In an age of fear, let us be agents of hope,’ chief rabbi urges bishops

Published July 29, 2008

Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, walks alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York John Sentamu during the July 24 Walk to Witness in London, where Anglican bishops and faith leaders urged world leaders to address global poverty.

Canterbury, England
Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, Monday night urged Jews, Christians and other faith communities to show the world another facet of religion – not one of conflict but of hope and blessing.

Too often, religion has shown the world conflict – “between faiths, and sometimes within faiths,” said Rabbi Sacks, who spoke on “the relationship between the people and God” at the Lambeth Conference.

In an open forum after his speech, Rabbi Sacks urged Anglican bishops, who have been bitterly divided over the issue of human sexuality, to “hold together for the future”. “The Anglican Communion has held together quite different strands of Christian theology and practice more graciously and successfully than any other religion I know.”

He reminded them that “the hardest thing in the world is to hold the adherents of a faith together. Every faith faces schisms and cracks.”

In his speech, Rabbi Sacks that Jews and Christians “must show the world another way: honouring humanity as God’s image, protecting the environment as God’s work, respecting diversity as God’s will, and keeping the covenant as God’s word.”

He noted that it was the first time that a rabbi has addressed a plenary session of the Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of the world’s Anglican bishops. “This is for me, a profoundly moving moment. You have invited me, a Jew, to join your deliberations, and I thank you for that and for all that it implies.” He added that it was “a signal of hope for our children and the world they will inherit.”

Rabbi Sacks said “the call of God in our time” is for faiths to come together in a “global covenant” to address the challenges of the times.

He noted that this century has seen “one of the most fateful ages of change since Homo sapiens first set foot on earth.” He said that globalization and the new information technologies have been both “fragmenting” and uniting the world like never before.

“Narrowcasting is taking the place of broadcasting. National cultures are growing weaker. We are splitting into ever smaller sects of the like-minded,” he said. “But globalization is also thrusting us together as never before. The destruction of a rainforest there adds to global warming everywhere. Political conflict in one place can create a terrorist incident in another, thousands of miles away. Poverty there moves consciences here.”

Creating covenant

Even as “covenants of faith are splitting apart, the covenant of fate is forcing us together – and we have not yet proved equal to it,” said Rabbi Sacks.

In his speech, Rabbi Sacks expounded on covenant – a concept that Anglicans are trying to work out in the hope that it will help heal their relationships that have been deeply wounded because of deep divisions over the place of gays and lesbians in their church.

“In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes to even share their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone,” said Rabbi Sacks. “A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. Or to put it slightly differently, a contract is about interests; a covenant is about identity. It is about you and me coming together to form an ‘us.’ That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform.”

Rabbi Sacks noted that ‘covenant’ is a key word in the Tenach, the Hebrew Bible, where it is mentioned 250 times. “A covenant is a betrothal, a bond of love and trust,” he said. “Covenant allows us to face the future without fear, because we know we are not alone…”

A covenant of faith, he added, is “made by people who share dreams, aspirations, ideals.” He added: “They don’t need a common enemy, because they have a common hope. They come together to create something new. They are defined, not by what happens to them but by what they commit themselves to do…”

Rabbi Sacks noted that covenants are essential to the life and survival of societies. “What then happens to a society when religion wanes and there is nothing covenantal to take its place?” he asked. “Relationships break down. Marriage grows weak. Families become fragile. Communities atrophy. And the result is that people feel vulnerable and alone…”

Societies without covenants and institutions that inspire and sustain them “disintegrate,” he said. “Initially, the result is a loss of graciousness in our shared and collective lives. Ultimately, it is a loss of freedom itself.”

Rabbi Sacks also talked about the progress in Jewish-Christian relations, noting that the two religions entered into “a momentous covenant of fate” in 1942, when “in the midst of humanity’s darkest night” then Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple and Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz came together and formed the Council of Christians and Jews. “And since then, Jews and Christians have done more to mend their relationship than any other two religions on earth, so that today we meet as beloved friends,” he said, alluding to the past when Jews suffered persecution in the hands of Christians.

Such friendship, he said, must be extended more widely. “We must renew the global covenant of fate, the covenant that began with Noah and reached a climax in the work of Joseph, the work of saving many lives.”

Rabbi Sacks said the July 24 Walk to Witness, where he and leaders of Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Baha’i communities marched alongside Anglican bishops in marching through the streets of central London, demonstrated such co-operation.

“Because we do not share a faith, we surely share a fate,” he said. “Whatever our faith or lack of faith, hunger still hurts, disease still strikes, poverty still disfigures, and hate still kills. Few put it better than that great Christian poet, John Donne: ‘Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.'”

Rabbi Sacks, whose moving speech drew a long standing ovation, ended by urging church leaders to “walk together towards the mountain of the Lord.

“In an age of fear, let us be agents of hope. Together let us be a blessing to the world.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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