April 2007 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia


April 2007 — Vol. XIII, no. 4

 Dear Friends,

An Easter greeting to you all

Whether we be young or old,
Our destiny our being’s heart and home
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be

From The Prelude William Wordsworth


1) Book reviews :

a) James Parkes: “Recasting Christian-Jewish relations”
b) ed. T. Kushner and N.Valman, Philosemitism, Antisemitism and the Jews

1a) (This review first appeared in the American Jewish Congress Monthly, Vol 73, no 5 (September-October 2006) pp 12-18. I believe it appropriate for the Easter season)

Campaigning against antisemitism. By Colin Richmond. London/ Portland: Valentine Mitchell, 2005. 312 pages. $ ??
He also spoke as a Jew. The Life of the Reverend James Parkes. By Haim Chertok. London/Portland: Valentine Mitchell, 2006. 516 pages. $ ?? End of an Exile. Israel, the Jews and the Gentile World. By James Parkes. 3rd edition. Marblehead, Mass: Micah Publications Inc., 2005. 341 pages. $ ??

The most significant revision in Christian theology during the twentieth century in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities was undoubtedly the forging of a new relationship with Judaism. After so many centuries when the dominant Christian tradition was one of denigration, the teaching of contempt and frequently of persecution, this alteration has involved not only the abandonment of entrenched dogmatic beliefs but also the growth of a new and still-building relationship. The classic Christian belief was that Jews were no longer the Chosen People of God because they had crucified their Messiah, that they deserved banishment into a wandering exile endured since the first century AD, and that their spiritual destiny was to be superseded by Christianity. The obstinate refusal of Jews to accept this fate only reinforced the kind of intolerant prejudice amongst Christians, which so easily turned to hostility and violence. Even in more recent centuries, the part played by theologically-based concepts in generating the evil disease of secular antisemitism cannot be denied.

The principal cause for the alteration in Christian attitudes was undoubtedly the horror and the shame felt by many Christians at the mass murder of so many Jewish lives by the Nazis during the Second World War. The impact of the Holocaust, though not immediately appreciated in many Christian circles, was however only a negative shock which forced a reconsideration of earlier preconceptions. Equally important was the more positive contribution made by a few notable individuals in preparing the way for a fresh and creative alternative on which to base a revived dialogue between Church and Synagogue. Such a person was James Parkes, a Church of England clergyman, who was the author of a large number of books on this topic in the middle years of the last century, and is now the subject of two biographies, which have just appeared within months of each other, both from the same publisher.

It is often the fate of pioneers that their fame, and the struggles they went through to fight the good fight, are forgotten once the cause they espoused has become victorious, or at least widely accepted as “normal”. By the end of his life, in 1981, Parkes was acutely conscious that he was becoming a forgotten figure, even while his ideas for a new and creative stance towards Judaism and Israel were being more widely understood, often without credit to their author. So it is timely that his contributions should be refreshingly acknowledged by two biographers, one British, and one Israeli-American, both of whom successfully restore this valiant, if sometimes flawed, character to life, and soberly evaluate his remarkable intellectual achievements. At the same time, these large-scale studies make clear that Parkes’ career should not be treated hagiographically. He had too many faults, not least the high esteem he held of his own abilities, and his scorn for others whose ideas he held to be patently in error. Both authors give a rounded portrait, emphasizing the path Parkes followed for fifty years in reformulating the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, and in unfailingly commending this new vision to all who would listen.

Parkes was unique in being one of the earliest writers to challenge head-on the historical record of Christian injustice towards Jewry, and moreover to show an unwavering determination to make the Christian churches repent for such centuries of misunderstanding and hatred. Both biographers rightly stress Parkes’ moral impetus. He sought to make the Christian world atone, in order to make the world safe for Jews to live in. His attacks on theological obscurantism, as also on racial prejudice, were part of his moral vision to remedy the dehumanizing impact of such deplorable influences whenever or wherever they occurred. At the same time he combined this campaign against the evils of antisemitism with a highly evocative belief in the goodness of humanity, the centrality of (eventual) progress and the need to revise all religious insights accordingly. His strong support for rationalism led him to affirm his conviction that, if men could see the unreasonableness of their preconceptions, however long-held, they would prefer to adopt a more enlightened view. He proudly called himself a rationalist. But at the same time he had a lively sense of humour which saved him from too much smugness about the rightness, or righteousness, of his opinions.

