the dramatic technological advances of this century mean that in almost any place almost any piece of knowledge can be summoned up almost instantly: our capacity for storing information has become almost illimitable. But that means that human remembering is in many ways more difficult for us: the more we subcontract our memories to an electronic library, the less they are part of us, and the more difficult it becomes for us to allow them to shape our behaviour. But the exercise of human remembering is surely central to Judaism. The great Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his seminal study Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, described Judaism as ‘a technology of memory, a set of practices designed to make the past present’: we could also say, a discipline which is practised to form our lives for the future through learning from the past. Or, in the late Lord Jonathan Sacks’ words, ‘Judaism insists that memory is essential for identity.’
This is in principle true of Christianity also – the church is a religious community which is constituted by gathering around the remembered words of Jesus in the gospels and performing the actions which he commanded us to do ‘in remembrance of him.’ But maybe Christians have been more prone to amnesia than Jews, in the sense that they have been more ready to move out of narrative and practice and into theory and system. I believe that one of the great blessings of the Jewish community to the Church is to remind us of the importance of remembering, and this is particularly so in an age like ours fraught with the danger of forgetting.
God’s Unfailing Word starts from the firm principle that ‘The Christian-Jewish relationship is a gift of God to the Church, which is to be received with care, respect and gratitude, so that we may learn more fully about God’s purposes for us and all the world.’ One of the most important markers of the distinctive relationship which links Christians and Jews is of course our shared scriptural canon in the Hebrew (and Aramaic) scriptures, about which the report says: ‘Although there are significant differences between Christianity and Judaism in their reading of these common texts, both receive them as inspired by God, enabling the people of God to hear the word of God today’.
The Bible repeatedly emphasises the command ‘Remember’ as central to living in the way of God. Yet ‘remembering’ in the Bible can mean either of two rather different things. ‘To remember’ can mean to call back into the mind something that had fallen out; the scriptures frequently present ‘forgetting,’ whether deliberate or inadvertent, as the opposite of remembering in this sense, or rather as the lamentable state to which remembering is the antidote. But in other contexts forgetting is not really in the picture at all, and remembering means keeping at the forefront of the mind, and bringing into further prominence, something that is always acknowledged to be there. For example: as the people of Israel are about to enter the land of promise, the Lord exhorts them through Joshua: ‘This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night’ (Josh 1.8) Calvin, commenting on this passage, remarks that the book of the law is not to depart out of your mouth rather than from your eyes, as we might have expected, because it is constant recitation of the law that makes it part of people’s life and so gives them courage.
As we look back on the history of Christian-Jewish relations, Jews mostly remember in the second sense, and Christians in the first sense. That is to say, as Christians we are turning back to face a reality which we have largely forgotten, of Christian denigration, exclusion and persecution of Jewish people. We are reminded of something which has never fallen out of Jewish remembering. We need to learn from Jewish memories.
For us Christians, this kind of remembering needs to lead to repenting. I will say more about the concept of repentance later, but let me first map out some of the content – that is, the matters which are cause for repentance. To begin specifically with the 1222 decrees of the Synod of Oxford, which I mentioned earlier: These included: that Jews were not to employ Christian servants; Jews were not to enter churches for any reason; they were, nonetheless, to pay church tithes; they were not to build any new synagogues. There were also provisions for the excommunication of Christians who developed friendships with Jews or who sold them provisions. It is instructive, as always with legislation, to deduce the social situation into which these decrees were enacted, and that presumably was one with a considerable degree of interaction between Christians and Jews – as indeed some aspects of the life of Licoricia herself suggest. It was to stop such interactions and enforce separation that the most infamous decree of the Synod was promulgated: that Jews should at all time wear identifying badges, of a different colour from the rest of their clothing, so that ‘by their effect a Christian is able to discern a clear sign of a Jew.’ There is a direct line from this requirement to the yellow stars of the Third Reich.
