God's Unfailing Word. Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian-Jewish Relations.
The Faith and Order Commission
London: Church House publishing, 2019
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Mini Review by: Archdeacon John Holdsworth
At first glance, the cover of God’s Unfailing Word reveals little of its content. We learn that it is essentially a Church Report from the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England but I suspect that such a title could have been used for any of its reports since its inception. The cover picture is no less esoteric and we only learn its import on page 47 of the book. The small print tells us that the substance of this report is an offering of theological and practical perspectives on Christian-Jewish relations. Carefulness is one of its most evident characteristics. It begins by stating that the Church’s teachings should offer an antidote to antisemitism whilst acknowledging that for much of its history they have served to promote negative stereotypes of Jewish people.
The report therefore begins from the standpoint of ‘the accused’ who has owned up and is prepared to make a full confession. As well as accepting the role of disavowing this history, the report sets out a more balanced and nuanced view of Christian-Jewish relations based on five principles (set out on p. xvii). The first and keynote principle is that ‘The ChristianJewish 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 for all the world.’ The other four set out correctives to the various ways the Church has failed to live up to this basic principle.
The book is organised in two parts. Part One is entitled ‘Theological Frameworks’ and is further divided into ‘A Difficult History’ and ‘A Distinctive Relationship’. It is easy to imagine how the difficult history is described. There are important insights here. For example, ‘the Judaism in which Christianity is rooted is not Rabbinic Judaism’ (p.5). This is a point easily overlooked. Rabbinic Judaism is portrayed as an alternative interpretation of what we might call the Old Testament, contemporary to that of Christian writers and thinkers in the last quarter of the first century.
Nevertheless, it is notable that there is no mention of the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues (as referenced in John 9.22 for example) or the composition of a cursing liturgy against the Christians (described as Minim) by Gamaliel II. There is one whole section on contemporary Christianity and antisemitism which prints in full the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition and examples which have proved recently to be so politically charged and which the College of Bishops accepted in 2018.
The Distinctive Relationship begins, as do all the sections, with a boxed set of Affirmations. These are particularly useful and the casual reader will get a good grasp of what is being said by simply reading these succinct positive summaries. The key idea here is that of a ‘sacrament of otherness,’ a Roman Catholic idea which aims to establish relations with Judaism as a kind of paradigm for interfaith relations more generally.
The second half of the report deals with critical issues. Four are specially identified and for many readers this is when the book will become more interesting and practically useful. The four are: mission and evangelism, teaching and preaching, the land of Israel, and ethical discernment and common action. The teaching and preaching section reminds us that within living memory we used, as a Church, a prayer on Good Friday which urged God to ‘have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels and Hereticks’. Alternative liturgy is suggested. In similar vein we are asked to notice offensive portions of traditional hymns. The section on the Land of Israel is to my mind the best and most carefully crafted in the book.
An afterword is provided by the Chief Rabbi in the UK. He speaks movingly of his relationship with Archbishop Welby but confesses, ‘a substantial misgiving’ in that ‘it does not reject the efforts of those Christians…who as part of their faithful mission dedicate themselves to the purposeful and specific targeting of Jews for conversion to Christianity’ (p.103). Ah well. Perhaps it was too much to hope.
What can certainly be said is that this is the most generous, positive and humble account that the Church has produced on this subject. It does contain some excellent scholarship but, in this format, one wonders who will read it. As a Church report it is probably timely and it was important that something of the sort be written. It is now possible to refer to it as policy when need arises. Justin Welby calls it a ‘teaching document’ though it is difficult to imagine the context where that description might be fulfilled. There is probably a market for a more attractive book in a different and more popular style that reproduces some of its insights. I shall keep it on my shelf.
Featured in Bible Lands, Winter 2021