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Chosen: Lost and found between Christianity and Judaism, by Giles Fraser

23 April 2021

Lyle Dennen reads an account of the crisis at St Paul’s in 2011-12

GILES FRASER describes his new book, ambiguously entitled Chosen, as a ghost story. It is a beautifully written memoir of salvation through autobiography. It starts immediately with the period of his considerable darkness after his resignation as a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral over his role and views about the Occupy London occupation there in 2011-12. For the author, then follow depression, loss of status and direction, marriage break-up, pain and hurt from inner chaos, and significant thoughts of suicide.

In a journey to Liverpool, he visits the Jewish synagogue where one of his ancestors had been senior minister in the 19th century. Samuel Friedeberg’s face in an oil painting there haunts him profoundly — thus the ghost story.

There are two wings, then, to this autobiography: first, what Fraser describes as his Justification of his actions and strong views about the occupation at St Paul’s by protesters calling for the overthrow of the global economic order; and, second, Fraser, as a committed Christian priest, searching his long family history of Anglo-Judaism and how the two interplay. Both of these stories have not just personal reflections, but deep and imaginative theological insights.

Book One. After the 2008 financial crisis, the bailing out of the banks, unemployment, and austerity, there was a world-wide protest movement involving the occupation of financial institutions. In London, the intended target was the Stock Exchange, but it had been fenced off. So the occupiers settled in the forecourt of St Paul’s. The police were on the steps under the portico, the protesters facing them. Fraser arrived 40 minutes before the 8 a.m. communion service and made the decision to order the police to move. He said that he did not have time to consult the Dean or other canons. But we do live in an age of mobile phones.

All the problems flowed from that decision. It then became a prolonged and unhappy situation for everyone, especially for Fraser: the sad pictures of the closed doors of St Paul’s, concerns about human excrement in the cathedral, health and safety, the right to protest, the fear of violence, from either the protesters or the police. Fraser makes a strong case for his opposition to evicting the protesters, but someone wiser than me recently said “recollections may vary.” Fraser refers to The Temple, a play about the occupation performed at the Donmar Theatre, in which the “Dean” is forced by the “Giles Fraser” character to say finally what he thinks of “Fraser’s” behaviour: “You are a very, very vain man.”

Book Two. The author makes a fascinating discovery of his Jewish family, which has been in England since the early 18th century. Because of a well-founded fear of anti-Semitism, generation after generation wanted not to be noticed, wanted to fit in, wanted to hide. Perhaps this is the significant link between the two books of the autobiography. Fraser, in an almost throwaway remark about his resignation from St Paul’s, says: “Perhaps I just didn’t fit in.”

He puts forward a compelling theory of “trans-generational haunting”: families keeping secrets that travel down the generations, causing chaos and hurt. Then he does quite a brilliant working out of the family hurts and misunderstandings that haunt the interplay between Christianity and Judaism. The end of Chosen is very moving, as Fraser says: “. . . and now I am ready to begin again.”

The Ven. Lyle Dennen is a former Archdeacon of Hackney and Rector of St Andrew’s, Holborn, in London.


Chosen: Lost and found between Christianity and Judaism
Giles Fraser
Allen Lane £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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