Christians and Jews in Britain – New Leadership

Christians and Jews face hard choices over archbishop and chief rabbi roles

Both Rowan Williams and Jonathan Sacks are leaving with unfulfilled promise. Are they at fault or have their jobs become impossible?

    • Jonathan Sacks
Jonathan Sacks is the only rabbi to give the Reith Lectures. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

Today will bring to a head many of the religious hopes and disappointments of the last decade as two sets of religious establishments seek successors to their incumbents.

The Crown Nominations Commission meets to review the candidates that have been shortlisted in the hunt for a new archbishop of Canterbury, while a similar search is on for the next chief rabbi. What is remarkable is how both men came to office on a tide of goodwill, seen as the best person to lead their faiths, yet are each departing with a sense of unfulfilled promise. It begs the question as to whether the fault was theirs, or whether the two positions have become an impossible task for any individual.

Jonathan Sacks had already gained national prominence before his appointment through his eloquent broadcasts and writings, and is the only rabbi to give the Reith Lectures. There was great hope that his unique combination of traditional credentials and modern outlook would enable him to hold together the increasing divide between orthodox and progressive sections within British Jewry.

Rowan Williams was appointed with a similar reputation for academic brilliance and communication skills. He was seen as someone who could promote the church’s teachings against the twin challenges of secular attacks and popular apathy. Both men found themselves derailed by the same issues – gay rights, the role of women and communal unity – which overshadowed many of their other achievements.

For Sacks, the problems started immediately: he initiated a communal walk, so that British Jews could amble together in harmony. But when a Jewish gay group said they would attend, Orthodox organisations threatened to boycott it. Sacks engineered a compromise that allowed both sides to take part, but it signalled he preferred to sit on the fence. The walk went ahead, but his reputation suffered.

It went down further when he seemed to support a campaign by women to have greater participation in both religious and communal life, but in reality allowed very little change. He championed women’s education, but failed to accommodate the inevitable result: that knowledge brings the desire for involvement and responsibility.

However, his biggest problem was a self-inflicted disaster when he attacked two greatly admired non-Orthodox rabbis, describing Louis Jacobs as an intellectual thief and Hugo Gryn as a destroyer of Judaism. The outcry led many to ask whether a single chief rabbi could represent such a diverse community, and if the office should now be abolished.

Rowan Williams’s tenure has been blighted just as much by major rows over the rights of gay clergy and the possibility of women bishops. His efforts at preserving unity – undoubtedly an achievement – have come at a great cost, with many suspecting he has repressed his own liberal leanings to do so. Others are deeply saddened that his theological talents have not been able to blossom because so much energy has been expended on crisis management. Moreover, the outside world has heard much about Christian in-fighting, but little of the Gospel.

Like Sacks, he also scored an own goal in the form of his much-misunderstood comments on sharia law, leading some to wrongly question his commitment to church teachings and British traditions. There have been many comments about the thick skin and diplomatic skills needed by both men’s successors. Could it be that what Enoch Powell said of politics is becoming true also of religious office – that it all ends in failure?

But it is not just a modern problem: as a 19th century rabbi put it (in non-PC days): if a rabbi’s community does not want to run him out of town, he is no rabbi; and if they succeed, he is no man. Neither Williams nor Sacks have been hounded out of office, though the former has departed earlier than he need have done, while the latter is much more valued by wider society than within the Jewish community.

The choice of their successors will depend not only on who is available, but who will be deemed best able to emulate their strengths but compensate for their failures.


This Guardian article from ‘Comment is Free‘, indicates the problems faced by both Anglican and Jewish communities in the U.K. in the current situation, where both spiritual communities face the prospect of choosing new leaders.

Obviously, in spiritual matters, there are often differences of opinion that test the ability and willingness of leadership to adjudicate where religious difference is seen to be the primary factor – rather than the more eirenic need for ecclesial unity.

Both ++Rowan and Dr. Sachs are modern and pragmatic in their approach to the need for adjudication of directly opposed positions on matters of sexual propriety, but it seems that their unwillingness (or systemic inability) to find solutions to the prevailing arguments has left them somewhat powerless to bring about the consensus they might have desired for their own constituencies within the wider community.

It will, indeed, be difficult to replace both men with other leaders with equally committed spiritual leadership qualities. Both Archbishop Rowan and Rabbi Sachs, however, despite their best efforts, have been unable to achieve unity within their respective communities.

In looking to the future, for both Anglicans and Jews in the U.K., one can only pray that God’s greater will may be discerned and acted upon by those directly concerned with their replacement; remembering the Angel Gabriel’s message to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “For nothing is impossible for God”. 

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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