On Sunday, December 9, the eighth and final day of Chanukah and New Moon of Tevet, the Broughton Park Jewish Christian Dialogue Group of Salford, Greater Manchester, met to celebrate its 10th anniversary in a reunion which included members both past and present from all parts of the country.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the world's leading Christian theologians, Dr Rowan Williams, came up from Cambridge specially for the event and to join the group which he has encouraged since its inception.
The evening started with the normal Chanukah candle lighting ceremony performed in Hebrew by Dr Lancaster, with blessings and festive songs in which the entire gathering participated.
Founder member Canon Dr Andrew Shanks, sees the group as a paradigm of authentic relations between Christians and Jews. He said: 'Although I am a Christian priest, I used until recently to live in the midst of large majority Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] Jewish community. I was part of a regular local discussion group bringing together devout Jewish people. This group included both clergy and lay people; also a wide range of intellectuals and non-intellectuals. The conversation was given some grounding by the [chosen] text, but nevertheless tended to veer off in the most unpredictable directions, even on occasion quite anarchically.
'There was a frank willingness on the part of the Christians present to acknowledge the frequent ugliness of past Christian treatment of Jews, and an open discussion of ongoing tensions between Christians and Jews... 'But, above all, what developed there was a gathering of friends, bonded, very much, in a spirit of laughing, affectionate wonder at one another's sheer strangeness: Jews teasing Christian, and vice versa, but also Christian teasing Christian, Jew teasing Jew.'
This is the spirit which I hoped to foster as chair of our little group, started by five people (three of whom were present on Sunday) in the heart of ultra-Orthodox Broughton Park, Salford, generally a depressed and run-down part of the UK.
To have a group of individuals possessed of brains, love and the desire to understand the closest religious 'other' in their joint 2000-year history of mainly Christian hostility, with a shared delight in language, food, music and the sheer magic of juxtaposition cheek by jowl in this very difficult part of the world, participate in our interactions every fortnight – even when we were snowed in on a couple of occasions – has been something of a miracle.
Canon Guy Wilkinson, in 2010 the group's first guest speaker as inter-faith adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, stated: 'Hospitality with added humility and humour is a powerful recipe for good human relationships, and all the more so when there is a long and troubled history to heal.'
The group has always been encouraged both in word and action by the now-retired former Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, who understands more than most in the Church the uphill struggle that groups like this face in an increasingly hostile environment, especially as he used to live in the midst of us and was our neighbour.
Naturally over 10 years the nature of the group has changed. And many were hung up on kippot and dog collars. It does seem that the increasing worship of appurtenances and signs of office in inter-religious relationships is nothing less than a contemporary form of idolatry – and all the more dangerous for it. Scholarship and life experience seem to count for little nowadays. And some people wear their badges of office in order to make up for much else in their lives. Our group aimed to alter the perception that the badge maketh the man or woman.
An offshoot of this larger group is the more recently established diocesan Anglican-Jewish Conversation Group, the brain-child of Dr Williams, who as Archbishop of Canterbury constantly warned against anti-Jewish polemic in Christian sermons.
At a time of Islamist extremism, including last year's Manchester Arena bombing, in which a large number of children of all faiths were murdered by a homicide bomber who frequented the Didsbury Mosque (recently twinned with Manchester's Anglican Cathedral), even in the most highly-placed echelons of the Christian Church, we hear language that perpetuates stereotypes of Jewish aggression or greed or whatever. And in a culture where less and less is known (even by clergy!) about the historical sources of both faiths, this goes unchallenged.
It has been good too to welcome the recent input of the Archdeacon of Salford, Venerable David Sharples, who has been proactive on a number of issues of concern to the Jewish community.
So what is the way forward in Jewish Christian relations for the next 10 years? Because it is perfectly obvious that some sort of common role is needed to combat the increasing ugliness of many of our once highly-regarded and globally respected British institutions.
So the Anglican-Jewish conversation group suggested by Rowan will embark on an exploration of Jewish and Christian values. One of the boldest Orthodox Jewish theologians, Michael Wyschogrod, posited the idea that the Jewish people are a body of faith because G-d literally dwells within the bodies of Jewish people. For Wyschogrod, G-d is not a spatial and meta-temporal Absolute, but rather, as he stated in the burning bush (Exodus), 'I will be there howsoever I will be there', always and everywhere with the Jewish people in the midst of their suffering.
According to Wyschogrod, 'Undifferentiated love that is dispensed equally to all must be love that does not meet the individual in their individuality, but sees them as a member of a species, whether that species be the working class, the poor, those created in the image of G-d or what not.'
We, the Jewish people, espouse particularism and encounter – as unfettered by prejudice as possible. It is a difficult task, but avoiding it is not an option.
One of the greatest of all Jewish Bible scholars, Abraham ibn Ezra, stated in his monumental Introduction to the Commentary on the Torah (1145): 'The Lord is the only One who I shall fear. I shall be no respecter of persons when I explore...'
Unfortunately, ibn Ezra was cut down in his prime - murdered en route from London to York by marauding Crusaders on the way to massacre more Jews in Europe en route to Israel. And this return to naked hatred and violence has been a constantly recurring pattern in Christian-Jewish relations over the last 2000 years.
By contrast, one of the highlights of the 10 years was a recent evening of music and words celebrating the life of Germany's second-greatest poet, the Jew, Heinrich Heine, led by founder member, Jonathan Davies LLB. This is his assessment of Sunday's tenth anniversary celebration: 'It certainly was a first class evening exemplifying what a dialogue group should be about. That is tackling hard as well as soft issues with mutual respect and a willingness to truly hear other views and approaches. The group has done fine work over the last 10 years and I am sure will endure for a long time to come.'
And it was a privilege to host Rowan Williams as a guest at our home and for both of us to share a meal beforehand with the Archdeacon of Salford in a local kosher restaurant which had been recently firebombed and is still suffering from the trauma.
On his return to Cambridge, Dr Williams wrote the following to me: 'Thanks again for your warm welcome and kind hospitality last night. It was a fitting way of marking ten remarkable years, and I was very happy and privileged to be part of it.'
Earlier the Archdeacon of Salford, together with Rowan, had invited me to share a meal beforehand in a local kosher restaurant which had been recently firebombed and is still suffering from the trauma. The gesture was much appreciated by the restaurant staff.
As has truly been said: 'hospitality, humility and humour are key' to relationship, to which I would add 'the sharing of food, drink and music in an atmosphere of love and intellect'.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.