The Church of England issued a major report, “God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian–Jewish Relations,” which examines anti-Semitism, its role in the Holocaust and the importance of Zionism for most Jews. The publisher notes the study “is rooted in the belief that the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is a gift of God to the church to be received with gratitude, respect and care, so that we may learn more fully about God's purposes for the world. It offers a theological exploration of that relationship that is mindful of the prejudice and persecution experienced by the Jewish community throughout history, not least from the Christian church, and is intended as antidote to antisemitism.”
The following is a summary of the report’s key findings.
Three years later, in May 2022, the Church of England apologized for anti-Jewish laws that were passed in 1222 and eventually led to the expulsion of Jews from the kingdom for 360 years. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tweeted: “Today’s service is an opportunity to remember, repent and rebuild. Let us pray it inspires Christians today to reject contemporary forms of anti-Judaism and antisemitism and to appreciate and receive the gift of our Jewish neighbors.”
The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, writes: “While work on this document was under way, the renewed prominence within British public life of concerns about antisemitism, and arguments about the meaning of ‘Zionism’ were reminders that attempts by others to comment on the significance of the Jewish people retain a particular power to damage and divide.”
”We hope [this report] will encourage Christians to be confident in venturing into dialogue with Jewish people about God’s purposes for us, in challenging antisemitism, and in working together for the common good of our society.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury writes: “The Church is being less than its true self when it refuses the gift of Christian-Jewish encounter.” He argues that understanding the Christian-Jewish relationship is “not an optional extra, but a vital component of Christian formation and discipleship.”
“Too often in history the Church has been responsible for and colluded in antisemitism — and the fact that antisemitic language and attacks are on the rise across the UK and Europe means we cannot be complacent.”
“To share the hope of salvation within us, a hope coming from Jesus Christ, is core to what Christians do, but we are told to do so with gentleness and grace. Any sense that we target Jewish people must carry the weight of that history.”
The report sets out five general principles:
- The Christian-Jewish relationship is a gift of God to the Church, 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.
- Truthful thinking and right acting with regard to Christian-Jewish relations follow from “the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness”. They do not undermine it.
- Christians have been guilty of promoting and fostering negative stereotypes of Jewish people that have contributed to grave suffering and injustice. They have a duty to be alert to the continuation of such stereotyping and to resist it.
- Christian belief has a bearing on how Christians view and relate to Jews. Careful discernment is needed as to where Christians should be able to agree on clear affirmations based on that belief, where a range of positions that may be held with integrity can be identified, and where there is a responsibility to challenge views expressed by some people within the Church.
- With regard to both resisting stereotyping and thinking theologically, Christians have a responsibility to ensure that whatever they may say about Judaism is informed by continuing dialogue with Jewish people. It is important to listen carefully and with discernment to the range of voices of Jewish people themselves.
Holocaust denial remains prevalent across a range of different contexts, in this country and around the world, from Internet sources to the notorious antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which can still be found on market stalls and for sale in parts of Europe and the Middle East. In this wider context, Christians need to be aware that some Jews continue to fear that Christianity is itself, at root, irredeemably antisemitic.
Chapter 1 — A Difficult History
“Repentance for the sins of the past means a commitment to walk in newness of life today and to reject such misuses of Christian doctrine.”
“Christianity grew out of the rich and varied world of late Second Temple Judaism. In origin it was one of the many forms of Judaism of its time, and it drew profoundly on the Judaism within which it originated for its understanding of God, humanity, and redemption. . . Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity share common roots in biblical and Second Temple Judaism.”
“The process by which Judaism and Christianity emerged as theologically and institutionally separate religions (often referred to as ‘the parting of the ways’), was complicated and ‘messy’. There was no defining, single moment when the split occurred.”
“Since at least the fourth century, Christianity and Judaism have been separated religions, which have, to a significant degree, defined themselves over against each other.”
“Some have argued that Christianity is at root antisemitic. . . [St John] Chrysostom describes synagogues as dens of iniquity and threatens those who attend them with divine judgement.”
“England had its own role in this history, with a claim to being the birthplace of what became known as the ‘blood libel’, whereby Jews were falsely accused of murdering Christian children to make Passover matzot with their blood. . . In 1290 England became the first country to order the entire Jewish community to leave.”
“Regarding the Jewish people as collectively guilty of rejecting God’s anointed made it natural for generations of Christians to regard Jewish suffering as divinely willed punishment.”
“In the decades after 1945, many churches began searching for a new approach, struggling to reconcile an acceptance of some responsibility for the Holocaust and a desire for a new relationship with Judaism with the difficulty of revisiting long-held teachings.”
