Church to issue first ever apology over expulsion of Jews from medieval England

The Church of England will apologise for the anti-Semitic expulsion of Jews from medieval England for the first time, bishops have confirmed.

In written questions submitted to the General Synod, the Church’s legislative body which finished sitting on Monday, church leaders revealed plans to offer an “act of repentance” in a move welcomed by Jewish groups who say the action is “better late than never”.

The Church was instrumental in endorsing historic legislation restricting Jews in the county, such as forcing them to wear identifying badges and banning them from certain professions, which ultimately led to the nationwide expulsion of Jews in the 13th century.

Despite the Church of England not existing in the 13th century – until its creation hundreds of years later by Henry VIII – Church officials have apologised for the role of the church in England throughout history, and its part in stoking anti-Semitism. 

Asked what church leaders were planning to do to commemorate 800 years since the 1222 Synod of Oxford – “the ‘Magna Carta’ of English canon law which implemented some of the most egregious anti-Semitic decrees” – the Bishop of Lichfield said the Church is proposing to hold a symbolic service on the anniversary.

The Rt Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave OBE said: “The Archbishop’s office has indeed received a letter proposing a service that might offer an act of repentance at the 800th anniversary of the Synod of Oxford and its anti-Semitic laws.

“I note the proposal and the significance of this in the context of the 2019 Faith and Order Commission document on Christian-Jewish relations, God’s Unfailing Word [the Church’s landmark document on Christian-Jewish relations].

“We are exploring the idea of such a service to be planned in conjunction with the Council of Christians and Jews, as well as the potential for a liturgical resource that might be offered to local churches to model an appropriate symbolic repentance.”

‘Better late than never’

Responding to the plans, Dave Rich, director of policy at the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity which provides security to the UK’s Jewish community and which records anti-Semitic incidents, said: “The phrase ‘better late than never’ is truly appropriate here.

“The historic trauma of medieval English anti-Semitism can never be erased and its legacy survives today – for example, through the persistence of the ‘blood libel’ allegation that was invented in this country.

“But at a time of rising anti-Semitism, the support and empathy of the Church of England for our Jewish community is most welcome as a reminder that the Britain of today is a very different place.”

A record number of anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in the UK since the start of the violence between Israel and the Palestinians in May, the CST said.

From 8 May to 7 June, 460 incidents were reported to the charity – the highest monthly total since records began in 1984 – with 316 happening offline and 144 online.

The CST’s comments come in response to both contemporary and historic anti-Semitism in the country. By the late 1200s, a string of laws were passed in England restricting the rights of Jewish people. They were forbidden from owning land, passing on inheritance to their children instead of the Crown. Hundreds were arrested, hanged or imprisoned.

In 1290, King Edward I passed the Edict of Expulsion, a royal decree which remained in place for the duration of the Middle Ages, expelling all Jews from the country.

It was overturned only when Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews to return to England in 1657.

Building bridges

The Bishop of Lichfield was answering the question in response to Mr Jacob Vince, a member of General Synod from the Diocese of Chichester, who asked: “Have these foundational canon laws ever been formally repented of in the intervening centuries?

“In light of rapidly worsening anti-Semitism in the UK in recent months, might the 800th anniversary next year be an opportune moment for the Church of England to consider making a formal break with these historic prejudices as a gesture of solidarity with our Jewish neighbours, England’s oldest ethnic minority?

“Has the Archbishop’s office received a letter and research paper on the topic of this octocentenary, and are there any plans to appoint suitable individuals to investigate these matters further with a view to conducting a fitting service of corporate repentance?”

The plans for the symbolic act of repentance would mark the first time that the Church of England has directly apologised for the expulsion of Jews from the country.

In 2019, the Church of England published a teaching document, entitled God’s Unfailing Word, which acknowledged that Christian theology played a part in the stereotyping and persecution of Jews, which ultimately led to the Holocaust.

At the time, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis responded to the document and “the pain that has so often marred the long history of Christian-Jewish relations”.

While he welcomed “the progress it undeniably represents and articulates”, he also criticised it for failing to acknowledge the evangelism of Jews by Christians and the “considerable damage” this does regarding co-existence.

He said that the document “does not reject the efforts of those Christians… who, as part of their faithful mission, dedicate themselves to the purposeful and specific targeting of Jews for conversion to Christianity”.

The Chief Rabbi described this as “a real and persistent concern, set in a tragic historical context, that even now, in the 21st century, Jews are seen by some as quarry to be pursued and converted”.

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