(photo credit: George Conger)
British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks's charge that the Church of England's stance on Israel had grossly damaged Jewish-Christian relations has drawn a muted response from church leaders.
In an article printed in the Jewish Chronicle of London on Thursday, Sacks denounced the vote by the General Synod, the Church of England's legislature, to disinvest from companies whose products are used by the Israeli government in the territories.
The vote was "ill-judged" and its "timing could not have been more inappropriate," Sacks wrote. "The immediate result will be to reduce the church's ability to act as a force for peace between Israel and the Palestinians for as long as the decision remains in force."
Sacks questioned why the church would "take a stand on the politics of the Middle East over which it has no influence, knowing that it would have the most adverse repercussions on a situation over which it has enormous influence, namely Jewish-Christian relations in Britain."
Gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil for the ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Anglican leaders received Sacks's comments with reserve, seeking to downplay the controversy. A spokesman for Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said he had read the article and "would reflect upon it."
Gregory Cameron, deputy general secretary of the Anglican Consultative Council, the umbrella organization for the 77-million member Anglican Communion, said Sacks's article was "articulate and reasonable."
Questioned by Anglican delegates to the WCC on Saturday, Williams stated that he had assured Sacks on February 10 that the church had not voted for divestment. It had "in fact voted to continue a process it had begun with one or two particular companies of testing what they are doing against existing ethical guidelines. The question the Church of England had to face was whether it was willing to profit from activities with which it has moral questions."
The February 6 vote by the General Synod drew widespread protest from Britain's Jewish community and from Christian leaders.
The former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, told the Post the vote made him "ashamed to be an Anglican" while the Church of England's newspaper called the vote "one-sided and simplistic" and said it displayed an intellectual rigor "better placed in a university or school debating chamber rather than a church."
Sacks initially responded to the synod vote on February 13, thanking Williams for "clarifying" the matter and called for increased "dialogue and mutual listening."
However, leaders of the Jewish community in Britain pressed him to take a tougher line. They were joined by Lord Carey in arguing that the initial response was insufficient in light of the magnitude of the controversy.
Concern over who should take the lead in responding to the divestment call also delayed the response, activists in the Jewish community said, with the Chief Rabbi's Office and the Israeli Embassy trading responsibility back and forth.
Bishop John Gladwin of Chelmsford, who told the synod that the problem in the Middle East was the government of Israel, defended his vote saying it was "not an attack on Jewish life, culture and faith."
"Israel has taken great risks for peace, yet it seems at every stage to be rewarded with further hostility," Sacks wrote. "The Jewish community in Britain has contributed immensely to national life, yet after 350 years we still feel at risk. Nor are our fears ungrounded. We have long and bitter memories. We recognize danger when we see it."