“The Church of England’s College of Bishops accepted the IHRA definition of antisemitism with its examples in September 2018, and this document of the Faith and Order Commission also affirms its value for identifying antisemitism in the contemporary context. The examples highlight the way that antisemitism tends to weave together four interconnected claims, all of which should be vigorously resisted: (a) that there is something inherently wrong with Jews as a people; (b) that Jews always seek to control and influence others; (c) that because there is something inherently wrong with Jews, this influence is inevitably to the detriment of those others; (d) that therefore those with authority have a duty to restrict so far as possible the scope for Jews to exercise any influence over others.”
Chapter 2 — A Distinctive Relationship
“While Christians have responded in different ways to Jewish self-understanding as God’s people, they should neither reject it as simply mistaken nor accept it as independent from God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.”
“In the course of the second century, the Church emphatically repudiated the view of Marcion and the Gnostics that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New, and that the Jewish scriptures should, therefore, be excluded from the Church’s canon of sacred scripture.”
There are four responses to the “apparent tension between Christian and Jewish beliefs of the people of God”:
“An unqualified denial of the claim of Jewish people since the time of Christ to be part of God’s chosen people. The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God means that the people of God are now defined as those who receive him and believe in him. Those who do not receive him and believe in him are not part of God’s people today.”
“The second response is an acceptance qualified with some correction of the claims of Jewish people after the time of Christ that they are God’s chosen people. It is accepted that the promise God made to Abraham and his descendants applies to all Jewish people throughout history, religious or secular, who are chosen irrevocably by God to be God’s people, living under God’s covenant.”
“The third response is an acknowledgement of mystery regarding the claims of Jewish people after the time of Christ that they are God’s chosen people. . . It has to accept that there is a mystery here that transcends its understanding in history, though its meaning will be revealed at the end of time. It should not therefore deny the continuing relationship of covenant love between Jewish people and the one God, but neither should it deny the claims it makes on the basis of the Scriptures as summarized in the historic creeds about Jesus Christ as the Son of God incarnate and as the Saviour of the whole world.”
“The fourth response is an unqualified affirmation of the claims of Jewish people after the time of Christ that they are God’s chosen people. . . One of the ways in which this has been expressed over the past hundred years has been to speak of two covenants: a covenant with the Jewish people through Moses, and a covenant with the Church through Jesus Christ.”
“It is difficult to maintain the unqualified denial that Jewish people since the time of Christ have any share in the covenant and promises of God without either undermining confidence in the scriptural witness of the Old Testament to God’s covenant-making with Abraham and his descendants, or separating God’s revelation to Israel from God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.”
“The Church of England should neither deny the continuing participation of Jewish people in Israel as God’s gift and God’s creation, nor limit the grace proclaimed in the gospel of Christ, which is ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek’. Given these parameters, there is a clear case for preferring approaches that fall within the range of the second and third responses as outlined above.”
Chapter 3 — Mission and Evangelism
“Conscious of the participation of Christians over the centuries in stereotyping, persecution and violence directed against Jewish people, and how this contributed to the Holocaust, Christians today should be sensitive to Jewish fears.”
“Moreover, reflection on the Holocaust should remind Christians of how the long tradition of rhetoric attacking Jewish ‘faithlessness’ and ‘stubbornness’ for not accepting Jesus as Messiah, Lord and Son of God provided a seedbed for the horrors of modern antisemitism.”
“There is a particular responsibility to be attentive to the ways in which evangelism . . . can be seen as threatening to Jews and ignorant of that unique relationship to God.”
“Christians will want to remember with gratitude that Jewish people stand in a unique relationship to the God of Israel who has drawn near to us in Christ. . . Jewish people have also been called to bear witness to God.”
“The history of coercive attempts by Christian authorities to force Jewish people into conversion means that their words were always likely to be heard very differently in the Jewish community. Even when violent coercion ended, legal discrimination against Jewish people who would not adopt Christianity remained a reality in many European societies well into the twentieth century and was in some cases widely supported within the churches.”
“In a country such as this one where they form a small minority, the Jewish community can feel vulnerable when faced with the cultural and political influence of the churches, and deeply uncomfortable with the idea that this influence might be deliberately directed at changing the religious adherence of its members.”
Chapter 4 — Teaching and Preaching
“Lay and ordained teachers and preachers, including those who work with children and young people, have a particular responsibility to correct untrue negative images of Judaism in their interpretation and exposition of biblical texts.”
