The Chief Rabbi of Canterbury

Last week, after a two-year search, Ephraim Mirvis was announced as the successor to Jonathan Sacks, who is stepping down after 21 years as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.  Rabbi Sacks’ tenure will end concurrently with that of the most senior clergyman in the Church of England, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.  The coincidence of their retirements is apt, since the two men are in many ways alike.  Both are admired in Britain and internationally for their intellect, erudition, and knowledge.  Both speak the language of Britain’s increasingly secular educated elite.  And both have struggled to lead their respective institutions.

Moreover, the Chief Rabbi has in some respects eclipsed the Archbishop as the religious voice of the country.

Rowan Williams’ decade-long stewardship of the Church of England has not been a happy one.  A liberal by temperament, the Archbishop has attempted to appease liberals and conservatives in the Church but satisfied neither.  He angered liberals by blocking the appointment of Jeffrey John, a gay priest, as a bishop in 2003 and again in 2010. But he offended conservatives by failing to sanction the Episcopal Church in the United States for ordaining Gene Robinson, also gay, as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003; the incident led to a formal declaration of schism by several African churches in 2008.  After the Episcopalians consecrated another gay priest as a bishop in 2010, Williams did impose sanctions—causing yet another rift in the Anglican Communion.  He attempted to heal the divisions through an “Anglican Covenant,” which satisfied no one.

Williams’ efforts to resolve a decade-long dispute over female bishops have likewise angered both sides. His compromise amendment to a bill to introduce women bishops was defeated in 2010.  Subsequently, some 60 clergy and 1,000 parishioners, fearing that Anglican women bishops were inevitable, defected to Catholicism.  But last month the General Synod rejected the bill—through the votes of the conservative laity, which outweighed those of the liberal clergy.  Thus, Williams leaves the Church little different, but much more embittered.

If the Archbishop can be excused for failing to unify increasingly divergent Anglican opinions, he must bear some responsibility for the fact that the number of Christians in Britain has fallen by a staggering four million in the past decade: for Williams’ interventions in public life have been not religious but political.  Rather than decrying the secularism of Britain’s Guardianista elite, he has adopted its fashionable causes, attacking the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, bankers involved in the financial crisis, and politicians entangled in Parliament’s expenses scandal.  He has provoked outrage by backing the establishment of sharia courts in the U.K.  He has also condemned the current Conservative government for their modest aim of closing the national deficit by 2015 by trimming public spending (which they have, so far, utterly failed to accomplish).  After he lambasted the education and health reforms of Prime Minister David Cameron as “radical, long-term policies for which no one voted,” Cameron told Williams, in effect, to mind his own ecclesiastical business.

Thus, though the leader of Britain’s established church, the Archbishop has become an unwelcome figure to whom to turn for religious counsel.

Into this breach has stepped the Chief Rabbi…

You simply must read on here.

Judaism having more religious credibility than Anglicanism in Britain? Not hard to believe.




Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to be Next UK Chief Rabbi

And he is South African born.

Britain’s chief rabbi-designate is to be Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of Finchley Synagogue, the United Synagogue has announced.

He will be Anglo-Jewry’s 11th chief rabbi. And, like most of his predecessors, Rabbi Mirvis is not British-born.

But the 56-year-old South African-born rabbi, the son and grandson of religious leaders, has spent a large part of his career serving Anglo-Saxon communities.

This, of course, is not his first chief rabbinate. He was Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1985 to 1992, and for three years before that was minister of Dublin’s Adelaide Road Synagogue.

Rabbi Mirvis comes from a family of rabbis and teachers. His grandfather, Rev Lazar Mirvis, was a minister in Johannesburg, while his father, Rabbi Dr Lionel Mirvis, led the Claremont Synagogue and also the Wynberg Hebrew Congregation in Cape Town.

His mother, Freida, was principal of the Athlone Teachers Training College, which, during the apartheid years, was the only college for black teachers of pre-school instruction in South Africa.

