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Archbishop's speech at Board of Deputies Dinner

(Picture: John Rifkin/Board of Deputies of British Jews)

Wednesday 6th May 2015

A speech given by Archbishop Justin Welby at the Board of Deputies of British Jews President’s Dinner in London last night. The Archbishop was the Guest of Honour.

"I’m really quite overwhelmed by the honour of being invited to speak to you this evening, and to share this special occasion for the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Thank you so much to Sheila Gewold as dinner chair, thank you to [Avraham] Freilich for the singing earlier on, and thank you, especially, to Dr [Moshe] Kantor, for a thought-provoking and absolutely outstanding address, which I shall go back and reflect on at greater length. It has made me think and I am extremely grateful.

I’d also like to pay tribute to Vivian Wineman for your long service to the Board and for your leadership over the past six years. You’ve demonstrated vision, grace and great insight and discernment during extremely challenging times.

I’d also like to recognise the tireless commitment of the Vice Presidents and Deputies here this evening. This is an extraordinary body, whose existence over such a long period speaks volumes of the place of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom – and has earned that place by hard work and persistence.

I want to start by reflecting on the fact that when I was Bishop of Durham, in Auckland Castle, there were the famous Twelve Sons of Jacob pictures by Zurbaran, the Spanish Counter-Reformation artist. They had been put there by a previous Bishop of Durham in the 18th century, just around the time of the foundation of the Board of Deputies, when the House of Lords rejected the Jewish Emancipation Bill. And he was so angry that he went out and spent a lot of money – £240, in those days – on buying these twelve pictures, which are now worth £15 million. And he did that as a form of protest against the anti-Semitism of his time.

It is something that constantly needs saying: that we want, in the UK and Europe, we, the whole of society, wants, needs, requires, has as an absolute necessity, Jewish communities – and I speak especially in this country – that are welcomed – obviously – wanted, flourishing and utterly unafraid about the future. Everything that imperils that is something that the church – among others, many others, but particularly the church, from my point of view – is called to stand against. I’m going to come back to that theme in a minute.

It has been a very shocking twelve months, with ISIS, the Paris attacks, Boko Haram, Kenya and many, many other forms of very severe religious violence aimed at Jewish communities in Europe and around the world – and at other religious communities, including very serious attacks on Christian communities and Anglican communities.

In our own context, we’ve already heard much reference to the rise in anti-Semitism and attacks on the Jewish community in the UK, experiencing threats and fear, particularly since last summer. That’s why in February it was a particular honour and an extraordinary event [to host the launch] for the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Semitism, which produced an absolutely outstanding report that was both encouraging in some respects and profoundly challenging in others.

It was also around that time that we had the atrocious use of language in a tweet from an ordained member of the Church of England. And that’s why I want to say, in this speech, how sorry I am that that happened, to apologise for that. We did seek to deal with it quickly and effectively, and I hope and pray that we have done so.

But the church, with all its responsibilities, because it’s the Church of England and has so many different views and groups within it, will continue to fall down on this from time to time. I would love to promise that we won’t. I wish I could deliver that. But there’s no point in promising what we can’t deliver. But I do want to make a commitment that we will take anti-Semitism seriously within the church. I’ve made, in the past, one serious mistake on that, failing to stand up and protest about something that I should have done, it was about three years ago, and I will not make that mistake again. That, at least, I can promise. But we recognise our own responsibility.

Britain is seen by many as an inclusive society, where those of different religions are integrated, free to worship and to participate fully in society. That is, of course, to be celebrated, but we need to move beyond this, and Dr Kantor’s comments were very pointed and precise and accurate.

Inclusive societies are not necessarily reconciled societies; reconciliation is a much deeper and long-term process. To be reconciled is not simply passively to accept the presence of the other; it involves the active engagement with the other in relationships of trust and mutual accountability. Its sign is a capacity to nurture relationships which can have difficult conversations, but in a constructive way and in a context where diversity is seen as a blessing rather than a threat.

All forms of reconciliation are always threatening. They’re always threatening to a number of people. They’re threatening to those who are involved in conflict. I remember once in the Niger Delta being asked out to dinner by someone, when I was working on some problems with the militias in the swamps there.

So I went out to dinner in Port Harcourt and we sat there, and after a while he said: “You know, if you go on doing what you’re doing, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble with certain people.”

I thought he was giving me a friendly warning, so I said: “How kind of you to warn me.”

So he looked a bit puzzled and went on talking, and after a while he said: “I need to come back to this. If you go on doing what you’re doing, really you are going to be in some danger.”

I said: “Thank you. I am really, really grateful for this warning.”

So he looked a bit more puzzled, and so we went on talking, and in the end, the third time, he said: “I need to tell you. If you go on doing what you’re doing, and you succeed in some reconciliation, someone will probably try and kill you.”

I said: “Yes, I do realise that.”

And at that point my phone, which was on the table, buzzed and it was from my office in Coventry, and it said: “Whatever you do, don’t go out to dinner with [him]…He is one of the main leaders of the militias.” And I realised he’d actually just given me three death threats and I’d thanked him warmly on each one. [laughter]

But for him reconciliation was not a hope but a threat, because it would take away his source of income and his channels of power. That will always be true, and we need to be very realistic about this.

In the twenty-ninth chapter (in the way we set it out) in the seventh verse of the book of the prophet Jeremiah, there is a verse about blessing the city in which you find yourself. Now we all know that this prophesy of Jeremiah – this answer to the exile’s question of ‘What do we do now we’re in Babylon?’ – in which I suspect they rather hope for something about subverting the system and being difficult and standing up for yourselves and not giving in… and again the letter saying ‘bless the city, settle down, plant gardens…’ And they get this answer.