“One of the foundations for Christian-Jewish relations is the overlapping of our scriptural canons, underlined, for Christians, by the fact that Tanakh as it existed in first-century Palestine was the only Bible that our Lord Jesus Christ knew.”
“Those who preach and teach and who officiate in public worship need to be attentive to how the relationship between Old and New Testaments and between Israel and the Church is being presented.”
“Prayers, hymns or juxtapositions of lectionary texts that could encourage the idea that there is something inherently wrong with the Jewish people . . . need to be either set aside or accompanied by careful teaching and commentary that acknowledges these dangers and points in a different direction.”
Chapter 5 — The Land of Israel
“The Holy Land, the land of God’s promise, has a significance for Jews and for Christians beyond the significance of all other lands. It has been the source of continuing hope for Jewish people through millennia of exile and dispersion.”
“Today, however, the vast majority of Jews support the existence of the State of Israel, although there would be a variety of views on its actions and policies.”
“The Holocaust and the emergence of the State of Israel have both played a part in encouraging religious reflection on ‘Israel’ as land and nation. Nonetheless, it should also be remembered that biblical and theological considerations do not play a large part in how a substantial section of Jewish Israelis today view their country.”
“It is inaccurate and unhelpful if Christian theological support for the continuing existence of the State of Israel, whether or not it would describe itself as Christian Zionism, is simply treated as a form of fundamentalism.”
“If Christian theology has sometimes been invoked to give support for the State of Israel, it has also been drawn on as a source for resistance to its actions. . . A significant development over the past thirty years has been the development of what is called Palestinian Christian liberation theology, which has grown out of the experience of the Palestinian Christian community and its shared concerns with other Palestinians for upholding human rights.”
“The importance of justice and peace-making in Israel and Palestine is therefore a valid topic for Christians to discuss, especially with Jewish dialogue partners.”
“Christians around the world have particular reasons for being concerned for the well-being of their fellow Christians in Israel and Palestine, as well as the Middle East more widely, and for feeling a special duty of care for them.”
“So far as forms of Christian Zionism are concerned that are bound up with apocalyptic speculation, the Church must be clear that there can be no justification in Christian doctrine for setting aside the ordinary requirements of justice for the sake of supposed prophetic fulfilment, when justice is at the heart of God’s promises for us.”
“While Christians will take different approaches to a number of contemporary questions regarding the State of Israel, all should accept that (a) most Jews consider Zionism an important and legitimate aspect of Jewish identity, (b) the State of Israel has a right to a secure existence within recognized and secure borders according to the common principles of international law, (c) the principles of international law also guarantee the rights and security of the Palestinian people, (d) the current apparent impasse presents grave moral difficulties and is ultimately untenable.”
Chapter 6 — Ethical Discernment and Common Action
“The differences between Christianity and Judaism with regard to ethical discernment need to be acknowledged, along with a legacy here too of suspicion and misunderstanding. Yet the common ground between Christians and Jews is evident when it comes to seeking to know the will of God for right action.”
“Shared theological teaching provides a shared vision of human life, with its dignity and responsibility, and therefore a shared perspective on human morality.”
“In a context of pressing concerns regarding social and environmental ethics, and where ethical disagreements exercise a deeply polarizing effect within and between societies, Christians and Jews can find significant common ground in dialogue with one another. . . For both, the Holy Scriptures begin with an account of creation, including the creation of humanity, that should frame our approach in all these situations.”
Afterword — The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis
“God’s Unfailing Word, upon which I am delighted to have had the opportunity to reflect, is sensitive and unequivocal in owning the legacy of Christianity’s role in the bitter saga of Jewish persecution.”
“The document’s honest appraisal of the destructive nature and origins of Christian perceptions of the Jewish people is brave and welcome and I commend, indeed thank, the Church of England for its willingness to engage in this moving act of self-reflection.”
He writes of a “substantial misgiving”, however: “That it does not reject the efforts of those Christians, however many they may number, who, as part of their faithful mission, dedicate themselves to the purposeful and specific targeting of Jews for conversion to Christianity.”
“The enduring existence within the Anglican Church of a theological approach that is permissive of this behavior does considerable damage to the relationship between our faith traditions, and, consequently, pursuing a comprehensive new Christian-Jewish paradigm in this context is exceptionally challenging.
Sources: “God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian–Jewish Relations,” The Archbishops’ Council, (2019).
“God’s Unfailing Word: key passages,” Church Times, (November 21, 2019) Reprinted with permission. Additional highlights were added by the editor.
“After 800 years, Church of England apologizes to Jews for laws that led to expulsion,” Times of Israel, (May 8, 2022).