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Standing on common ground  

21 October 2022

Jonathan Romain finds clerical parallels in different faith traditions

robert harding/Alamy

PLEASE do not tell any of my congregants, as they might be rather shocked, but I have often wondered whether, if I had been brought up in a Christian family rather than a Jewish one, I might now be the Revd Jonathan Romain rather than Rabbi Romain. I ask that because, the more I interact with Christian clergy through interfaith groups, the more I see our day-to-day work being exactly the same: leading services, teaching classes, doing pastoral work, officiating at cycle-of-life events, and being involved in a large range of social and cultural activities in the wider community.

Of course, the theology is different — although, if you boil it down to serving God and helping fellow human beings, the key passage being “Love your neighbour as yourself” — it is no surprise that there are so many parallels in what we actually do in practice.

We also wrestle with the same problems. Perhaps the most pervasive and ever-present is the “C” word: change. To what extent is the word of God encapsulated in a one-off text or unique moment, absolute and never to be changed? And to what extent is it a matter of progressive revelation, constantly unfolding, as each generation hears God’s voice for its own time?

Either way, I reckon we need to be humbler about making assumptions. Over the centuries, both faiths have undergone massive changes, even among the most orthodox. If Moses came back to life, he would find today’s Judaism totally alien to him, while Jesus would not recognise much of church life today.

When Jews or Christians claim to be “traditional”, that is not the same as being original. The idea that faith has to be nervous of new trends forgets that both faiths were once themselves the new trend.

As for particular issues faced by both Jewish and Christian clergy, one of these is being asked to pray for something inappropriate — from passing one’s driving test to England’s winning the World Cup or a relative’s being cured of advanced cancer. Some ministers will have faith in miracles to change reality, but many of us prefer to pray for the personal qualities necessary to deal with it: asking God for the calmness to concentrate on one’s driving rather than for empty roads that day; for footballers to give of their best rather than that their opponents be useless; for the relative to have the strength to persevere, and for us to have the courage to deal with whatever happens.

The stakes are high: prayer is supposed to be our speciality, and it is seen as a professional bad mark if we fail at it, while the person who is asking can feel that God has let them down. We constantly have to remind people that prayer is an expression of desire, not a request with success guaranteed.

It is also important to encourage people to pray in a way that is helpful to them, with the emphasis on communicating rather than on results. As George Meredith put it, in the language of his time, “Who rises from prayer a better man, his prayer is answered.”

ANOTHER issue is what to do with difficult individuals. Many clergy have spent hours trying to pacify a person who is constantly offended by others, or dealing with the mayhem that such a person causes at meetings, or on committees. In some instances, the trick is to educate them on interacting better with others, or to find them a niche task in which they can rule their own kingdom without disturbing others. Sometimes, a tough conversation is needed to protect the well-being of the congregation at large. If that means that the person then walks out in tears or anger, it may be painful, but necessary. Majorities need protection, too.

Another issue that can arise is with couples intending to get married. Planning a wedding can be very joyous, but there are occasions when we clergy have to act as referees between relatives on both sides who are making unreasonable demands. As I am sure other ministers do, I am at pains to tell the couple that it is their wedding, and those interfering voices could do what they wanted at their own ceremony and should now keep quiet. More distressing, however, is when we feel a couple are not right for each other. Do we keep silent, warn them, or refuse to proceed? It is impossible to predict how relationships will develop; so extreme caution is needed. But that should not stop alarm bells ringing.

Like most ministers, I arrange pre-marriage group sessions. I start off by putting the couples on high alert by pointing to every third person in the room and saying that they may end up divorced, as is the national average. On the two occasions when I was convinced that the marriage was doomed, I felt it was only right to tell them so. One couple agreed and decided not to go ahead; the other proceeded and were divorced shortly afterwards. Sometimes, it is the duty of clergy to say what family and friends may resist saying.

THIS can also apply to those who are seriously ill. Nowadays, many people never see a death at home, or shy away from even admitting its existence by using euphemisms such as “the big C” or “kicking the bucket”. The result is that neither patient nor family talk about the future and are further burdened with repressed fears. It is the clergy who need to ask gently the questions that they are avoiding — be it “Are you afraid of dying?” or “Are you scared at losing him/her?” — and let them articulate what bothers them most.

You can reassure any of my congregants that I am not about to change faiths, but I know, if my local vicar and I were to swap positions for a week, we would both find our tasks remarkably similar and easy to slip into. We are both, I hope, working for the same God.

Dr Jonathan Romain is Rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of The Naked Rabbi (John Hunt Publishing).

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