The Anglican Church of Canada Prays for Reconciliation with the Jews
When I was a young Jewish boy growing up in Montreal, I remember seeing a woman on the sidewalk of St. Catherine Street, the primary commercial thoroughfare of the city, offering free copies of the Christian New Testament to any Jew willing to take one. This was my introduction to Christian efforts to proselytize Jews.
Proselytizing to Jews has a long history. Furthermore, as soon as Christianity became the Roman state religion in the fourth century, proselytization by Jews to non-Jews was made illegal and a capital offense. Proselytization could only go one way.
In 2015, the Vatican released a document that states that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” Now, in 2019, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, one of the largest Christian denominations in the country, has approved the removal from the Book of Common Prayer of a prayer calling for the conversion of Jews. But the change still needs to be ratified at the next General Synod in 2022.
The Anglican Communion News Service notes that the prayer will be replaced with one entitled “For Reconciliation with the Jews,” and that the new prayer was formulated after extensive consultation with a wide range of clergy and theologians, including the Canadian Rabbinical Caucus. The News Service quotes Chris Dow, a priest in the Diocese of Toronto and member of the Prayer Book Society of Canada, as saying “It’s a prayer of repentance, and also a prayer that our attitude towards the Jews would change.” He notes that for 2,000 years, the church has treated Jewish people terribly, ranging from contempt to violence.
The word reconciliation can have two distinct meanings. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it can mean “a situation in which two people or groups of people become friendly again after they have argued”; or, it can refer to “the process of making two opposite beliefs, ideas, or situations agree.”
It is clear that the first meaning doesn’t apply here. The history of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is a one-sided one. This point was brought home to me when I read James Carroll’s book Constantine’s Sword. In it, Carroll refers to the creation in the second century of “a New Testament to stand permanently in tension with what is now designated as the Old Testament.” At the same time, Jewish scholars in Palestine were codifying the Mishnah, a compilation of the oral traditions of the first years of rabbinic Judaism, including civil and religious law along with commentaries and discussion. Carroll, a Roman Catholic and former priest, writes, “At a time when the Church Fathers loudly and aggressively preached and wrote against the Jews,” the Mishnah (here he quotes the Christian scholar Clemens Thoma) “does not contain a single passage clearly denouncing Jesus or Christianity.”
It is the second definition of reconciliation that the writers of the prayer must have had in mind, and they have succeeded admirably. The prayer is a sensitive and moving example of heartfelt repentance, as well as interfaith respect and fellowship. It includes the statements: “Have mercy upon us and forgive us for violence and wickedness against our brother Jacob” and “Take away all pride and prejudice in us, and grant that we, together with the people whom thou didst first make thine own, may attain to the fullness of redemption.”
This conciliatory effort can be contrasted with the bias and arrogance of a 2019 resolution of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa titled “Time to Act: Solidarity with Palestine,” which includes, for example, an effort to disconnect Jews from Israel and Zionism from Judaism, stating: “The current political nation state of Israel and Israel in the Bible should not be confused with each other, and neither should the ideology of Zionism and the religion of Judaism be conflated.” In 2019, some Christian hatred of Jews remains alive and well.
Jacob (Jake) Sivak, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2002, is a retired professor in the School of Optometry, University of Waterloo, where he continues his research interests as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus. He has a lifelong interest in the history of the Jewish people.