In his seventies, Parkes wrote an autobiography, Voyage of Discoveries, which both the present biographers find problematic. Richmond describes it as disastrous, Chertok as unreliable. But both are inevitably beholden to it for many reference points. Richmond seeks to deflate the self-satisfaction displayed in this volume, and repeatedly affirms his inability to share Parkes’ confidence in the rational progress of human society. Chertok subjects the memoir to a far-reaching process of deconstruction in order to excavate the subtext. In particular he focuses on those portions of Parkes’ life about which Parkes is silent, such as his unhappy and lonely boyhood, or his lacklustre performance in the trenches during the First World War. This leads Chertok to engage in some unseemly, even prurient, speculations for which he has no evidence. But the objective for both authors is clear: they seek to establish a critical distance from their subject, even while expressing admiration for his intellectual brilliance, his writing talents and his significant achievements in championing the fight against antisemitism.

Parkes was born in 1896 and hence was old enough to join his older siblings in thee First World War- both of whom lost their lives in the conflict. He survived, and in his memoirs claims that when he returned “it was with a fairly clear idea that I wanted to be ordained”. He then belonged to the generation of young men, whose very survival made them precious, and who were expected to fulfill the promise of all those who had been slain. Particularly those who proceeded to complete their studies at the most prestigious universities of Oxford and Cambridge were often admired for their heroism as “the golden generation”. But at the same time they were burdened by the expectations laid on them by their elders, who now believed that their own failings – especially their failure to prevent the descent into war – would now be remedied by the idealism of these battle-scarred veterans. Certainly in Parkes’ case, the combination of idealism, intellectual talent and a commitment to devote oneself to the service of others, was responsible for his decision to seek ordination in the Church of England. Undoubtedly too, his war-time experiences propelled him to recognize the need to rethink and revitalize the role of the Church in the post-war world. His theological studies led him to adopt the views propounded by Oxford’s Modernist movement, which was the cutting edge of liberal Protestantism of the day. Modernism challenged orthodoxy’s traditional doctrines by subjecting them to the light of reason and research, and promising a spiritual renewal based on social relevance. For Parkes this creed was to become formative and was the basis of much of his later thinking. It led him to reject much of the Christian tradition, including such venerable beliefs as the Virgin birth, while struggling to reinterpret the doctrine of the Trinity, and stressing the significance of a religion of righteousness and justice.

It was this readiness to adopt a critical approach to traditional Christianity and to challenge the received wisdom of the Church which prepared the way for his ground-breaking revision of Christian attitudes towards Judaism.

At Oxford, Parkes was easily attracted by the programmes of the Student Christian Movement., which was then at its apogee. The SCM had left behind its earlier pietistic evangelicalism and now advocated the full flush of the social gospel. It embraced other churches with ecumenical enthusiasm, was ready to question all inherited traditions and authorities, and was eager to enlist the idealism of the young to reform the world on Christian humanist lines. Parkes so closely exemplified this spirit that it was small wonder that he was recruited, immediately after graduation, by the SCM’s national officers to join their team in London, mainly to organize conferences and discussion groups to promote these goals amongst the students of British universities.

At the same time, Parkes found time at Oxford to become a leading light in the University’s League of Nations Union. Here too the idealism of the young was mobilized to work for a world in which war would be impossible. In fact, as one wit said, “the League of Nations enjoyed the support of all organized religions; for those who had no religion, it formed a very adequate substitute”. This gave Parkes an international dimension to his thinking, and led him in 1924 to accept readily enough the SCM’s offer to second him to their parent organization based in Geneva. Here Parkes took up the work of organizing student conferences for the whole of Europe, and even wrote a manual on how this should be done.

