Sacks becomes first rabbi to address Anglican bishops' conference

British chief rabbi urges divided movement to rise above internal quarrels.

sacks 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
sacks 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
British Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks extended a hand of friendship and word of forgiveness to the world's Anglican bishops last week, calling upon Jews and Christians to be agents of hope in a violent world. The 670 bishops greeted the first speech by a rabbi in the 140-year history of the Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world, with two standing ovations, marking a rapprochement between the two faiths that in recent years had been hurt by calls for divestment from Israel from the Church of England. Sacks urged the Anglican Communion to hold together, and find a way to work through its theological divisions. His words came as welcome relief to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, providing the first words of support for the embattled Anglican leader from outside the church during the course of the 22-day gathering. The Anglican Communion, a collection of 38 churches with 80 million members spread across the globe birthed by the Church of England, is on the verge of collapse, with many African churches threatening to quit the communion over the American Episcopal Church's support for gay marriage and gay clergy. In three separate addresses to the bishops at Lambeth, Roman Catholic leaders lambasted Anglicans for their divisions over the issues of gay and female clergy. Cardinal Ivan Dias said Anglicans were suffering from "spiritual Alzheimer's," having forgotten their apostolic roots, while the head of the Catholic Church in England, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, said there was no point in continued Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue until the Anglicans put their house in order. However, Sacks took a more generous approach to Anglicanism's problems, urging them to "hold together for the future." He reminded them that "the hardest thing in the world is to hold the adherents of a faith together. Every faith faces schisms and cracks." Sacks told the bishops that he stood before them "as a Jew, which means not just as an individual, but as a representative of my people," adding that in preparing his address "within my soul were the tears of my ancestors. "For a thousand years, between the First Crusade and the Holocaust, the word 'Christian' struck fear into Jewish hearts," Sacks said. The Jewish encounter with Christianity was one marked by "human pain, blood libel, book burnings, disputations, forced conversions, inquisition, auto de fe, expulsion, ghetto and pogrom," he continued. Yet in 1942, "in the midst of humanity's darkest night" then-archbishop of Canterbury Dr. William Temple and then-chief rabbi of Britain J.H. Hertz "came together in a momentous covenant" to begin interfaith dialogue, said Sacks. "Since then, Christians and Jews have done more to mend their relationship than any other two religions on earth, so that today we meet as beloved friends." Drawing upon the Genesis account of Joseph and his brothers, Jews, like Joseph, must forgive, explained Sacks. "We cannot unwrite the past, but we can redeem that past if we take our tears and use them to sensitize us to the tears of the world," he said to thunderous applause. Sacks urged Jews and Christians to work together to address the problems of "poverty, hunger, disease and environmental catastrophe." While we do "not share a faith, we surely share a fate," he said. "Whatever our faith or lack of faith, hunger still hurts, disease still strikes, poverty still disfigures, and hate still kills," he said. "Few put it better than that great Christian poet John Donne: 'Every man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.'" Sacks ended by urging church leaders to "walk together toward the mountain of the Lord."