The Synod of Oxford was one moment in the wider story of this country, which set the tone for a society hostile too and denigratory of Jewish people. It is important to remember that this was not simply general prejudice against people who were different; it found its justification in specific Christian ideas and practices in relation to Jewish people, and that is why repentance has to be the right response for Christians. There are many other aspects of Christian anti-Judaism which fed into what the French historian Jules Isaac famously called l’enseignement du mépris, the ‘teaching of contempt’ in Christian history. Here are a few examples, of varying levels of severity, in no particular order, and by no means exhaustive. This is, I fear, rather a catalogue of woes:
Jews being held collectively guilty for the death of Jesus Christ, sometimes on the basis of Mt 27.25, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’; such allegations being pressed home particularly during Passiontide and Holy Week liturgies recalling the death of Jesus; their status as a people without a land of their own (prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948) being seen as God’s punishment for this guilt;
the so-called blood libel, i.e. the baseless myth (first recorded in this country) that Jews would murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, usually the making of Passover matzos; conversely, allegations of Jews ritually desecrating the eucharistic host;
views of Judaism portraying it as a mere fossil or relic since the coming of Christ; teachings which insist that Judaism has been replaced without reminder by the Christian Church, without reference to texts such as Rom 11.29, ‘the gifts and the calling of God [to Israel] are irrevocable’; interpretations of the Bible in preaching or teaching which contrast a supposed legalism or violence of the Old Testament with a grace and peace of the New Testament;
Jews being required to listen to Christian sermons denouncing their obduracy; Jews being forcibly converted – that is, faced with the alternatives of baptism or death (or sometimes expulsion); baptised Jews being punished if they seek to revert to their ancestral faith.
The list could be extended further, and you may notice that I have deliberately jumbled up several different kinds of phenomena here. There are extreme acts of hostility, defamation or cruelty (blood libel, forced conversion), which no Christian in this country would justify today; there are matters of theological teaching, which may nonetheless have practical consequences; there are questions of biblical interpretation; and so on. Some of these lamentable behaviours are largely from the past; others are a present reality. But these distinctions are not always easy to draw: people would draw different boundaries and trace different lines of influence in this list.
The underlying point is, that here is a massive body of teaching and practice which has in the past undoubtedly generated hostility towards, and suffering for, our Jewish brothers and sisters, which derives its force from Christian ideas, which still has a legacy among us in the Church, and which has contributed to wider currents of antisemitism in society. The argument of God’s Unfailing Word is that this clearly should elicit from us as contemporary Christians a response of repentance. While this is welcomed by many, it is contentious for some, and I want now to mention four particular objections which are raised to the whole concept of repentance, whatever the content; in responding to these, I hope that the meaning of ‘repentance’ as used in this context will become clearer.
In the first place, when plans to mark the 800th anniversary of the Synod of Oxford were first being discussed, there was some talk of the Church ‘issuing an apology’ to the Jewish community. And then people complained that this was just another example of ‘apology culture,’ and they had had enough of that. But in fact this is all about repentance, which is a different concept to apology – deeper and more long-lasting, requiring amendment of life not mere words, and – crucially – involving our relationship with God as well as with others.
Still, some would say, I cannot meaningfully repent for something done by somebody else at another time, in which I have had no direct involvement. I have received several communications in the last couple of weeks arguing this point, some even claiming that it is in fact immoral to practise or to ask for repentance in such a situation. Yet this seems to me to rely on an unduly individualistic account of moral agency and responsibility, which needs to be deepened and broadened to take account of the corporate continuity through time of the Church as the Body of Christ. God’s Unfailing Word says this: ‘The concept of responsibility for sin being shared by members of a community both past and present has deep roots in Christian tradition, including the Scriptures. Where the continuing effects of past sins by members of the one Body of Christ continue to be felt and where those sins have not come to an end, then members of Christ’s body here and now are bound to seek God’s mercy.’ It is that seeking of God’s mercy which is at the heart of our repentance as members of the Body of Christ.
A more specific historic point has been raised by people who have expressed bafflement that the Church of England should be expressing repentance for something that happened before it was even created. Whether or not there is implication of present individuals in past sins, the argument here is that there is no institutional continuity to give the established Church a proper locus in this matter. Of course, this raises the highly contested question of who is the rightful heir to the late medieval Church in England, the Ecclesia Anglican as it was generally and suggestively known. But we do not really need to argue the church history one way or another for our present purposes. We simply need to acknowledge that all branches of the Christian Church in this country were and are, in varying degrees, inheritors of the shameful anti-Judaism of that Church.
Finally, some would say, repentance is surely not the main priority today; it must be more important for us to focus on the challenges we face in our own generation and society and respond to those, rather than to dwell on the decrees of a church council from 1222. But this seems to me to pose a false alternative, and it does so because it fails to recognise the power of memory which I talked about earlier. It is the forgetting of past sins which means that we do not recognise what God’s Unfailing Word calls their ‘continuing effects.’ One of the ‘continuing effects’ of Christian anti-Judaism in the past is a present antisemitism in our society which reaches far beyond the Christian churches; we can only address that, in partnership with Jewish colleagues, if we face honestly our own historic teaching and practice and seek a better way for the future.
