Faith & Reason: Inter-faith religious leaders should not behave badly

The Council for Christians and Jews has got itself into a muddle. Has it now outlived its original purpose?
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The Independent Online

Today, dear reader, let me tell you a tale of everyday skulduggery among ecclesiastical folk. The tale concerns the Council of Christians and Jews, an organisation founded during the dark days of the Second World War. Its admirable aim was to combat anti-Semitism by stressing the common ground shared between Judaism and Christianity. The first presidents were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Free Churches' Moderator and the Orthodox Chief Rabbi. Subsequently they were joined by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain, but successive Chief Rabbis clung jealously to their role as sole Jewish representative, despite the fact that it is non-Orthodox Jews who have been the main benefactors of the CCJ and almost exclusively non-Orthodox rabbis who have been involved in inter-faith activities.

Today, dear reader, let me tell you a tale of everyday skulduggery among ecclesiastical folk. The tale concerns the Council of Christians and Jews, an organisation founded during the dark days of the Second World War. Its admirable aim was to combat anti-Semitism by stressing the common ground shared between Judaism and Christianity. The first presidents were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Free Churches' Moderator and the Orthodox Chief Rabbi. Subsequently they were joined by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain, but successive Chief Rabbis clung jealously to their role as sole Jewish representative, despite the fact that it is non-Orthodox Jews who have been the main benefactors of the CCJ and almost exclusively non-Orthodox rabbis who have been involved in inter-faith activities.

It could fairly be argued that, nowadays, in a multi-faith, multicultural United Kingdom, the CCJ has outlived its original, restricted purpose. To judge by its forlorn attempts over the years at re-invention, more and more people prefer inter-faith initiatives that, at the least, include Muslims and Hindus as well. But the CCJ enjoys one inestimable cachet. The Queen is its patron. For non-Orthodox Jews, therefore, increasingly restive that the Chief Rabbi of a diminishing Orthodox community should continue to claim the role of sole Jewish representative, overturning this anomaly at the CCJ became as symbolically important as storming the Bastille was for the French revolutionaries.

Seven years ago, the then chairman of the CCJ, the Bishop of Oxford, the Right Rev Richard Harries, began a lengthy round of consultations between his presidents and the Progressive Jewish community, in order to find a formula that would satisfy non-Orthodox demands for parity while also placating the Chief Rabbi. As a bruised Bishop Harries discovered, Anglo-Jewish infighting is no less vicious than that at General Synod.

The first proposal, to offer an associate presidency to John Rayner, the leading Liberal rabbi, Hugo Gryn, the leading Reform rabbi, and Louis Jacobs, the leading Masorti rabbi, was rejected by the three would-be recipients. Bishop Harries then proposed that Rabbi Tony Bayfield, chief executive of the Reform movement, a dedicated inter-faith worker, should be appointed associate president for two years, to represent Progressive Judaism as a whole. The notion that the professional head of one movement could conscientiously represent the other two was implausible, and Rabbi Bayfield, bowing to pressure, withdrew his nomination.

The search was now on to find an acceptable compromise candidate. The chairmen of the Reform and Liberal movements worked together with the CCJ to agree in writing a joint procedure for this and future elections of the non-Orthodox office holder. Their choice fell upon Rabbi Albert Friedlander, an amiable man unlikely to offend anyone, and eventually, in October 1999, he took up the post of associate president, it being understood that after two years a second, non-Orthodox rabbi would be appointed for a term of three years as a full president alongside the Chief Rabbi. This duly happened in October 2001. After all the unwonted excitement, the CCJ reverted to its previous marginality, and Bishop Harries gratefully handed over the chair to the Bishop of St Albans.

Sadly, Rabbi Friedlander died in July, before his three-year term had concluded. The CCJ staff seemingly omitted to brief their new chairman on the procedure for choosing a non-Orthodox president, and Rabbi Tony Bayfield apparently had forgotten his withdrawal of four years previously, because, with unseemly haste, unilaterally, and without any prior consultation whatsoever between the CCJ and the Liberal and Masorti movements, it was announced in October that Rabbi Bayfield had succeeded Friedlander.

In other words, and without mincing them, there has been a stitch-up. A process that was confirmed in writing has been disregarded. In response to a letter from the Liberal movement asking for an explanation, the Bishop of St Albans lamely replied that he was merely the chairman, there to do the bidding of his six presidents.

Once again, due to its ineptitude, the CCJ is in the spotlight. The Liberal movement is keeping its options open, and those of us who are unsurprised that so-called "religious" leaders can behave as badly as everyone else wish that Trollope was here to record it all. But the moral is clear. The future of inter-faith co-operation does not lie in parochial organisations that can be used as political footballs, but rather in initiatives like the Three Faiths Forum that seek to foster genuine understanding between different religions.

Rabbi Dr David J. Goldberg was appointed OBE for his inter-faith work

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