After leaving Cape Town for Israel, where he attended a number of yeshivot and obtained his semicha (rabbinical qualification), Rabbi Mirvis married Zimbabwe-born Valerie Kaplan, a former senior social worker with Jewish Care, who now works for a local authority in the same capacity. The couple have four sons.

Along the way Rabbi Mirvis qualified as a shochet, mohel and chazan. Between 1992 and 1996 he was the rabbi of Marble Arch Synagogue. Since 1996 he has become synonymous with the ever-growing Finchley Synagogue, one of the biggest congregations in London.

A member of his congregation said on Monday night: “The congregation is torn. They know he is the best candidate to be chief rabbi. But they will miss him desperately. They think he is irreplaceable.”

It is more than two years since Lord Sacks’ retirement date was announced.

His departure was announced at a United Synagogue council meeting on December 13, 2010.

Then US President Simon Hochhauser made clear that there would be a successor and said focus groups would be used during the recruitment process.

Rabbi Mirvis was the long-time frontrunner for the role, but the US selection procedure nonetheless took months longer than expected. It was first intended to name the new chief by Rosh Hashanah 2012.



It’s a Shame the Chief Rabbi Can’t be the Next Archbishop of Canterbury

Strangely enough, we spoke of Chief Rabbi Sacks earlier today. Now I saw this post in the Catholic Herald: It’s a shame the Chief Rabbi can’t be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Benedict Brogan’s interview with Rowan Williams, outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Telegraph last Saturday threw up some interesting observations. Brogan writes, “His time has been marked by an often vitriolic debate about the march of militant secularism. He laughs at the recollection of his exchanges with the atheist academic Richard Dawkins, whom he describes as the “latest pub bore” in the tradition of “great public atheists.”

The outgoing Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, whose latest book, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, I have already referred to in a recent blog, is rather less dismissive of Dawkins in his book. Indeed, I don’t remember reading about Williams’ public exchanges on atheism during his time in office: his Socialist-inclined political views – yes; his ideas about Sharia law – yes; controversy over same-sex oriented clergy – yes; his rather muted attitude about defending marriage (unlike his predecessor, Lord Carey) – yes; and lots of general remarks when it was quite hard to know what he was talking about (well, he is an intellectual).

It seems that Williams, seizing the opportunity now that freedom beckons, has published a collection of past lectures, entitled Faith in the Public Square. According to a report in CFNews, he is critical of Lord Carey and of the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, for stating that Christians in Britain are facing persecution. Williams’ view is that “Argument is essential to a functioning democratic state, and religion should be involved in this, not constantly demanding the right not to be offended”.

Surely this is unfair to his colleagues in the Anglican hierarchy? Carey and Nazir-Ali have never indicated they are hostile to argument – when it means a fair and open debate; what they and others have been pointing out for some time (though Williams seems to have missed it) is that in a number of cases that have been well-publicised, Christians’ beliefs have been marginalised and dismissed by a highly secularist interpretation of the law. Given the life-threatening persecution of Christians in some Muslim countries, “persecution” in this context is perhaps too strong a word; but words like “harassment”, “denigration” and “heavy-handed” do come to mind. What Christians want in this country is the right to practise their faith and to follow their conscience; it has nothing to do with a so-called “right not to be offended.”

In his new book, Rowan Williams apparently distinguishes between “programmatic” secularism which becomes problematic when it excludes religious practise and symbols from public life in order to emphasise loyalty to the state; and “procedural” secularism under which the state allows people to publicly practise their faith but does not give preferential treatment to any single religious group. Michael Nazir-Ali rejects this distinction, stating that any form of secularism represents an assault on the Church and on Christian values.

