The Canterbury Cathedral. Credit: Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock.
by Melanie Phillips
(JNS) — The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has announced that the Church of England plans to offer its “repentance” over antisemitic church laws that were passed in the 13th century.
Next year will mark the 800th anniversary of the 1222 Synod of Oxford. Among a number of grossly discriminatory measures, this implemented decrees that disqualified Jews from holding public office and forced them to wear clothing that distinguished them from Christians. These laws, says the church, heightened antisemitic feeling and led to the first nationwide expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290.
This Synod actually took place before the Church of England came into being centuries later, after the Reformation. So Welby is proposing to repent for the Jew-hatred of the medieval Catholic Church.
He is right, however, to identify general Christian belief as the source. Britain has never faced up to its history of murderous bigotry against Jewish communities. In the 12th century, Jews were burned alive in pogroms incited by hysterically anti-Jewish priests.
Such barbarous excesses were clearly of their time. However, it’s difficult for the church to draw a line under its anti-Jewish past because the theology still gets in the way.
The New Testament’s call for retribution in perpetuity against the Jewish people for their presumed crime of deicide through the crucifixion of Jesus, amplified by the vicious bigotry of the early church fathers, turned the Jews into devils and justified their slaughter on theological grounds.
There have been only two periods when Britain became positively Judeophile rather than Judeophobic. The first was in the 17th century under the Puritan Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, and the second was in the 19th century under the influence of Christian evangelicalism.
Both periods involved what might be called biblically faithful Christians who believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people and that they were destined to be restored to their “promised land” of Israel.
In America, the majority of Christians adhere to similar beliefs. That’s why there’s such a strong body of support for Israel among American evangelicals. But that isn’t true of progressive Christian denominations in America and Britain, the Church of England among them.
This is because the religious faith in these churches is so weak they have been particularly vulnerable to the onslaught from secularism.
Replacing faith in God by faith in humanity to better its lot, they fell under the influence of the liberation theology promoted by the World Council of Churches, whose neo-Marxist, anti-capitalist, anti-West attitudes paved the way for liberal Christians to embrace the “social justice” agenda.
Since this agenda demonizes Israel as a colonialist oppressor, the progressive churches fell into line with this “new antisemitism”—the demonization of the collective Jew in the state of Israel.
But liberation theology also kick-started a revival of “supersessionism,” otherwise known as “replacement theology.”
This ancient doctrine, which was responsible for the murderous Christian pogroms against the Jews of medieval Europe, held that the Christians had replaced the Jews in the eyes of God and had inherited all divine promises made to them while the Jews themselves had become the party of the devil.
Today, this doctrine has been appropriated by Palestinian Arab Christians to claim that it is the Palestinians who have inherited the divine promise of the land of Israel. This Palestinian “liberation theology” has been adopted wholesale by the World Council of Churches, as well as by progressive churches in Britain and America.
Two years ago, the Church of England published a teaching document on Christian Jewish relations called “God’s Unfailing Word.” This was described in the British press as a long-overdue “call to repentance” for antisemitism and acknowledgment of Christianity’s role in the Holocaust.
In his foreword to this document, Archbishop Welby wrote: “Too often in history the Church has been responsible for and colluded in antisemitism — and the fact that antisemitic language and attacks are on the rise across the U.K. and Europe means we cannot be complacent.”
Yet that rise in antisemitism has been fueled in large measure by the false belief that the Jews are latter-day usurpers of the land of Israel.
This document actually reinforced that belief by speaking warmly of Palestinian liberation theology and failing to acknowledge that the Jews were the only people for whom the land of Israel had ever been their national home. Instead, it merely said: “There has continued to be a Jewish presence in the land since biblical times.”
Prior to this, the Church of England’s General Synod published in 2002 “Israel/Palestine, An Unholy War” in which it claimed that Palestinian bomb attacks on Israelis were driven by “despair” and “deep-rooted social, economic and political disenfranchisement,” and suggested a moral symmetry between Palestinian murderers and their Israeli victims.
And in 2014, another church report called “Land of Promise?” cherry-picked historical facts once again to mask the unique claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.
It criticized Israeli “settlements” and the “separation barrier” as evidence of Israel’s failure to discharge the responsibilities that accompanied the Jews’ biblical “gift” of the land. And it wondered whether it was possible to find an interpretation of history and scripture that would satisfy Zionism while also recognizing “the sufferings of Palestinian and other communities adversely affected by the Zionist project.”
Apologizing for the attitudes that fueled Jew-hatred in the past is worthless if similar attitudes are to be found in the church today. And unfortunately, they are — manifesting themselves in this unholy symbiosis of anti-Zionism and theological doctrine.
Even secular folk regard the church as a moral benchmark of truth and integrity. The pernicious falsehoods that such Christians pump out about Israel are therefore regarded as unchallengeably true by people well beyond Christian circles.
Even in godless Britain, progressive Christians have played a hugely disproportionate role in feeding the new antisemitism through the influence of the Church of England itself, Christian NGOs and other Christian institutions.
Shouldn’t the Church of England be atoning for all this rather than an event that took place seven centuries ago?
The poisonous combination of Christian theology and the social-justice agenda is now making inroads even among America’s bedrock Christian supporters. Earlier this year, a survey by the University of North Carolina at Pembroke revealed a sharp drop in support for Israel among young American evangelicals.
Asked whom they supported in the “Israeli-Palestinian dispute,” just 33.6 percent said Israel, 24.3 percent said the Palestinians and 42.2 percent said neither side. In a similar survey in 2018, 69 percent said they sided with Israel, 5.6 percent said with the Palestinians and 25.7 percent said they didn’t take either side.
Supporting Palestinianism enables these young evangelicals to appear cool to their secular peers. The twist is that Palestinian “replacement theology” enables them also to tell themselves that they are still loyal Christian believers.
It’s just that they now believe the ludicrous fiction that Jesus was a Palestinian, and its grotesque spin-off that the Israelis are crucifying the Palestinians of today.
Saying sorry for the past just isn’t enough. Addressing Christian antisemitism involves facing its anti-Israel element head-on.
This doesn’t just mean acknowledging the pernicious lies and distortions about Israel perpetrated by the church; it also means acknowledging the roots of this bigotry in Christian theology.
Only such honesty would start to reconcile Christians and Jews, and open the way to a partnership between these two parent-and-daughter faiths that is essential if the West to be defended against the forces threatening to bring its historic culture and values down.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy.” Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.