Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism led to the Holocaust, a landmark Church of England report has concluded. In a foreword to the report, published today, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that Christians cannot challenge and reflect on the past honestly, “until we have felt the cruelty of our history”.
The document, which has been three years in the making, was prepared by the Church’s Faith and Order Commission and entitled: God’s Unfailing World: Theological and practical perspectives on Christian-Jewish relations.
It urges Christians to not only be repentant for the “sins of the past” against Jews, but also to challenge active attitudes and stereotypes.
It also marks the first time that the Church of England has made an authoritative statement on the subject of anti-Semitism.
The new “tool for teaching” on Christian-Jewish relations acknowledges that Christian theology played a part in the “stereotyping and persecution fo Jewish people which ultimately led to the Holocaust”.
“Conscious of the participation of Christians over the centuries in stereotyping, persecution and violence directed against Jewish people, and how this contributed to the Holocaust, Christians today should be sensitive to Jewish fears,” the report said.
It added that, for centuries, Christian attitudes towards Judaism have provided a “fertile seed-bed for murderous anti-Semitism”, and noted that a similar hatred of Jews continues to exist today within political discourse by “pro-Palestinian advocates”.
Despite the Commission’s report being released ahead of an imminent General Election, the report’s authors would not be drawn on the anti-Semitism crisis which continues blight the Labour party.
It also suggested that popular hymns which are interpreted in a way to “convey the teaching of contempt” of Jews for killing Jesus should be banned and “no longer be sung in public worship”.
The report offered the example of Charles Wesley’s well-known hymn, ‘Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending’:
“Every eye shall now behold him/ Robed in dreadful majesty;/ Those who set at nought and sold him,/ Pierced and nailed him to the tree,/ Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,/ Shall the true Messiah see.”
“It is possible to read lines 3-6 and imagine they are about the Jewish people as collectively guilty of crucifying the Messiah,” the report notes, “who when he comes again in power and glory recognise – too late? – the terrible crime they have committed.
“Understood in that way, they convey the ‘teaching of contempt’ which the Church of England now rejects. If that were the only way to read them, they should no longer be sung in public worship.”
The report concluded: “Christians have been guilty of promoting and fostering negative stereotypes of Jewish people that have contributed to grave suffering and injustice. They therefore have a duty to be alert to the continuation of such stereotyping and to resist it.”
Six million Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Throughout World War II, Nazi Germany killed around five million other ‘untermenschen’ – a the term for those the Nazis deemed as ‘undesireable’ or ‘sub-human’.
These included victims from Romani communities, disabled and homosexual people and those of other nationalities and religions. The number of Nazi victims is often disputed by Holocaust deniers.
In 2016 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, likened anti-Semitism to a “virus”, adding that “it is a shameful truth that, through its theological teachings, the church, which should have offered an antidote, compounded the spread of this virus”.
“The fact that antisemitism has infected the body of the Church is something of which we as Christians must be deeply repentant,” he added.
In an afterword published by the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – which the Church of England describes as “honest and challenging” – he welcomed the “kinship” and “profound friendship” between Christainity and Judaism.
However he also criticised the report, saying he has a “substantial misgiving” on the question of evangelism. “Namely, that it does not reject the efforts of those Christians, however many they may number, who, as part of their faithful mission, dedicate themselves to the purposeful and specific targeting of Jews for conversion to Christianity.”
The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth, chair of the Faith and Order Commission, said: “Assumptions about Judaism and Jewish people, past and present, colour Christian approaches to preaching, teaching, evangelism, catechesis, worship, devotion and art, whether or not Chirsian communities are conscious of their Jewish neighbours, near and far; testing out those assumptions and exploring them theologically is therefore a challenge that pertains to the whole Church.
“That challenge is also, however, a previous opportunity… We are convinced that the Christian-Jewish relationship is a gift of God to the Church, which is to be received with care, respect and gratitude, so that we may learn more fully about God’s purposes for us and all the world.”