Should Jews celebrate David Cameron's Christian Britain?

David Cameron’s view that we are a Christian nation prompted a flurry of responses. Here, two rabbis debate


Cameron: urged confidence in UK’s Christian identity (Photo: AP)

Cameron: urged confidence in UK’s Christian identity (Photo: AP)

YES

Barry Marcus

David Cameron’s comment that Britain should be “more confident about its status as a Christian country” has predictably elicited much reaction — and some criticism for stating so baldly that we are a Christian country.

But has he not simply stated the obvious? The Queen, like previous monarchs, is the head of the Anglican Church.

And the United Kingdom is one of more than 100 countries worldwide with a Christian majority. Fifty nine per cent of Brits defined themselves as Christian in the 2011 census.

There is no doubt that the Jewish community has benefited from the shared values of the Judeo-Christian tradition — despite difficult and unpleasant chapters in Anglo-Jewish history such as the persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages (when the Church was at the forefront of the persecution of the Jews), the pogrom of 1190 in York and the expulsion of Jews in 1290 by Edward I.

Since the return of the Jews under Oliver Cromwell in 1651 — making us the oldest minority in the UK — Jews have been allowed, by and large, to flourish. Many found sanctuary in this Christian country during the Shoah.

Since Cromwell — and certainly over the past 100 years — Jews have been given space to prosper and have been allowed to make a contribution to the wider society. This is partly due to the climate of tolerance shared by both our traditions, but also due to our understanding (as expressed in the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29:7, and the Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 3 Mishna 2) which encourages us to contribute to the country we reside in. Jews have always understood their civic responsibilities and have not been hamstrung by an obsession with rights.

But I do question what kind of Christian country the Prime Minister has in mind given that very recently he supported gay marriage.

Many will argue that politicians should stay well away from pronouncing on matters of faith.

I recall the courageous stand of the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits on the repeal of the Sunday Observance Act — allowing businesses to trade on Sunday — and have witnessed the damage that this has had on family life.

Most Jews would probably prefer to live in a society that values faith and mutual respect.

I certainly welcome the spirit in which the Prime Minister’s comments were made. He has recognised the positive force that faith can be in people’s lives.

Barry Marcus is rabbi at the Central Synagogue in London

NO

Jonathan Romain

Britain is no longer a Christian country. It could be argued that, from a technical point of view, it is — because of the constitutional position of the church in public life. But it is not true in any real sense.

Christianity itself has collapsed from within. The number of people who go to church is embarrassingly small. Even the larger number of those who stay away but still say they are Christian is falling rapidly.

What’s more, they often mean only that they subscribe to Christian values such as charity and decency. But those are universal values to be found equally in other faiths and humanism.

Moreover, Christianity stands or falls over the belief in Jesus. Yet most of these nominal Christians do not believe in the son of God coming to earth in the shape of a baby and then being resurrected from death 30 years later to save the world.

So in terms of both practice and belief, Christianity is a minority faith — a status that most of its clergy have long accepted. At the same time, the proliferation of synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras and temples mean that we are a multi-faith country, while a substantial percentage of the population is agnostic or atheist. They are not lapsed Christians but definite non-believers and may have been so for two or more generations.

It would be more accurate to say we are a ‘Christian-based’ country; it is no longer the belief-system of most people but still influences the culture in which we live, such as the calendar through which school terms are decided.

That is why — ironically — we can have a Jewish place of worship called St John’s Wood Synagogue or why every year a Sikh friend and I exchange Christmas cards, members of other faiths communicating through a Christian custom.

It is to the credit of Christian leaders that they have adapted to this transition and been so receptive of interfaith dialogue.

In addition, the background presence of Christianity in society has benefited the Jewish community in terms of the respect given to Jewish institutions and traditions. Living under a more aggressive Christianity or militant secularism would be far less comfortable.

The genteel form of English Christianity — present but neither dominant nor insistent — has created a tolerant milieu in which Judaism has been able to flourish, rabbis have become media personalities and yiddish phrases have entered everyday language.

It is a remarkable liberalism, very different from former eras of Christian persecution of Jews, and to be greatly valued.

Dr Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead Synagogue

Last updated: 12:26pm, April 24 2014