If I remember rightly, and with the Chief Rabbi here I’m very cautious about saying anything at all about the scriptures, but if I remember rightly it did not increase Jeremiah’s popularity, it would be safe to say.

Reconciliation is always a threat. Reconciliation is not a strong powerful tree; it is a fragile plant. Dr Kantor said that it grows – that secure tolerance is the soil in which reconciliation grows. I think that’s a new thought for me which I’d not seen before, and a very profound one, and it speaks to the challenges we face in our own society, and particular among religious leaders.

Even within our own communities, within the Anglican community, we have our own local difficulties with reconciliation. The worst poison pen letters I get other Christian groups on the whole… as I’m sure may be the case with some of you.

The reality is that we do not as faith groups in our society always exhibit that secure tolerance to each other that enables us to speak powerfully of secure tolerance to the world around us. Christians are as bad at anyone at this – in fact, if I dare to be competitive, I think we’re worse.

So where is the hope in this – in a world where we’re facing increasing levels of global religious violence? In a world where the religious communities have not shown themselves experts at dealing with this? How can we move forward? It is not only from in particular sectors of the world.

In the last two years my wife Caroline and I have travelled to all thirty-seven provinces of the Anglican Communion – very briefly to some of them. The most common feature of Anglicanism is actually persecution, and that goes with poverty. Of our thirty-seven provinces, roughly twenty-four are in areas of conflict or post-conflict. The average Anglican is an African woman in her early thirties, probably living on less than two or three dollars a day, and almost certainly living in an area of conflict or post-conflict, and very likely to be in an area of persecution.

It comes in different places in different characters. Over the last few weeks I’ve had emails from one of our archbishops around the world pleading for support as his churches are shelled, the paths to them are mined – and that is by Buddhist violent radicalism. That was a new thing for me.

For the two weeks before that we were getting appeals from south India, where Hindu violent radicalism had burned over 200 churches. And then we need hardly say about what has been happening with ISIS and Boko Haram; in Libya; to the Copts, the Egyptian Orthodox; in northern Nigeria… and right across the region of the Levant and Mesopotamia.

So how do we respond to this? I want to say, in answer to the challenge from Dr Kantor, I want to say yes. We are already involved in a response and it is going to be our responsibility together as religious leaders to respond more and more effectively. I want to suggest that the response should come in three forms.

It must be global. The issues we’re facing of religious violence – religiously-sponsored violence – are global issues. We find them among Christians, among every great faith tradition in the world. Therefore the response to them must be global. It is no use simply picking off one area and saying we can deal with the global problem by dealing with this, because it will then spread back from somewhere else.

Secondly it must be generational. I think that this is the great issue of our age. I suspect that it will still be a major issue when I retire. In other words I fear the conflict is going to go on for a very long time. It’s generational and that means endurance, it means patience, it means determination and above all it means courage. There are no quick fixes.

Lastly and most importantly it is primarily ideological. Two weeks ago I was in Egypt meeting the Sheikh al-Azhar, the Grand Imam at al-Azhar. He has called for an Islamic reformation. Another friend of mine, the Emir of Kano in northern Nigeria, called for the same thing some years ago. President Sissi has done the same. They are people who are taking great risks themselves, seeking to challenge those within their own community who act in support of violence.

Within the Christian community we need to stand against our own tendency, well exhibited over many centuries, to violence: violence against each other and above all violence against Jewish communities, in horrendous and horrible ways going back well over a millennium.

We need to stop that, both with security – that is an essential – but also with ideology that undermines, that subverts, the arguments of the radicals, that models an alternative that is about human flourishing and about the flourishing of human societies; that picks up Jeremiah’s powerful, age-enduring, extraordinary testimony and vision; that picks that up and turns it into a reality in our own generation.

If we don’t do that we leave all the good arguments in the hands of the radicals. That is the great challenge that I face, and I believe we all face.

And if we’re going to do that we have to come together and we have to have the difficult conversations in safe spaces – and that’s a very, very difficult thing to do. Can we model confidentiality, transparency and genuine respect for one another? I scarcely go through a day when I can look back and think I’ve done that consistently through the whole day.

We need to move to beyond inter-religious interaction in which we the usual suspects issue bland statements of anaemic intent – with which you could paper the walls of Lambeth Palace, and much good would it do you – all desperate to agree with one another, so that the very worst outcome could possibly be that we end up acknowledging our differences.

That is not enough in the face of the dangers we face at this time. It is disingenuous and ultimately dishonest, because alongside all that we hold in common and all that we share, there are profound differences too in what we believe and in the outworking of our faith. True friendships and relationships can withstand honestly held differences in values, opinions and religious understandings, and a common commitment to mutual flourishing in diversity.

Reconciliation is a long-term choice, not a temporary solution. As I said earlier it is a fragile plant. And as I have learned this evening it must be planted in the soil of secure tolerance. I could not be more privileged in this job, and it’s one of the parts of the work that I find most stimulating, exciting, profoundly providential that I’m allowed to do, and I’m astonished that I am.

I find it extraordinary, this inter-faith work, because in it we seek to reach across the deepest gaps that there are in humanity. Those things that speak not only to life in this world but to the whole eternity of the purpose of human beings and of global creation. That is a difficult thing to do.

I celebrate – we celebrate – your work tonight as the Board of Deputies. You have an extraordinary challenge. We will do our best to stand with you and alongside you. We will fall from time to time. I hope we will have the guts – when we do, as we have done – to apologise, to acknowledge our failure and to stand back from it and learn and do better in the future."


 

 

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