It was in this work that he first became aware of what was then called “the Jewish question”. His encounters with Jewish students taught him about the scandalous discrimination and harassment practised against Jews in many universities and about the widespread virulence of antisemitism even amongst Christian communities in many parts of Europe. This provided Parkes with the impetus to seek out the roots of such prejudice. To his dismay, he soon realized the fact that much of this entrenched hostility stemmed from centuries of anti-judaic teaching by the Church, particularly from the polemics of the Church fathers. It was largely his awareness of the vulnerability of Jews throughout the centuries which propelled him, not only into a philosemitic stance, but also to devote his intellectual talents to challenge these pernicious teachings head-on.

This was to prove no easy task. For one thing, he had first to prove his credentials amongst those he wanted to help. The long history of Christian prejudice had made most Jews wary. They were often suspicious that these supposedly friendly Christians had missionary motives and were still basically intent on “rescuing” Jews from their “fate”. So Parkes set out to write a short book The Jew and his Neighbour: a study in the causes of antisemitism, which was subsequently published in 1930 by the SCM Press in London. He sought to outline the consequences of Christian treatment or mistreatment of the Jewish people, and to argue that true Christianity was incompatible with this kind of dark and malignant evil He could not accept that antisemitism was intrinsic to Christian belief, but called for Christian atonement for the past sins against the Jews. This was to be the first of the majority of Parkes’ writings acknowledging Christian guilt for centuries of misrepresentation and intolerance, and pleading for a new awareness of what Judaism really stood for.

It is striking that Parkes’ commitment to recast Christian-Jewish relations took place in the 1920s, i.e. even before the menace of Nazi antisemitism became so powerful after 1933, and long before the Holocaust. His campaign was in fact prophetic, but it was accompanied by the firm belief that the Church could and must adopt a new relationship in order to root out the evil of antisemitism not only within its own ranks but in the wider secular society as well.

Parkes’ second book The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, for which he gained an Oxford PhD in 1934, was a masterly and scholarly account of the origins of antisemitism from the earliest days of the Christian community through the Dark Ages up to the mediaeval period. Both biographers rightly see this pioneer work of re-evaluation as having great merit. Here, for the first time, a clergyman of the Church of England questioned the commonly-held assumption that Judaism had come to the end of its course, and should now be replaced by the more up-to-date and progressive force of Christianity. The most prominent British historian of the day, Arnold Toynbee, had recently lent his prestige to this view, by pronouncing existing Judaism to be no more than a fossilized religion. So Parkes had to contend with influential currents of thought.
It made for a long haul.

By 1935, when the violence of Nazi antisemitism was already sending shock waves across Europe, Parkes decided he must devote himself full-time to combating this evil. But, despite his academic qualifications, he had no university position, and his subject was still regarded with suspicion in such circles. So too, he had no position in the Church, and was extremely reluctant to be tied down by accepting a parish with its attendant duties. Instead he sought independence and the freedom to express his controversial views as he saw best.

In this predicament he turned to a wealthy Jewish business man, Israel Sieff, who had earlier helped with some of his student projects. Both biographers are rather coy about Sieff’s motivations. He certainly was encouraging and recognized that any commitment would have to be of considerable duration. But the actual sums granted were not large. Parkes’ other income from his writing or lecturing was minuscule. So in fact he was obliged to live for years on a very Spartan scale. His only luxury was to purchase books on Judaica, for which he got special grants. But in order to house his collection and to have room to work, Parkes bought a dilapidated manor house in the rural village of Barley, not far from Cambridge and an easy train ride to London. This became his base for nearly thirty years, from which he sallied forth to give lectures, attend conferences and to participate in meetings relevant to his studies.

