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Interview: Jane Clements director, Council of Christians and Jews

04 July 2014

'Relations between Jews and Christians are at their lowest point since 1945'

I've been working in interfaith relations since I left teaching Religious Education in 1995; so I'm accustomed to the fact that no two days are alike. A typical day might include responding to an article or event which has caused concern for one community or another, preparing a text study for an interfaith gathering, and, inevitably, all the usual thrills and spills involved in running a national charity.

Everything in my life so far has prepared me for this. That's one of the benefits of growing a little older. Looking back, it is easy to see the way God guides and inspires. In fact, I don't think my knowledge and experience could equip me so well for any other job.

There are quite a few perceptions about CCJ [the Council of Christians and Jews]. My aim is to challenge these and ensure that the organisation is positioned to be a real tool for dialogue between Jews and Christians in this country.

My father served in the British Army during the Palestinian Mandate in the 1940s; so I grew up with stories of the birth of the State of Israel. I originally studied Islam, but having trained as an RE teacher, I was asked to develop a specialismin Judaism. I went on to do further study in Hebrew and Jewish studies, and have been working in interfaith relations ever since.

Insights into other faiths have enriched my own Christianity immensely. I am challenged both by the importance of faith traditions in daily life, and by glimpses of God which come from quite different experiences.

I've become accustomed to a variety of traditions, both within and outside the broad reach of the Church of England, but my identity as an Anglican and my appreciation for its unique approaches have become increasingly important over the years. I like the "three-legged stool" of scripture, tradition, and reason - that makes for an excellent balance. Anglicanism's desire to hold so much in tension is a key factor, and the ability of anyone to feel they can belong is important. That's something I've learned from the Jewish community.

I think we could do even more in Christianity to help young people to feel they belong, without their necessarily believing everything in the creed. It's very important to welcome people, without preconditions; to set up church-related events that they can come to without feeling they have to be in church as well. It's not that faith is unimportant, but it's something that grows and is experienced. A truly deep-rooted faith can take time. Young people shouldn't think that there is some belief package they need to sign up to from day one in order to be part of the fellowship. Christianity is about a relationship.

We don't make enough of the rites of passage for young people. Confirmation is one thing, but I think we could do more in terms of welcoming young adults into the congregation. I'd like to see us make more of that, as other faith traditions do.

I'm privileged to be a member of the Anglican-Jewish Commission. It's been a refreshing and uplifting experience to learn from such inspiring people.

Archbishop Temple and Chief Rabbi Hertz, who founded CCJ in 1942, wanted to enable Jews and Christians to meet as human beings. When you recognise the likeness of God in the face of the other, it is more difficult to succumb to the doctrines of Untermenschen.

A willingness to enter into real dialogue is not a soft option. It can be difficult, since we can be challenged to re-evaluate some of our thinkings. But it can be inspiring, too, leading to a much greater understanding of our own faith and traditions.

We can learn a great deal from Genesis 32 and 33. This is where Israel comes into being, as Jacob is renamed for his encounter with "the man who wrestled with him" at the Jabbok ford. The strange and compelling narrative is in the context of Jacob's fear of the coming reunion with his brother, Esau. Wrestling and reconciliation - these elements for me are at the core of Jewish-Christian relations.

I believe relations between Jews and Christians are at their lowest point since 1945. But hope is to be found in the fact that we both understand the nature of a covenantal relationship with God, and that so many are still committed to the engagement with each other.

The biggest problem is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. On an individual level, our relationships can be very good; but, on the institutional level, relations are not good at all. There's been quite a lot of hurt and mistrust. Articles in the Jewish press have sometimes been quite difficult, and, for many in the Jewish community, Christian approaches to Israel are regarded with some apprehension. This may be because of what they read in the Jewish press, or because of what they have experienced at events such as Greenbelt. Support for Palestinians is often regarded by many in the Jewish community as coming from a place of antagonism towards Jews as a whole, or worse. However, it is worth remembering that the Jewish community as a whole in Britain is as divided on this issue as everyone else.

Many Israeli and diaspora Jews are truly afraid that the world cannot be trusted, and that Israel's existence as a safe haven is very fragile. Unfortunately, politicians often play on this. To Christians, such fears appear groundless, when considering the terrible injustices and oppression suffered by Palestinians. But they are real fears, and based mostly on real Jewish experience.

I set up the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine (FODIP) specifically to promote positive dialogue on the subject among British Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Finding the language and vocabulary to express our fears and horrors to each other is difficult, because of the emotions involved, and we often fail to understand each other's responses. Unless we meet people where they are, and encourage real dialogue, we will not break this impasse. We need to work together for the sake of all those in the region.

My parents' relationship with God and the Church was complicated, but they were happy for me to be in church, at least most of the time. I was an only child, and I married into a huge family, whom I love and value greatly. Our own two children are now grown up, and we have a delightful grandson. My husband is retired, and is restoring a Victorian house we bought a few years ago. He was born to be a churchwarden. His engineering skills are invaluable when it comes to finding the problem in the boiler room, or the source of the leak. He also has a love and a knowledge of ancient buildings, and the people who frequent them, and no one can touch him on the question how to lay a limestone floor.

I always enjoy the opportunity to travel to Israel and the West Bank, though that's a very bittersweet experience. The landscape, both physical and political, has changed dramatically over the past ten years.

My taste in music is quite eclectic, but I especially enjoy something with a good beat, whether it's rock or African drumming.

I owe a great deal to a couple who ran the youth group at Christ Church, New Malden, in the '60s and '70s: Barbara and Douglas Hill. They taught a whole generation of us what it meant to truly follow Christ.

The novel that has had the greatest impact on me is John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I read it once, long ago, and could not bear to read it again, but that was enough to impress it on my mind. It awakened the Socialist in me.

I pray always for the peace of Jerusalem, as the psalmist demands. I believe in persistence in prayer, even when things look bleak. I've seen so many answers to prayer in my lifetime, not least in world events.

I'd like to be locked in a church with Barack Obama - no bodyguards or entourage, just the man himself. He could still change the world, but I'd like to hear about the constraints holding him back, and encourage him, if I could.

Dr Clements was talking to Terence HandleyMacMath.

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