God’s Unfailing Word says this about the proper sequel to repentance: ‘It needs to lead to a commitment to walk in newness of life, accepting disciplines of changed behaviour that follow from that.’ For reasons which I hope will become apparent, I want to use the word ‘rebuilding’ to describe this reorientation which must follow as part of our repentance. ‘Rebuilding’ is a word with rich biblical resonances, from the physical reconstruction of city walls, through the reshaping of norms of action, to a commitment to establishing a better and more just world. In every dimension, though, there is an emphasis on taking up responsibility for the future which God intends for us. That sense of responsibility needs to be found in the theological foundations on which Christians build their new attitude to Jews; it needs to find expression in ways in which the Christians and-Jews relate to one another; and it provides a basis for Christians and Jews to serve the world together. This rebuilding is a work in progress, which really got seriously underway with the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Decree on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions,’ Nostra Aetate, in 1965, and which has since spread across the ecumenical family. In a sense, God’s Unfailing Word is the Church of England’s taking into its understanding and teaching the insights of Nostra Aetate and all that has flowed from that.
In the first place, then, for the foundations of our rebuilding project we Christians need a firm and right faith in the God of Israel, whom we believe to be also the God and Father of Jesus Christ. So much anti-Judaism and antisemitism can be traced back to distorted and mistaken Christian teachings; and one antidote to these evils must be a theology which takes seriously the witness of the scriptures to the God who first called the people of Israel to be a light to the nations. The Gospel entrusted to the Church has to be good news for all; it follows that our understanding of Christianity must be deepened by truthful thinking and right acting with regard to Jewish people – these do not undermine or dilute the apostolic faith but rather they strengthen it.
In a chapter headed ‘Teaching and Preaching,’ God’s Unfailing Word points to a number of areas where our understanding and presentation of Christian truth can fail, and often does fail. One is the widespread absence of serious attention to the Hebrew Scriptures, called by most Christians the ‘Old Testament.’ Although of course these form an integral part of the Christian Scriptures, and are appointed to be read regularly in churches, they are often in practice omitted or ignored, or used simply as a foil to contrast with the New Testament. When they are addressed in Christian preaching and teaching, they are often used just to quarry texts pointing forward to prophetic fulfilment in Jesus Christ. It is salutary for Christians tempted to do this to engage seriously with the wealth of Jewish exegesis of the scriptures; although the results of that exegesis may not be possible for Christians to accept entirely, knowledge of it can help to a deeper appreciation of the integrity of the Hebrew texts, and can lead to fresh insights into their meaning for us today.
In relation to the New Testament also, particular care needs to be taken with regard to the interpretation of texts which have been taken out of context to justify and promote anti-Judaism (for example Jn 8.44, ‘You are from your father the devil’ or Mt 27.25 ‘His blood be upon us and on our children’). Generic terms like ‘the Pharisees’ or ‘the Jews’ (particularly as used in John’s gospel) need careful discussion, rather than being presented in stereotypical terms. More generally, the origins of many combative New Testament passages in arguments between different groups of Jewish people needs to be remembered; it is neither fair nor ethical to suppose that words spoken in family quarrels can be simply transferred to other, very different, circumstances. Conversely, the deeply complex and often positive attitudes to Judaism of Paul and others have often been overlooked in favour of a blunt supersessionism teaching the replacement of Jewish people by the Christian Church in God’s purposes – this does not do justice to the dialectical reasoning of Rom 9-11. We need to recapture a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the New Testament in its Jewish context. A resource I have found helpful in this regard is the very detailed Jewish Annotated New Testament edited by Amy-Jill Levine and her colleagues.
God’s Unfailing Word also points out that, alongside the interpretation of Scripture, there needs to be ‘sensitive attention’ to liturgy, worship, hymns and iconography in Christian churches, to ensure that, as far as possible, these do not unwittingly denigrate or disparage Jewish people or the Jewish experience. This is a vast and complex area, which can often raise strong passions, particularly when it is proposed that, for example, words in well-known and -loved hymns should be omitted or modified. Although of course they do not enjoy the canonical status of Holy Scripture, familiar and oft-sung texts can have a strong emotional resonance for worshippers, and there is sometimes a choice to be made between radical alteration on the one hand and careful explanation on the other hand.