Parkes saw himself as a historian. His books from this period were thoroughly researched and have indeed stood the test of time. But they also had to have relevance to the more immediate political currents of his day. The rise of Nazism proved to Parkes the necessity of mobilizing opposition to its totalitarian ambitions. He increasingly saw himself called to lead the campaign against these wider secular forms of antisemitism, as Richmond rightly acknowledges. The increasingly disastrous news about Jewish sufferings in Germany, and after 1939 throughout Europe, caused him terrible anguish, but only reinforced his belief that not enough was being done by Germany’s opponents to rescue and relieve these “poor dear Jews”. In fact, in retrospect, he could only deplore the failure of imagination and the indifference of the Christian world. Had the Christian churches possessed sufficient spiritual strength to mobilize opposition to Hitler, he believed, this might well have led to a myriad of martyrs but would surely have prevented the mass murder of six million Jews and probably twice that number of other victims of Nazism.

By the end of the 1930s, his former Jewish friends from student days in central Europe found themselves in dire peril. Some managed to escape to England and were sympathetically received in Barley. Others came to make use of his library resources, so the house was continually filled with refugees and students. Only his skillful cultivation of a vegetable garden provided food for all these guests. Increasingly Parkes lived for his work and produced some notable volumes with a strong historical base.

But, as Richmond points out, the impact of his writings was not large. Parkes’ name was not known: He lacked the influence he might have gained as a professor or a bishop. But he refused all such attempts to find him a suitable platform, even, under the post-1945 Labour Government, the offer of a seat in the House of Lords. Such a pedestal in such a historically outdated anomaly would have been remarkable, but in any case Parkes refused, saying that traveling to London would preclude his concentration on his work in the (near) solitude of Barley.

At the same time his horizons widened. Although still concerned to call the Christian community to repentance for its history of intolerance, he now took up the more immediate cause of campaigning on behalf of his “poor dear Jews” in a practical way. He became a leading member of the Christian Zionist cause, which advocated the return of Jews to Palestine as the most positive means of providing a refuge for the persecuted European communities. His biographers seem not to know that Christian Zionism has a respectable history of its own. In England it was particularly strong in the nineteenth century. Parkes brought its theology up-to-date, adding to its existing humanitarian tradition. He was strongly supported by other theologians, notably Reinhold Niebuhr in America, and in the 1930s and 1940s he wrote a series of significant works espousing this cause, and subsequently arguing the case for the newly-established State of Israel.

One of thes,e End of an Exile. Israel, the Jews and the Gentile world, appeared first in 1954 and has recently been reprinted, presumably because it most capably makes the case for, and explains the meaning of a Jewish state. Several more recent essays written by Parkes’ disciples have been added to this new edition in order to bring its message up-to-date. It bears all the marks of Parkes’ indefatigable scholarship but also of his ardent advocacy. As a historian and a theologian, he mobilized his material to give background and depth to the contemporary scene. The early chapters recapitulate some of his previous writings on the history of the Jews, but he stresses the necessity of linking both religion and politics with their historical background. Thus he disputes the view that the new State of Israel is a modern secular invention. Rather he seeks to claim that this is in accordance with the true and ancient tradition of being Jewish. To be sure, his view that twentieth century Zionism was largely the result of the mistreatment of Jews in eastern Europe has been questioned. But his insights into the formative Jewish influences defining the newly-created state are excellently presented. Above all, Parkes rightly asserted the inherent relationship in Judaism between land, people and religion, which now for the first time in centuries could find free expression. He sought to convince his Christian readers that they must understand Judaism on its own terms, not merely through the lenses of Christian apologetic. The same message was conveyed in the chapter on Jerusalem, where he sought to demolish the beloved sentimentalities of so much Christian rhetoric and instead insisted on the harsh factuality of the city’s Jewishness, even if, at the time he was writing, it was politically divided.

This book was all part of his campaign to oblige the Christian churches to recognize that the creation of the State of Israel was more than just a political adjustment of boundaries in the Middle East. In fact, Parkes, asserted, this event had tremendous theological significance, and should be regarded as a historical sign of God’s continuing faithfulness to his people. The republication of this book, fifty years after it was written, is presumably due to the sad fact that some Christian communities are still reluctant to accept Parkes’ arguments, even today.

