It is a wonderful example of divine humour, that at a time when the role of religion in society is allegedly fading, the two outstanding public intellectuals of our time should have been the Chief Rabbi and the last Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Moreover, Jonathan Sacks combines in himself two qualities which are rarely, if ever, found together in one person. He has a finely honed philosophical mind, together with remarkable gifts as a popular communicator. His wisdom, conveyed in stories, jokes and elegant use of language have made him a “must listen to” on public platforms on innumerable occasions.
Jonathan Sacks was Chief Rabbi for the nine years I was chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews. He gave the Council unstinting support.
At one point the question was seriously raised as to whether it should now include Muslims as well. Jonathan Sacks and George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, were adamant that, important though it was to have organisations to relate to Islam, there remained a distinctive, continuing task to be performed by CCJ.
There is a unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism which, while it still has much potential for the enrichment of both faiths, also has the capacity to turn sour. A body like CCJ is needed to foster the former, and prevent the latter.
Another crucial decision at the time, for which above all Jonathan was responsible, was increasing the number of CCJ vice presidents to include other forms of Judaism, such as Reform and Liberal. This had been a very long standing grievance, felt particularly acutely by the senior Liberal rabbi, Dr John Rayner. It is very much to Jonathan’s credit that this opening out was achieved in his time.
Also much appreciated was the way he opened up his house to leaders of other faiths. Here he was supported, as in so many ways, by his wife Elaine.
There is for me a sadness that while I personally can have good friends in all the Jewish religious traditions, the Orthodox cannot see the Reform, Liberal and Masorti as representing an authentic form of the faith.
However, I believe that Jews of all persuasions should take pride in the fact that the Chief Rabbi has been listened to with great respect by non-Jews and has raised the standing of the community as a whole in the eyes of very many.
At a time when it is difficult to get the press to take notice of the pronouncements of religious leaders, Jonathan Sacks has been treated seriously.
Indeed I think that for The Times he is the newspaper’s favourite Church of England bishop, because he says things they want to hear, which, on the whole, present-day bishops do not.
In short, the Chief Rabbi sets forth a persuasive moral vision, valid for individuals and society as a whole, which can be recognised as such without too much theological underpinning. This vision of a morally grounded society, for which he has argued so strongly, can properly be said to represent the best of mainstream British values.
So there is another irony. It takes a Chief Rabbi to articulate what many in middle Britain still believe in and would like to hear taught more often.