Promoting Reconciliation Through Repentance

Published November 28, 2018 by Reverend Timothy Butlin

Henry III, High Wycombe, Expulsion, Jewish Community, Christians

On November 28th 1234, Henry III signed the order, recorded in the Close Rolls, to expel any Jews resident in High Wycombe:

Used with permission of the National Archives

The official translation reads:

About removing Jews from Wycombe. It is ordered to the sheriff of Buckinghamshire that he does not allow any Jew henceforth to reside in the town of Wycombe, but that he causes the Jews who are residing there to be removed without delay; and that they are to reside in other towns in which they have been accustomed to reside before. Witness the king at Harrow, 28th day of November.

Next year, date yet to be finalised, in All Saints Church, High Wycombe, there will be a civic service recalling this historic, although minor, Jewish expulsion from the town following King Henry's edict. It will be the first time Wycombe's officialdom, the civic and church authorities, will have jointly acknowledged with one another, and before God, High Wycombe's segment, the fourth nationally, in what became a pattern of such exclusions culminating in the national expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 CE. The wounds inflicted on the Jewish community through patterns of intimidation, often accompanied with violence and even death in some places, clearly cannot be erased or healed through one single service. Nonetheless, seizing the moment to lay a new tone for community relations in High Wycombe is opportune in the current climate of inter-community relations.

Behind this kind of service lies an obvious theological question, "Can one generation repent for another's sins?". Christians involved in reconciliation know that at an individual level we are only answerable to God for the things we ourselves have done. The Jewish prophet-in-exile, Ezekiel, rehearsed this in the Hebrew Scriptures (see Ezekiel chapter 18).

At a corporate level, in post-Israelite pre-Rabbinic Jewish Writings in the Hebrew Scriptures, there are also several prayers of what Dr Russ Parker calls "representational confession" [1] where a current generation identifies with generations past to make confession of collective weakness / sin / whatever it might be. This is what we see the Judean-exile Daniel doing (Daniel 9:4-19), and find the Persian-Jewish civil servant Nehemiah repeating (Nehemiah 1:4-11). So the service in High Wycombe will be a manifestation of the present day church identifying with a previous generation collectively to confess the town's wrongdoing.

In Christian theology, there is also a precedent for this kind of identification with others in the words and actions of Jesus recorded in the New Testament. First, Jesus modelled the principle of identification in his own baptism and crucifixion. Having no need to repent of sin yet Jesus chose to be baptised by John, to John's great surprise, saying "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness". (Matthew 3:15 NIV). Later, in the writing of St Paul, the theology of the cross is summarised thus: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God". (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV).

In the forthcoming service in High Wycombe, there is no sense in the minds and hearts of religious and civic organisers or participants of any moral or spiritual superiority, merely the conviction that re-laying the spiritual and cultural tone of the town is an important statement to make and that this cannot be done without recognising and confessing our collective past. So this action is an attempt to underline by deed the humble characterisation of the present-day church by Pope John Paul II, quoting Lumen Gentium, "The Church, embracing sinners to her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal", [2] thus setting a welcome agenda for renewal and harmony in community relationships.

This article is written by Reverend Timothy Butlin who is on the European Executive of the Toward Jerusalem Council II movement and has a long-standing involvement in promoting harmony in Christian-Jewish relations. He is also on the Advisory Board of Christians in Government.

[1] Parker, R., Healing Wounded History: Reconciling Peoples and Healing Places (London: DLT, 2001) 91.

[2] Hocken, P., Healing the Wounds of History (London: Catholic Charismatic Renewal Centre, 2005) 6.

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