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July 13, 2021 12:23 pm
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Amid ‘Worsening Antisemitism’ in UK, Church of England to Offer ‘Repentance’ for Anti-Jewish Decrees of Thirteenth Century

avatar by Ben Cohen

A detail of the medieval ‘Rochester Chronicle’ depicts the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. Image: courtesy of British Library

The Church of England is planning to offer “repentance” for an anti-Jewish decree issued 800 years ago that forced Jews to wear clothing distinguishing them from Christians — an early example of a practice made infamous by Nazi Germany with its “Judenstern” (“Jews’ Star”).

Adopted by a gathering of Church leaders at Osney Abbey near Oxford in 1222, the decree was designed to prevent marriages between Christians and Jews. It read: “There being unfortunately no sufficiently visible distinction between Jews and Christians, there have been mixed marriages or less permanent unions; for the better prevention whereof, it is ordained, that every Jew shall wear on the front of his dress tablets or patches of cloth four finger lengths long by two finger-lengths wide, of some color other than that of the rest of his garment.”

Around 3,000 Jews are thought to have lived in England at the time.

Some historians have reported that in the same year, a young church deacon who was studying Hebrew at Oxford University was burned alive for heresy. The deacon, whose name has been lost, had apparently converted to Judaism, undergone circumcision and married a “Jewess.” He is supposed to have repudiated Christianity by declaring, “I renounce the new-fangled Law and the comments of Jesus, the false prophet.”

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The decree mandating Jews to wear a “badge of shame” was issued when Christianity in England was still subservient to the Catholic Church, coming more than 300 years before King Henry VIII broke with the Pope in Rome. Originating with the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the decree on clothing was accompanied by another measure that banned Jews from holding public office.

The Jewish community was eventually expelled from England in 1290 on the orders of King Edward I. Jews were not allowed to officially reside again there until 1656, when they were permitted to return during the middle of an eleven-year long “commonwealth” when England was ruled by Oliver Cromwell.

The Church of England’s plan to repent for the anti-Jewish measures of 1222 has been given added urgency by a growing climate of antisemitism in the UK.

Jacob Vince — a lay member of the church synod — submitted a written question to its leadership, which meets this week, asking whether the 800th anniversary which falls next year “might be an opportune moment for the Church of England to consider breaking with some of these historic prejudices,” given “the rapidly worsening antisemitism in the UK in recent months.”

The Bishop of Lichfield, Dr. Michael Ipgrave, told the London Times on Monday that church leaders were “exploring” the idea of a service of a repentance held jointly with the UK Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ).

Dave Rich — director of policy at the Community Security Trust (CST), the volunteer security arm of the UK Jewish community — said the announcement was “better late than never.”

Said Rich: “There is a long history of medieval anti-Judaism and antisemitism in this country that is largely unknown but is very important and leaves a legacy today.”

Rich added that “the most important part” of the Church of England’s penance would be “the sense of solidarity it will give to the Jewish community at a time when antisemitism is rising.”

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