As we rebuild our faith on firm foundations we aim also to rebuild and deepen trust between Christians and Jews. The last six decades, from Nostra Aetate onwards, have begun to see a transformation in the ways in which our communities view one another, but there is still a long way to go, certainly from the side of Christians. Trust can only be won through building friendship, through learning about one another, through treating one another with respect, through facing difficulties and disagreements openly, honestly and courteously. At the Council of Christians and Jews, we are wholly committed to this great project of rebuilding trust; we know that it is a challenging and never-finished task, which needs to be renewed in every generation. Most importantly, there needs to be a frank recognition that Christians do and will continue to differ from Jews in the faith that we profess, in the religion that we practise, in the pattern by which we order our lives. We should not be diffident or embarrassed about those differences, and God’s Unfailing Word in fact tackles two particularly contentious issues head-on.
One is the question of mission and evangelism in relation to Jewish people. This is a matter about which many in the Jewish community feel very strongly, seeing organised attempts to convert Jewish people to Christianity as essentially a continuation by other means of the patterns of forced conversions which they experienced in past history, and an attempt to obliterate Jewish identity. In fact, when the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, graciously provided an ‘afterword’ in response to God’s Unfailing Word, which was printed as part of the same volume, this was a point which he raised. Despite his warm appreciation of the Church of England’s facing up to, and repudiation of, the ‘teaching of contempt,’ the Chief Rabbi expressed ‘substantial misgiving’ that it did not explicitly reject the ‘efforts of those Christians who … dedicate themselves to the purposeful and specific targeting of Jews for conversion to Christianity.’ The reality is that there is a wide range of attitudes to this subject within the Church of England, from those who would agree with the Chief Rabbi that any missionary activity directed towards Jewish people is inappropriate, unnecessary and possibly immoral, right through to those who would argue that, on the contrary, withholding from Jewish people the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ is itself a form of antisemitism. Certainly more dialogue is needed on this thorny issue, both between Christians and Jews and between Christians and Christians.
The other issue highlighted as raising issues between Jews and Christians is that of the Land of Israel, and the significance of the State of Israel. This in fact proved the most difficult chapter of all to write in God’s Unfailing Word, and it regularly appears as a contentious issue within inter faith conversations in this country, particularly those that involve Jews, Christians and Muslims. Again, the reality is that there is a very wide range of views among Christians (and a fair spectrum of opinion within the Jewish community too). This is also an area where the danger of reviving antisemitic ways of speaking and acting is ever present, particularly when people are understandably feeling passionate about issues of justice, belonging and statehood. Speaking from the perspective of the Council of Christians and Jews, we find that much of our most challenging work, but potentially also our most valuable work, is in this area, helping people to listen carefully and respectfully across conflicting narratives and highlighting the deep complexity of the issues at stake.
In referring to the Chief Rabbi’s afterword about mission and evangelism, the Archbishop of Canterbury in his foreword to God’s Unfailing Word remarked: ‘His words are written as a friend, and they are received in a similar spirit, however tough they are to read. As a result, I take the challenge of his afterword with immense seriousness.’ That shows how growing friendships between Christians and Jews really can rebuild trust so our two communities can talk together better and work together better. But our purpose in rebuilding cannot be limited to getting on with one another better as Jews and Christians. Both our religions teach that we are responsible to God for more than our own communities. We are called to rebuild the world for God and with God.
There is a resonant Hebrew phrase to mention here: tiqqun olam. Tiqqun olam literally means ‘repair of the world.’ It has its origins in rabbinic Judaism, where it referred to ‘amending the law in order to keep society well-functioning.’ It was also deployed in kabbalistic mysticism to describe the liberation of divine sparks to reunite them with God’s essence. But in much contemporary progressive Jewish thought it is seen as a theological basis to the quest for social justice. In that sense, it is not dissimilar to the goal of ‘building the Kingdom of God’ which many Christians would identify as primary for them – and of course that Kingdom project has deep roots in Judaeo-Christian thought and practice. To seek to reshape the world, or even our own society, in line with God’s purposes and for God’s glory is indeed a hugely daunting task, and in the current state of affairs we might be tempted to give up in despair. But we do as Christians and Jews share the hope of the Kingdom of God, and we do believe that the way we live our lives, the values we commend, and the messages we give are all designed to point to that Kingdom. If that shared hope is to be more than vague aspiration or empty rhetoric, it must begin from facing difficult realities from our past. We must remember with clarity what has happened and its impact; we must repent with sincerity for our turning away from the path of justice and mercy; we must rebuild in trustful partnership with one another. The more we commit to remembering, repenting, rebuilding like this, the more we in our own time will honour the memory of Licoricia of Winchester and her family.