Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 17 July 2011
17 July 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
Last week, in the first of this sermon series on ‘Religion in a world of Faiths’, I began by charting some of the changes in public perception of religious faith over the past ½ century. Catastrophic acts of terror such as the Holocaust or, more recently, 9/11 have created an impression that religious faith is a problem for society, and yet the tradition of an open and generous belief has persisted.
At moments of importance within our national life – state funerals, the recent Papal visit or Royal Wedding here in the Abbey – religious faith has been seen to have great attractiveness, by providing a narrative for our public life which seems to create a cohesion that political life lacks.
I identified the perceived conflict between world faiths and their violence towards one another as one of the stumbling-blocks to a coherent re-statement of this ‘binding’ narrative. So this week I am moving on to look at how one of the key markers of a liberal democracy, freedom of faith, is worked out in the relationship between Jews and Christians.
¶ But first, let me ask you to spend a moment reflecting on your own experience of Judaism and to ask where you gained that experience.
How much of it has been learnt from secular or practising Jews you have known, or perhaps synagogues and Jewish communities you have visited? How much has been shaped by the constant stream of news coming out of Israel and the Palestinian Territories? How much has been deeply embedded through your understanding of Scripture and the world of Judaism which Jesus inhabited and which is refracted through the lens of the New Testament?
This is a complex area: each one of us will have particular encounters with individual Jews and found them to be many and varied.
So the first point I want to make is very simple: there is no more a monolithic and uniform experience of Judaism as a practised faith than there is of Christianity. Judaism is a living and vibrant faith, practised in its own right and without the need for affirmation or permission from any other faith.
Worldwide, some 13½ million people identify themselves as Orthodox, Reform, Liberal or Secular Jews. 4 in 10 live in the State of Israel, 4 in 10 live in North America. The UK has a population of some 300,000 whose contribution to our national life far outweighs the number of adherents.
¶ And if that vibrant kaleidoscope is not bewildering enough, let me ask you to consider a second fundamental. Given what I’ve said about Judaism as an autonomous world faith, how should we Christians relate to it?
The approach of our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church is worth noting. The names of Pontifical Councils of the Roman Curia, the departments of the Holy See in the Vatican, give a broad outline of the main spheres of Christian engagement.
• Promoting Christian Unity
• Justice and Peace
• Inter-religious Dialogue
• Promoting New Evangelization
But I wonder where you think Christian – Jewish relationships properly lie? It may surprise you that they do not sit under ‘Inter-Religious Dialogue’ nor even under ‘Culture’, but rather under ‘Promoting Christian Unity’.
That is to say, for the Roman Catholic Church, relationships with Judaism are not about inter-Religious dialogue with another faith, but a parent-child, brother-sister relationship which reflects the absolute and unbreakable connection embodied in Jesus himself, who remained as a Jew faithful to the inheritance of his faith.
In taking this stance, the Roman Catholic Church is bearing a close witness to Scripture. Think of St Paul writing in Romans 11 where he talks about the Gentiles being grafted in onto the root of Israel:
“17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, 18do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you”.
It must be said, however, that this is a starting-point not for all Christians and certainly not accepted by many Jews. Neusner states that ‘Judaism and Christianity are completely different religions, not different versions of one religion … they stand for different people talking about different things to different people’ .
¶ So Judaism is a living faith in its own right. Many Christians will feel a particular bond of affinity beyond that with other faiths. But how is that relationship worked out in practice?
Behind the scenes since the Second World War, Christians and Jews have been making progress in their relationship. The oldest inter Faith organisation here in the United Kingdom is the Council of Christians and Jews, founded in 1942 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi to work tirelessly for dialogue and understanding.
The Roman Catholic Church has been particularly active since the 1960’s when the first Catholic document on inter Faith relations was published during the Second Vatican Council. The 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate (In Our Age) gives the Catholic Church’s authoritative Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions. The first draft was completed in November 1961 and originally went under the title Decretum de Judaeis (Decree on the Jews), but the revised version included other faiths.
The Church of England has also been vigorous in this field, publishing the report: Sharing One Hope? The Church of England and Christian-Jewish Relations in 2001, which deals directly with some of the most challenging questions in Jewish-Christian relations: anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the State of Israel.
Written from a specifically Anglican perspective, Sharing One Hope identified 7 areas where Christians agreed on how to live with their Jewish neighbours:
• repudiation of anti-Semitism (as sign post of good faith)
• continuing vitality of Judaism (rejection any view of Judaism as a fossil)
• unacceptability of ‘replacement theology’
• need for education
• the ‘Jewish-ness’ of Jesus
• sensitivity in liturgy – explicit preaching against prejudice
• sharing one hope, the kingdom of God
Nor should we assume that the traffic has all been one way – that is, Christians trying to sort out how they relate to Jews.
In 2000, the document Dabru Emet (Heb. דברו אמת "Speak [the] Truth") was published in the New York Times as a Jewish contribution to this debate. It concerns the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and was signed by over 220 rabbis and intellectuals from all branches of Judaism, as individuals and not as representing any organisation or stream of Judaism.
While affirming that there are theological differences between these two religions, the purpose of Dabru Emet is to point out common ground and a legitimacy of Christianity, for non-Jews, from the Jewish perspective.
To give a flavour:
“In recent years, there has been a dramatic and unprecedented shift in Jewish and Christian relations. Throughout the nearly two millennia of Jewish exile, Christians have tended to characterize Judaism as a failed religion or, at best, a religion that prepared the way for, and is completed in, Christianity. In the decades since the Holocaust, however, Christianity has changed dramatically”.
• Jews and Christians worship the same God
• Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book - the Bible (what Jews call "Tanakh" and Christians call the "Old Testament")
• Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel
• Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon
• The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture
In a world where just two or three generations ago many Christians were involved in the murder of millions of Jews, this transformation is little less than miraculous and should be a source of great encouragement. Next week, I will be moving on to consider the relationship between Christians and Muslims.
So I end with a practical thought. Ask yourself what you know of the living faith of Judaism. If you find yourself that much of your understanding comes from the television portrayal of the Israeli-Arab conflict, or from Sunday School depictions of 1st century Palestine, then – for God’s sake and for humanity’s sake – set yourself the task of learning more. Seek out your local synagogue, find out about current Jewish practice and, by your own actions, become yourself an answer to those who believe religion to be violent or evil.