Remembering and repenting as we pray for Jews


Brenda Still

“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

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 the diocese of Quebec.

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13 Responses

  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.”

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

  4. One shortcoming of Rev. Myer’s suggested “Prayer of Reconciliation with the Jews” to replace the current “Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews” in the BCP is that the proposed replacement fails to mention the Christian hope that the Jewish people “may see and confess the Lord Jesus Christ as [God’s] son and their true Messiah”, which is the basic intent of the original prayer.

    As I understand it, neither Judaism nor Islam allow Jesus to be God, but that is what we teach. As John says, “No one who denies the Son has the Father, whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23)

    The writer of the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’ is not ashamed to say that Jesus’ covenant is better than that of Moses (Heb 8:6-13) and replaces it (Heb 7:18). Neither is Paul (2 Cor 3:6-16).

    The idea that we as a church should “stop singling out Jews…for our evangelistic efforts” ignores the direction Paul takes with his olive tree metaphor in Romans. Of those who were “broken off because of unbelief” he says, “how much more readily will these, the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree.” (Rom 11.24)

    At His birth, wise men from the east came in search of “the one who has been born King of the Jews”. At His crucifixion the sign over his head read “This is the King of the Jews”.

    Do we need to be sensitive when we reach out to others? Of course! But we don’t need to cover up our crucifixes or deny the foundation of our faith. Do we look forward to the day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess the Lord Jesus? (Phi 2:10-11) So then, how are we to be “the aroma of Christ” (2 Cor 2:15) in an increasingly scent-free world?

    1. I really appreciate your response, Ian. It is biblically astute and presents a good challenge to the new prayer.

      My main objection would be to this sentence in your final paragraph: ‘Do we need to be sensitive when we reach out to others? Of course! ‘ This does not sufficiently account for the Church’s long and shameful record of ‘violence and wickedness’ against the Jews over the past 2000 years. Surely something more than merely being ‘sensitive’ is required on our part.

      In the words of Peter Kreeft: ‘What Jew finds the road to [Jesus] free from the broken weapons of bloody prejudice? We have made it nearly impossible for His own people to love Him, to see Him as He is, free from the smoke of battle and holocaust.’

      I would love to continue the conversation with you and would be especially be curious to know what you think of this more fulsome rationale for the new prayer:

      Blessings for Passiontide

      1. I am a supersessionist. “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” Heb 8:13
        I think those people who reject Christ worship God in vain, for all the good they do. “Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist–denying the Father and the Son.” 1 John 2:22
        If you wish to suggest that this understanding led to the holocaust, I’d have to disagree with you. WW2 was the tribal German people casting out a foreign tribe of Semitic people. Religion may have been a convenient excuse. You find much the same thing in the OT when the Egyptian Jewish refugees entered the “promised land” and subjugated (or exterminated) the local tribes. Back then they said it was because those tribes refused to worship YHWH.
        If the church is now teaching that the Jewish people will somehow be saved without Jesus, you’ll want to start printing edited bibles. “For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” (2 Cor 3:10-11)
        I abhor that the holocaust has led to the “State of Israel” because of what has been done to the Palestinian people. And if you adopt a scientific secular view, this will all appear as pointless as it really is.

      2. I perused your apology for the change in the Prayer Book Society’s newsletter. I am concerned that you refuse to use the name of Jesus in the prayer, apparently in deference to the wishes of your consultants. Perhaps you could consult with a group like instead?
        You know that it is said “there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) And He said Himself that “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)
        If the letter to the Hebrews doesn’t convince you the the old covenant is finished (e.g. at chapter 8:6-13), then I would like to know how you understand Paul’s argument in Galations 4:22-5:1.
        You know the story from John’s gospel, that “The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”. (John 19:21) Paul says of Israel (and of us), “Just as you who formerly disobeyed God have now received mercy through their disobedience, so they too have now disobeyed, in order that they too may now receive mercy through the mercy shown to you.” (Rom 11:30-31)
        Forgive me if I repeat myself, my previous post was apparently waylaid.

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