I agree with him. Williams’ is a typically intellectual approach, examining the question in an abstract way without reference to how people actually live their lives. If people were happy to live and let live in the tolerant way he would like, the history of the world would be different. But certain laws enacted by our secularist government directly impinge on people’s Christian beliefs – for instance, laws on adoption and the (anticipated) change to the definition of marriage itself. Furthermore, Williams is (still) the Christian primate of the Established Christian Church in this country; the Queen is still “Defender of the Faith”. What does not giving “preferential treatment to any single religious group” mean in this context?

Brogan comments, “Where others would want to hear clarion clarity about a crisis [on marriage] that goes to the very heart of the Church, [Williams] shies away and hedges. To his critics, this is the reason why the Church appears weak, because he does not communicate certainty…”

To return to Lord Sacks: his book, according to Andrew Marr – not an oracle, admittedly, but still a good barometer of liberal taste – is “the most persuasive argument for religious belief I have ever read.” Sacks argues, not that Dawkins is the “latest pub bore” but that questions of religion and science concern different hemispheres of the brain: science (the left hemisphere) “takes things apart to see how they work”; religion (the right hemisphere) “puts things together to see what they mean”; both activities are vital.

Come to think of it, it is a great pity that the Chief Rabbi can’t, for obvious reasons, apply for the job of being the next Archbishop of Canterbury: he is an intellectual – but with a gift for clear exposition; he believes in God, marriage, the family; he is conciliatory rather than divisive; and from his own religious and historical perspective he sees the marginalisation of faith for what it is.


Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to Debate Richard Dawkins

This is one debate that I’m looking forward to watching.

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins and Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks will meet on Wednesday in an hour-long debate on science and religion, as part of the Re:Think Festival in Salford.

The festival, hosted by the BBC at MediaCityUK, runs from 12-13 September.

It aims to explore and debate ethical and religious issues affecting society.

This will be the second time that Prof Dawkins and Lord Sacks have exchanged their opposing views on faith and science in a public arena.

In October 2011, Andrew Marr discussed the wonders of nature with Prof Dawkins, Lord Sacks and cosmologist Prof Lisa Randall in BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week.

In that occasion, Prof Dawkins’s contribution touched upon the beauty of the physical universe, and highlighted the supremacy of scientific discourse over myth or faith in the explanation of reality.

But Lord Sacks said that, while science provides facts, religion gives meaning; humans, he said, need both.

Ahead of Wednesday’s debate, the Chief Rabbi reiterated that view.

He told the BBC: “There is a belief that science and religion cannot coexist, that the advance of one is to the detriment of the other.

“I believe this is wrong.”

He added that there was “more to life than science and more to religion than ignorance and superstition”.

“What is needed, now more than ever, is a conversation between the forces of science and those of religion,” said the Chief Rabbi.

“Richard Dawkins is a gifted scientist and someone who has contributed a great amount to our understanding of the world.

“I hope we will be pleasantly surprised and realise that there is a very strong argument for saying that, despite obvious differences, there can, and must, be a great partnership between science and religion.”

New year’s debate

The Chief Rabbi will also meet Prof Dawkins in a BBC documentary to be broadcast on the same day.

The programme will mark Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

During an interview with Richard Dawkins filmed for the documentary, Lord Sacks put it to him that hope was based on having faith that good things might happen.

Prof Dawkins replied: “You don’t need religion to have hope. You don’t need the supernatural.

“Hope is an attitude to the future. The future is an unknown and you can take a scientific attitude to prophesy the likely future.”

“Hope is not something that you have evidence for – it’s something that you feel in you.”

Aaqil Ahmed, commissioning editor of Religion & Ethics at the BBC, has high hopes for the Dawkins-Sacks debate: “Jonathan and Richard are two of Britains most revered thinkers in this area,” he said.

“I can’t wait to listen to them explore the complexities of the relationship between religion and science.

“This is a chance to see in the flesh if the gaps between these two worlds can be bridged by possibly the only two people who could manage it.”

The Rabbi is an intellectual and he should give Dawkins a good run for his money.