Remembering and repenting as we pray for Jews

8
1823
“Whether we have been conscious of it or not, the prayer entitled “For the Conversion of the Jews” continues to reflect an attitude that views Judaism as fundamentally insufficient. Such an attitude does not take into account our church’s renewed understanding of Christians as fellow heirs of God’s covenantal promise with the Jewish people.”—author

The Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers
COLUMNIST

If you stand in the chancel of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Quebec City and look straight up, you’ll see four gilded Hebrew letters elaborately carved into the ceiling. Known as the tetragrammaton, they form the name for God most often used in the Hebrew Scriptures.

For the Anglicans who gather to worship there, that beautiful carving serves as a regular remembrance of Christianity’s Jewish roots. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Christians can’t tell their story separate from the Jews.”

We’re reminded of how our Jewish and Christian stories are bound up each time we gather for a liturgy of the church, when during the Proclamation of the Word we hear a story from the Hebrew Scriptures, or we read or sing a portion of the ancient hymnbook of the Jewish people, the Psalms.

We’re reminded in many of our church’s eucharistic prayers, in which we hear a summary of the story of salvation—a story that turns on God’s covenant with the Israelites.

And we have Jesus, a Jewish rabbi born to Jewish parents, whom we believe and teach is also God’s Messiah for us, and the church’s head and cornerstone.

In a part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).

Through most of Christian history, “fulfill” has been understood to mean “replace,” as if the New Covenant established between God in Jesus Christ and all humankind somehow invalidates the covenant God made with the Israelites. Such an understanding has led over the centuries to the forced conversion of Jews, pogroms, deportations and the Holocaust.

Persecution of Jews is not a thing of the past, nor is it restricted to other parts of the world. A bloody reminder came in last October’s murderous shooting rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., during which the gunman shouted, “All Jews must die!” In Canada, there were 1,752 recorded incidents of anti-Semitism in 2017 alone. More than a quarter of them occurred in my province, Quebec, where white supremacist groups—typically hostile to Jews, among other minority groups—are gaining ground.

Our own Anglican liturgies have sometimes reflected the notion that Christianity trumps Judaism, a belief known as supercessionism. Until its removal from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) in 1992, a Good Friday collect asked for God’s mercy on Jews for willfully rejecting and denying Jesus. “Take from them,” we prayed, “all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word; and so fetch them home.”

The prayer much of our church now uses on Good Friday reflects a different understanding, one cultivated by dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters in the shadow of the Holocaust. It invokes the apostle Paul’s image of Christians being grafted into the tree of God’s chosen people, describing us as “joint heirs with them of [God’s] covenants” (Book of Alternative Services, p. 316).

Joint heirs, not usurpers. It is they who support us, not we who replace them.

Jesus Christ represents not an abrogation of the promises and demands laid out in the Law and the Prophets, but, for us Christians, their embodiment or incarnation. In Jesus, as Paul argued again and again, the God of Israel’s covenant was extended to the non-Jewish world, and with it the vision of God’s gracious reign.

In this same spirit, our church is being invited to change another prayer found in the BCP. Whether we have been conscious of it or not, the prayer entitled “For the Conversion of the Jews” (p. 41) continues to reflect an attitude that views Judaism as fundamentally insufficient. Such an attitude does not take into account our church’s renewed understanding of Christians as fellow heirs of God’s covenantal promise with the Jewish people.

Another prayer, “For Reconciliation with the Jews,” is being offered as a replacement. Its tone is repentant, asking forgiveness for persecution of our Jewish neighbours, which has all too often been carried out in Christ’s name. Rather than praying for Jews’ conversion, it asks God that we Christians, “together with the people whom thou didst first make thine own, may attain to the fullness of redemption which thou hast promised.”

Changing this prayer does not ask us to surrender our convictions about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Neither does it inhibit us in seeking to make Christ known, in the hope that others will join us in following him as Saviour and Lord.

It does, however, ask us to acknowledge and repent of the church’s participation in anti-Semitism, to stop singling out Jews as a target for our evangelistic efforts and to assume a humble and reconciliatory stance with our Jewish elders in the faith—for our story, and our future, is inextricably bound up with theirs

Bruce Myers is bishop of Quebec diocese.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. We need to ask forgiveness not only for our violence and wickedness against Jewish people for about 2000 years, but also those of many other religions — indigenous, Muslim, and many others we used to call “heathen.”

    • Yes, we should certainly pray for those other things. But I would argue that praying for reconciliation with the Jews is of particular importance and urgency for the Church because the Jews are our elder siblings in the faith and we have been grafted into YHWH’s family tree which has distinctively Jewish roots. We simply do not have this kind of bond with Islam or any other world religion. As for your reference to Indigenous people, I am proud that the Anglican Church of Canada is in the process of repenting of its ‘violence and wickedness’ against them. We have made praying for reconciliation with them a priority and the Church has written particular collects to that end. For that I thank God. And I think it is also time to include in our official standard of doctrine and worship a prayer ‘For Reconciliation with the Jews.’

  2. Thank you, Bishop Myers, for taking the time to say so well what we need to hear. I didn’t realize how blessed I was to have the late Lloyd Gaston as my NT prof at VST years ago. He spoke of Two Covenants: Jews in relationship with God through Torah and Christians in relationship with God through Jesus. It was that simple.

    • Yet once Jesus came into the picture there came the new covenant and salvation came only through Jesus Christ .Jews as well as all other peoples and religions can only come to God through Christ.

  3. I appreciate the response of Karen Fast to Bishop Myers, and in light of that, suggest that in lieu of reframing the prayer for conversion with reconciliation, with introduce a prayer of repentance for the harm Christians have inflicted on persons of other faiths and understandings of the Divine Mystery whom we reference as God. Misguided Christian theologies have for far too long allied us with political powers using and abusing Christianity in the interests of conversion, conquest and subjugation.

    • Hi Mary Louise. Rather than speaking of a universal ‘Divine Mystery,’ I would argue that Jews and Christians worship the same particular God: YHWH the LORD God of Israel, as first revealed in the Tanakh/Old Testament. Obviously there are major differences between Jewish and Christian doctrine re. the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ and the interpretation of the Tanakh/OT. Nevertheless, we worship the same God and we share a fraternal bond. This fact has made our ‘violence and wickedness’ against the Jews all the more perverse and shameful.

      But I do basically agree with your last sentence: ‘Misguided Christian theologies have for far too long allied us with political powers using and abusing Christianity in the interests of conversion, conquest and subjugation.’ The only qualification I would want to make would be about the word ‘conversion.’ The Church is called to carry out the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19) and there is a conversionary aspect to this mission of evangelization. But you are right that the Church has made ‘conversion’ a dirty word because it has obscured the Gospel and dishonoured the Name of Jesus through ‘conquest and subjugation’ and our alliances with the powers of empire.

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