Critics of Parkes’ numerous writings often claimed that, despite his assurances to the contrary, the fine line between objective history and unilateral partisanship frequently got blurred.. Others, who knew about the source of his funding, accused him of having sold out his intellect to the Jews. Others again wondered why, since he was so obviously partial to Judaism and its representatives, he did not himself convert. But, as Chertok rightly points out, this misses the whole point. Parkes never wavered in his allegiance to Jesus Christ. But since his mission was to bring the Church to admit its culpability and to reach a better and healthier appreciation of Judaism, this could only be done from within the Christian community. Only a practising Christian could advocate the necessary work of atonement. His credibility would have been lost by conversion.

In his later writings, Parkes’ firm conviction grew that both Jews and Christians need each other. Each should recognize that neither yet possesses the final totality of truth. Both should follow the common task of pursuing a “theology of equality” in creative tension and dialogue. He argued that Judaism, Christianity and Humanism were three “channels” through which the experience of God was being revealed to humankind. Their differences of emphasis should be seen as mutually enriching rather than as exclusive of each other. There should be no denial of the peculiar nature of each religious contribution to humankind, or any suggestion that one “channel” was more significant than another. All were equally divine, as revelations of God’s revelation. Christians should abandon their view that Judaism was a dead or incomplete religion. Judaism is part of God’s overall plan for creation, and needs to survive intact as a valid demonstration of God’s power. This pluralism of view reflected very well Parkes’ early training in the modernist rationalist school, but inevitably upset those Christians whose Christology led them to make exclusive claims or whose missionary zeal still saw the Jews only as potential converts.

In the 1950s Parkes became increasingly concerned about his legacy. His splendid library was unique and growing daily. What he wanted was a custom-made building and if possible an established Institute where scholars could be welcomed. Both preferably in Barley. But his benefactor, Israel Sieff, prevaricated. Neither biographer explains why. In the end, the library was sold to a small new university on England’s south coast, at Southampton, which faithfully kept its promise to preserve and maintain it intact. It took another forty years before a separate Parkes Institute could be founded. But today both flourish, and provided the raw materials for these comprehensive biographies.

Seemingly neither Richmond and Chertok were brought up within the ambiance of the Church of England, nor are they familiar with the idiosyncrasies of that institution, which shows on occasion. More seriously, this background is really necessary in evaluating Parkes’ enduring influence. In his final years Parkes was increasingly aware that he was becoming a forgotten man. The explanation is two-fold, neither of which is fully taken up by his biographers. On the one hand, Parkes was a “loner”. He had never sought to fit into the Anglican establishment, was often scornful of its bishops and its outdated ceremonies, and was outspokenly critical of its missionary endeavours towards Jews. In fact, his early commitment to a highly unorthodox and seemingly reductionist theology had already made him an isolated figure. His writings demonstrated his sympathy with the intellectual western members of the Reformed Jewish community, who praised him loudly for his sympathy and understanding. His ability to talk as a Jew did not however lead to popularity in the wider Christian ranks. The Church of England never saw any need to lead in the reformation or reformulation of Christian attitudes towards Judaism. Only one, now retired, bishop, Harries of Oxford, carried forward Parkes’ work for the next generation.

More significantly, however, Christian attitudes did change, but primarily due to German Protestant and Roman Catholic initiatives. The striking alterations of Catholic doctrine promulgated during the Second Vatican Council under John XXII and Paul VI, and carried forward by subsequent popes, were exactly in line with Parkes’ repudiation of theological antisemitism. But his influence on the Catholic scholars can only be attributed as indirect. Equally important, but again indirectly, were his writings on Israel for the wider Protestant community, especially in Germany. In 1948, the establishment of the State of Israel caused a major theological shock to reverberate throughout Christendom. The reassertion of Jewish nationhood put paid to the supersessionst theories of Jewish perpetual banishment or of Judaism’s imminent demise. But the equal shock and shame among Christians in Germany, as they began to come to terms with their failure to prevent the Holocaust, were even more effective in sponsoring a new and much more creative relationship with Judaism. But few German Protestants had heard of, or read, Parkes.

