Christians must repent for centuries of antisemitism which ultimately led to the Holocaust, the Church of England has said in a document that seeks to promote a new Christian-Jewish relationship.
However, the church’s move to take responsibility for its part in Jewish persecution was impaired by stinging criticism by the chief rabbi of the continued “specific targeting” of Jews for conversion to Christianity.
The document, God’s Unfailing Word, is the first authoritative statement by the C of E on the part played by Christians in the stereotyping and persecution of Jews. Attitudes towards Judaism over centuries had provided a “fertile seed-bed for murderous antisemitism”, it said.
Theological teachings had helped spread antisemitism, and Anglicans and other Christians must not only repent for the “sins of the past” but actively challenge such attitudes or stereotypes.
“The attribution of collective guilt to the Jewish people for the death of Christ and the consequent interpretation of their suffering as collective punishment sent by God is one very clear example of that,” it said.
“Within living memory, such ideas contributed to fostering the passive acquiescence if not positive support of many Christians in actions that led to the Holocaust.
“Christians have been guilty of promoting and fostering negative stereotypes of Jewish people that have contributed to grave suffering and injustice. They therefore have a duty to be alert to the continuation of such stereotyping and to resist it.”
The document acknowledged that two C of E cathedrals, Norwich and Lincoln, were associated with the spread of the “blood libel” in the late Middle Ages. Jewish communities were falsely accused of abducting and killing Christian children to use their blood in the making of Passover matzos (unleavened bread).
“This allegation, originating in England, became the catalyst for the murder of many Jews in this country and across Europe, especially in pogroms at Eastertide.”
Both cathedrals now have signs referencing their role in the blood libel. In Lincoln Cathedral, a plaque says: “This libel against the Jews is a shameful example of religious and racial hatred which, continuing down the ages, violently divides many people in the present day.”
On Israel, the document said the Holy Land had significance for Jews and Christians “beyond the significance of all other lands”.
It added: “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 recognised 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.”
The document urged Christians to “think carefully” about evangelising their Jewish neighbours. “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.”
However, in an afterword to the document, Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi, criticised the church for failing to “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”.
A 2015 Vatican document made clear that the Catholic church would not attempt to convert Jews. Mirvis added: “The enduring existence within the Anglican church of a theological approach that is permissive of this behaviour does considerable damage to the relationship between our faith traditions.”
The chief rabbi pointed out that his ancestors were “faced with the brutality of the Crusades; it meant being forced to choose between converting to Christianity or certain death”.
The C of E document was “sensitive and unequivocal in owning the legacy of Christianity’s role in the bitter saga of Jewish persecution” and was “brave and welcome”, he said. But there was “a real and persistent concern, set in a tragic and historical context, that even now in the 21st century, Jews are seen by some as quarry to be pursued and converted”.
In a foreword to the document, Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury – known to be personally close to the chief rabbi – said Mirvis’s comments were “written as a friend, and they are received in a similar spirit, however tough they are to read”.
He added: “The chief rabbi has opened, with characteristic honesty and affection, a challenge upon which we must reflect. We cannot do that reflection honestly until we have felt the cruelty of our history.”