Chief Rabbi and Archbishop of Canterbury lament ‘vanishing of religion from public square’

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Chief Rabbi and Archbishop of Canterbury lament ‘vanishing of religion from public square’

Ephraim Mirvis and Justin Welby take the stage for an interfaith conversation at JW3, chaired by Jonathan Freedland.

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

JW3-2023 Pic: Marc Morris photography
JW3-2023 Pic: Marc Morris photography

Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis praised the Archbishop of Canterbury as “one of our greatest friends, a friend of Jews and of Judaism”at a JW3 event honouring Jewish student, the late Yoni Jesner.

Archbishop Welby, meanwhile, spoke about actions taken in Israel  “about which I have heard both the Board of Deputies and the Chief Rabbi express concern”. Most recently this had been the vandalism of Christian graves in a Jerusalem cemetery.

The condemnation of such actions was “hugely appreciated” said the archbishop, adding that the Jerusalem church leaders believed such immediate responses helped them in their relationship with Israeli authorities.

Pic: Marc Morris

The two men were in conversation this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of the Glasgow Jewish student, Yoni Jesner, killed in a suicide bombing in Israel in September 2002. In an often emotional discussion, moderated by journalist Jonathan Freedland, Archbishop Justin Welby said that he was “privileged” to take part in the memorial for Yoni Jesner, adding that he was aware that there would be “families in Israel” currently mourning in the same way the Jesner family had 20 years before.

Both religious leaders were asked to say what were the most difficult conversations they had. But the archbishop said the most pressing problem was not with people of other faiths, but with what he termed “religious illiteracy’”. This was echoed by the chief rabbi, who said he “very much lamented the marginalisation of religion today, to some extent the vanishing of religion from the public square”.

Good friends for more than 10 years, the two men pulled no punches when it came to discussing how religious belief played out in public. Sir Ephraim recalled “the way in which Tony Blair ‘didn’t do God’, his momentous speech in Parliament prior to sending British troops off to fight in Iraq. In his prepared script, he was going to conclude, ‘may God bless you’, and it was taken out by his advisers.”

Ari Jesner, brother of the late Yoni Jesner, JW3, 2023. Pic. Marc Morris

Challenged by Jonathan Freedland to say how far they might go in expressing controversial views on something like BBC Radio’s Thought for the Day, the archbishop and the chief rabbi gently teased each other over their contributions. “I wish I could do it like you”, Archbishop Welby told the chief rabbi, who responded that he had enjoyed the archbishop’s message a couple of days before. “Well, if you swing the bat enough, you’re bound to hit the ball occasionally”, joked the archbishop. More seriously, however, the chief rabbi said that while it was possible to be a crowd pleaser, it was more important to deliver a spiritual message to encourage people to lead better lives — “otherwise why are we in the positions we are?”

Yoni Jesner

Archbishop Welby recalled a Thought for the Day he had been asked to give on Good Friday “when we remember the crucifixion. Naively, I thought I would speak about the crucifixion, but I got a call from the BBC saying ‘there’s a bit too much Jesus in this’. I said, I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury and it’s Good Friday, what do you expect me to talk about?”

But though he was light-hearted about that broadcast, he highlighted the criticism he had received in his Thought for the Day message about Ukraine on the first anniversary of the outbreak of the war. “How dare you”, he had been told, “suggest that at some point there is going to need to be reconciliation? At that point, you have stepped over the boundary.”

Turning to the chief rabbi, Archbishop Welby said: “I don’t know how you feel — but there are moments when I know something has got to be said, in the public square”. He gave as an example the government’s controversial policy on sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. After an emergency phone call with other senior church staff, it was agreed to insert a paragraph in his scheduled Thought for the Day, attacking the policy. “I remember a feeling of longing to skip that paragraph”, he said.

Marsha Gladstone, mother of the late Yoni Jesner, addresses audience at JW3. Pic. Marc Morris

The chief rabbi agreed. “The responsibility weighs very heavily, should you go for it, how is it going to be received…” After he had come into office in September 2013, one of the first issues he needed to deal with was a publication issued by the Church of Scotland, called the Inheritance of Abraham. It was “clearly antisemitic”, Sir Ephraim said, “it subscribed to the supercessionist theory whereby God has rejected the Jews as His Chosen People, and the Holocaust is the direct confirmation of that.”

He recalled that the Jewish community in Scotland had not known what to do and had asked him to help. He went to Edinburgh to address the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and felt “like I was Daniel in the lions’ den”. He was given 15 minutes to make his case.

The immediate result was, with the help of the Principal Clerk of the Church of Scotland, the establishment of joint study groups, priests and rabbis, and, over the last nine years, the development of a glossary of terms for use in mutual understanding.

Archbishop Welby referred to a Church of England document in which the chief rabbi had written the afterword — and denounced the Church’s policy on evangelism directed towards the Jews. Sir Ephraim had, he said, “felt bad” about saying so and had even phoned the archbishop to apologise for his blunt speaking.

For his part, the archbishop described antisemitism as “the taproot of all racism in European society.” He recalled a phone conversation with the chief rabbi before the 2019 General Election in which Rabbi  Mirvis declared his intention to speak out about what was happening in the Labour Party. “I said immediately, I will support you”, Archbishop Welby said, adding that his approach was “rather like diving into a cold swimming pool — the more you think about it, the less attractive the idea is.” And he observed: “To say something was so obviously right, that I knew I would never forgive myself if we didn’t speak out clearly. I know my history: you have to cut these things off straight away, because if you don’t, they become overwhelming.”

When he told his staff that he had committed his support to the Chief Rabbi, the unanimous response was “Good”. But the chief rabbi said that what the archbishop had done “took an enormous amount of courage, and we appreciate it enormously.”

Each faith leader was asked to choose a role model. Sir Ephraim picked the late South African president Nelson Mandela, while the Archbishop of Canterbury singled out former Israeli ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub.

The packed audience were addressed at the start of the event by Ari Jesner, brother of the late Yoni, and at the conclusion by his mother, Marsha Gladstone, who chairs the Yoni Jesner Foundation. Both referred to the decision by the family to donate Yoni’s organs to five needy recipients in Israel, including a then seven-year-old Palestinian girl. The donations, the family said, represented Yoni’s original intention to study medicine, and was a different way in which he had saved lives.

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