In more recent years, the kind of dialogue based on a theology of equality, for which Parkes argued, has been carried forward – unequally – around the world. In Europe, Jews remain a minority and somewhat unready to engage in dialogue. In Israel, the Christian community has been reduced almost to vanishing point. Only in the United States where the communities can and do meet on equal terms have Parkes’ ideas found a ready reception, as can be seen both in the Jewish scholars’ statement Dabru Emet of September 2000 and the later Christian statement A Sacred Obligation of September 2002, the majority of both groups being resident in the United States.

On the wider scene, it may be confidently asserted that Parkes’ campaign against theological antisemitism is close to victory. It is now inconceivable that the Vatican authorities would reverse the teachings of Nostra Aetate, issued in 1965. And similarly, the bold declaration of solidarity with Judaism, with its explicit renunciation of proselytism, issued by the German Evangelical Church’s Rhineland Synod in 1980, has come to be widely accepted and adopted in Lutheran communities. The classical Christian pejorative definitions of Judaism and the Jewish people are no longer heard from Sunday pulpits. To that extent, Parkes’ campaign has been vindicated far more quickly than he expected.

When Parkes first turned to Israel Sieff for financial help, his host asked how long the work would take. He gave as his honest answer: “Three hundred years”. In fact, great strides have been made in the past seventy years since the appearance of The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue. Much is due to Parkes’ pioneering research and provocative thought. He regarded his life’s work as “reversing the stream that has flowed in the wrong direction for 1900 years”. His true, if often unacknowledged, legacy is that this revolution is now taking place. We are therefore indebted to his biographers for their lucid description and analysis of James Parkes’ significant contribution in this epoch-changing process.

1b) Tony Kushner and Nadia Valman, eds., Philosemitism, antisemitism and the Jews. Perspectives from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, Aldershot, Hants, U.K.:Ashgate 2004. 272 pp. ISBN 0 7546 3678 X

This collection of essays arose out of a conference held at the University of Southampton to mark the centenary of James Parkes’ birth, but has been worth waiting for. Gavin Langmuir leads the cohort of distinguished British and American scholars in tracing out many of the early features of both philosemitism and antisemitism. The work thus provides an excellent introduction to the career of James Parkes, as well as providing new insights into aspects of Christian-Jewish relations from the Middle Ages to the present. Several hitherto perspectives, such as those of the seventeenth century Quakers in England, or the limits of enlightenment sympathy for Judaism as seen in the writings of Lessing and Goethe, make this a helpful if widely-diversified collection of essays. Readers should take note and file the contents away in the appropriate computerized index, so that the individual contributions do not get lost to sight. In the final essay by Prof. Tony Kushner, he points out that Parkes’ influence was in part limited because it was not until the late 1950s that the enormity of destruction inflicted upon the Jewish people came to be recognized, and the word Holocaust began to be used. In the immediate post-1945 climate of opinion, in Britain, not many people were concerned about these terrible events. The survivors were few and marginalized. Other Jews avoided the subject as a result of their own insecurity. The British war memory was being highly and successfully cultivated, but the British government’s failure to rescue Jews did not feature in these accounts. And the antipathy towards the new Zionist state of Israel after the turbulent experiences of the British Mandate in Palestine, all affected how Parkes’ magnificent campaigns were received. But Kushner rightly gives him the credit for his work in combatting all forms of prejudice, and the book as a whole seeks to carry on his courageous witness as the most resolute philosemite of his generation.

Correction: By error in the last issue, p. 3, Prof. Dr Georg Denzler was referred to as a layman. He has actually been a priest of the Bamberg diocese since 1955.

With best wishes
John Conway