United Church reaches out to Jews

Leaders ask membership to stop
trying to convert Jews to Christianity

Globe & Mail, Saturday, May 23, 1998
By Joan Breckenridge

The leaders of Canada's largest Protestant denomination also want their churches to end the practice of interpreting Scripture in ways that lead to anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism or the negative stereotyping of Jews. The document rejects the notion that Christianity is superior to and a replacement for Judaism.

"Christianity does not supersede Judaism," said Right Rev. Bill Phipps, moderator of the United Church of Canada. "We are not picking up where they left off."

The report, titled Bearing Faithful Witness: United Church-Jewish Relations Today, is unparalleled among North America's Christian denominations. Church spokesmen say they have no doubt it will generate some controversy and much debate within the church and in other Christian denominations.

The document must receive final approval at the church's general council in order to become official church policy. Submitted last summer, it stems from a meeting of the general council about 10 years ago at which the church was petitioned to address its history of anti-Semitism and mend fences with the Jewish community.

Mr. Phipps, who helped prepare the report, is no stranger to controversy.
He was heavily criticized from both within and without the church last year when he expressed doubt about the full divinity of Christ and said that Jesus was not the only way to God.

The Community of Concern, a conservative group within the denomination, is already voicing its staunch opposition to the end of evangelism.

"This is completely against the biblical mandate to go out into the world and baptize," said Rev. John Niles, a spokesman for the group in Toronto. "It means the gospel can't be preached."

Canada's Jewish community is hailing the document as a major breakthrough that will contribute to improved relations and dialogue between the Jewish and Christian faith communities.

"I think it deserves the highest of accolades," said Rabbi Reuven Bulka, chairman of the Religious and Interreligious Affairs Committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress, which was consulted about the document.

"They have not in any way compromised their own faith, but they have realized failings within the faith and have honestly said, `Let's clean up this mess,' " he said in a telephone interview from Ottawa.

Over the past few years, the North American Jewish community has become increasingly concerned about increasing numbers of missionary groups targeting Jews for conversion.

Rabbi Bulka said that what really concerns the Jewish community is being told by Christians that they have to be saved from themselves. He said such proselytizers say that "the only way we can do that is by getting you to leave your religion, which is deficient, and to join ours, which is superior."

Mr. Niles said that more tradition-minded ministers will continue to evangelize whether the document becomes church policy or not. He said these ministers are already fearful that they will be disciplined by the church for their actions.

Mr. Phipps said that won't happen. "We're a fairly open, free-wheeling organization, so it would be very hard to discipline anybody on this," the moderator said. "Freedom of the pulpit is a very strong thing in our tradition."

Mr. Phipps added that the church is in no way trying to tell people that they are not to speak about their faith. "The United Church approach that this document endorses is live your faith fully. Try to make Jesus Christ meaningful and attractive to people . . . but don't cast aspersions or criticize other faith traditions," he said.

Mr. Phipps said he believes that the most important aspect of the report is getting congregations to realize that anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism can be found in most worship services because of the way Scripture has been interpreted.

Jesus, Mr. Phipps points out, was a Torah-abiding Jew. When he criticized Judaic practices, "he wasn't standing outside of the Jewish community being critical, he was doing it from within."

When Christians fail to realize these facts, Mr. Phipps said, it leads to anti-Semitism.

The report does not recommend censoring passages of Scripture that lead to anti-Judaism. However, it does recommend speaking about anti-Judaism when these passages present themselves. "The development of anti-Judaism could not have been in the purpose of God. It certainly has no place in the church more than 50 years after the Holocaust," the report says.

While the church recommends acknowledging a history of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism in the Christian faith, and points out the denomination's own failings in this regard over the years, the report states that there are no plans to issue a formal apology to the Jewish community.

"Jewish people indicated that wouldn't necessarily be helpful, and it's not something they're looking for," said Peter Wyatt, general secretary for theology, faith and ecumenism for the church in Toronto.

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