Lord Williams and freedom of worship

Lord Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012.Reuters

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the BBC Reith Lecture on Freedom of Worship delivered by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams. 

The BBC should be congratulated for inviting former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, to give this year's 100th anniversary Reith Lecture on freedom of worship.

The BBC used to be a byword for impartiality and fairness, but in the last few decades has sadly become better known for its constant insidious attacks on the only democratic country in the Middle East, while failing to report cases of real criminality occurring elsewhere.

No doubt this is why the BBC has been named the third most anti-Semitic organization in the world, after Iran and Hamas.

But in his erudite appeal to a society and culture in which 'lukewarm tolerance' has replaced passionate commitment, and where 'freedom of worship' has simply become a call to conformity, with religious practice confined to the home and church, Lord Williams goes some way to opening up minds and hearts to living a more proactive definition of religion and worship.

And for this the BBC should be thanked.

It is interesting to note (though Lord Williams does not mention this) that in both Biblical Hebrew, as well as in the modern language, the word for religious service and practical work is the same, i.e. avodah. Therefore, to the Jewish mind, private religion is simply not what being a Jew is about, and never has been. In Judaism, as Lord Williams points out, Shabbat is much more than simply desisting from work on the seventh day of the week.

As he states in his Reith Lecture:

"A Jew keeping the Sabbath is announcing that the rhythm of their week is shaped by a story which establishes how G-d relates to the world. Renouncing any kind of active business for one day of the week keeps us aware that we do not always have to maximize the use of time for our own safety, advantage or profit. Quite the contrary; we are obliged to remember, for twenty four hours or so, our unconditional dependence: a dependence on a grace that we have not earned or created for ourselves.''

This is a good definition of Shabbat. And in fact, on that day, avodah morphs from the everyday toil of the six days of the week into the seventh day 'service of the heart', devoted to G-d in prayer, as well as to friends, communities, learning and visiting the sick, which is what Shabbat is really about. And after all, the Midrash does state that G-d Himself rushed around during the six days of Creation, managing to rest only on Shabbat itself.

Similarly, Lord Williams cites the case of a Catholic women's Order in Pennsylvania which argued that a private oil company who had seized some of their farmland to build a natural gas pipeline 'violate[d] their right to liberty', by which they meant 'religious liberty'. For these nuns, religious belief and worship encapsulates reverence for the environment.

Today, many would find it easy to agree with the nuns, given that 'green' issues, based by the way on the Book of Leviticus, shunned by so many in the Church as mentioned here, have become fashionable.

But what about the case of a Catholic doctor who will not perform abortions, or registrars from a number of religions who refuse to perform same-sex marriages?

What about those of us in the Jewish community who insisted to the people in charge of the recent 10-year Census that Jews are an ethnic minority, for some of whom religion plays a part, but for whom ethnicity is far more important? We were told by those in charge of the Census that if we didn't fill in the form as it stood, we would be prosecuted.

So in fact, many Jews refused to fill in the 'religion' part of the Census form, thus downplaying the number of Jews that there actually are in this country and feeling short-changed and humiliated in their own country where they have been a presence in some cases for more than 300 years.

This is a very good example of what Lord Williams describes as 'repressive tolerance' ... 'a tolerance that undermines what it purports to allow.' By not allowing Jews to define themselves, the powers-that-be are guilty of the adage 'Jews Don't Count', or even worse 'People Love Dead Jews', names of recent books which describe the problem facing those for whom 'worship' does not simply mean 'belief', but actions based on these beliefs.

But what are the Pennsylvania nuns doing if not 'objecting that the integrity of their actual physical witness to their belief, their freedom to communicate what they hold to be true of G-d's relation to the world, is fatally compromised if their property is forcibly used in a way which contradicts what they hold to be true.'

Another example of this, not mentioned in the Reith Lecture, is what the great American Jewish thinker, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, stated, when he accompanied Martin Luther King on the famous 1965 march from the Alabama town of Selma to Montgomery: 'I felt my legs were praying.'

Similarly, Maria Skobstova, a Russian Orthodox emigrée in Paris who became a nun, is honoured as a Righteous Gentile by Jerusalem Holocaust Remembrance and Learning Centre, Yad Vashem, for saving Jewish lives, as a result of which she was executed in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Lord Williams cites Mother Maria as speaking of how the "'liturgy' of the Church, its solemn public worship, should 'leak out of the church door and dictate the priorities of life in the wider world."

Some of these at the time heroic examples are now generally regarded as worthy of praise, but the 'authorities' of those years used every means at their disposal to prevent these heroic deeds, based on the true sense of 'worship', from being carried out.

What about in our own day, when we have the contentious issues of Roe v Wade, or official Church sanction of same-sex marriage?

Here we are on stickier ground, with those for and against citing various biblical and/or legal sources on behalf of their particular stance on these issues.

Given prior press coverage of the Reith Lecture, I therefore asked Lord Williams to provide his own views on the role of law in this debate. Because, given the antisemitism and worse experienced by Jews in diaspora, and particularly in the USA and the UK at present, Jews are understandably not terribly impressed by arguments based on 'Christian spirit' or the superiority of Church morality.

This is what Lord Williams responded:

'Law should ultimately rest on more than just what a majority can live with. I think that's compatible with the highest ultimate view of law – and indeed I've argued here and there over the years that a weak sense of what a lawful democracy really looks like is one of our main current political problems. We have a muddled and thin idea of law in our culture.'

In many cases, the stance of those nuns in Pennsylvania has been encouraged by Lord Williams, especially when highlighting the attitudes of UK universities to their Jewish students, cases in which the law is simply not being applied correctly by the university authorities, much to the detriment of those same students.

A similar case in which the law has been treated with contempt is that of the proposed construction of a physical eyesore to the 'Holocaust' that the powers-that-be thought that they could dump on a protected World Heritage Site adjacent to Westminster in the name of 'dead Jews'. But, then a large number of living Jews, including survivors themselves and their families, from all walks of life and from around the world, including those who had supported Rabbi Heschel, environmental issues, and the rule of law, came out vociferously against this desecration.

Lord Williams, in what must have been a very difficult personal decision, went against the Church hierarchy in order to support Holocaust experts, local residents, schools, environmental experts, security experts and children of Holocaust survivors, in order to avert a huge miscarriage of justice.

This is, I think, what he means by 'conscientious dissent' and avoiding 'a majoritarian tyranny'. We, who are currently studying the Hebrew Bible books of two prophets, much loved by Rabbi Heschel, Amos and Hosea, as part of our Broughton Park Jewish Christian Dialogue Group, in tandem with a group of Anglican nuns living in a Welsh convent, can surely agree that these words must continue to ring true if freedom of worship is not to wither on the vine:

'let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream' (Amos 5:24).

What does this mean? It means that justice is for everyone and should be combined with mercy, and righteousness, embracing charitable giving in Hebrew, should be all-embracing. It is not that we should reserve religiousness for one day in the week alone, but every day should contain the best aspects of Shabbat; the way we do things is paramount; and the minority are entitled to live out their public commitment that 'freedom of worship' genuinely entails.

The BBC is to be congratulated on this Reith Lecture by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams. Sadly, despite subsequent audience questions coming to Lord Williams from every religion, as well as from a Humanist, there were none that were Jewish. But, nevertheless, in this, the BBC's 100th year, may this choice of subject and this choice of speaker be a true and long-lasting sign of the times and a fitting start to the next century or two ......!