Just over twelve years ago, Sir Jonathan Sacks, as he then was, gave an address to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops—the first Jewish speaker to be invited to this event. He spoke with all the energy and clarity he invariably displayed as a lecturer, and had a palpable effect on all. The atmosphere of the conference was a bit fragile—a lot of absentees, frustration on the part of many that we were not planning to pass resolutions, even a cynicism that the event was an exercise in evading unwelcome decisions. We were discussing the idea of an Anglican “covenant” to affirm the vision (and the limits) of our shared identity, often with more heat than light.
Jonathan (unprompted by the organizers) spoke precisely about covenant, and transformed the word for us. From the Jewish point of view, he said, a covenant could be a “covenant of fate,” a solidarity grounded in shared trauma and pain, or a “covenant of faith,” the free decision to risk mutual commitment and to be implicated in one another’s acts and sufferings. The unchosen common experience of slavery in Egypt was the foundation of one profound strand in Jewish identity; but only at Sinai, when Israel says yes to God’s invitation to seal the human side of the covenant, is the full nature of covenantal identity established, as the people make their promise to one another as they do to God.
He had spelled out some of this a year or so earlier in what is surely one of his best books, The Home We Build Together. In it, he explains how social solidarity cannot be secured just by the market, or just by the coercive authority of the state; it needs the conscious investment of covenanting with one another for the common good. This is significantly more than just a social “contract” because it presupposes a continuing sympathetic regard for one another, a willingness to make constant adjustments to maximize the well-being of the community as a whole. It needs attention, flexibility, and, above all, loyalty.
It means that mutual respect must be guaranteed for a range of convictions, even when the law does not itself embody or reflect those convictions. Jonathan notes in passing that the confusion of morality and law that classical liberalism tries so hard to avoid is currently undermined not so much by would-be theocrats as by a radical program of “cultural levelling,” the exclusion from public discourse of views that are deemed unethical by the prevailing cultural magisterium. At the same time, he is critical of demands for group rights and of a multicultural ideal that entrenches the distance between different communities of conviction.
The book is a strong and lucid case for liberal democracy. It is unenthusiastic about the role of religious communities in hard-edged advocacy (the effect of some churches’ involvement in campaigning for disinvestment from Israel is clearly visible in the argument, although Jonathan had some agonized heart-searching himself about aspects of the Israeli government’s policy and practice), primarily because the calling of faith communities in the present context is above all to be agents of the covenantal pursuit of the common good, and this is hampered by partisan campaigning. Jews and Christians are alike exhorted to a modest and low-key persistence. For impatient and egotistical souls, peace is always less exciting than war, but we are invited to work for stability in the long term, not victory tomorrow—with “humility and generosity,” as he stresses on the last page of the book.
It is not hard to see why Jonathan’s voice was welcomed in so many quarters in the U.K. Although he notes more than once that the U.S. has a far richer and more explicit tradition of covenantal language about its roots and identity than does Britain, his is undoubtedly a very British synthesis, respectful of tradition, welcoming of cultural diversity, but insistent on a universal rule of law. And it is set out with exemplary clarity and elegance, using scriptural resources to illuminate, but without excluding those who do not read scripture of any kind. I still feel a certain wry envy as I remember the many British commentators who compared the Chief Rabbi’s style favorably with the impenetrably convoluted and inconclusive ramblings of the then Archbishop of Canterbury.
Jonathan’s earlier book, The Dignity of Difference, was one of the works that first gave him a national profile. It was received warmly by the educated general public and less warmly by a good many in his own community. He was regarded as having downplayed the truth claims of his faith and given priority to the defense of a pluralist agnosticism in the public sphere. He subsequently revised the text to meet these objections. Some of the hostility arose from a superficial reading of the points he developed in the later book about the necessary disjunction between law and morality. Some, however, could reasonably be grounded in what did seem even to sympathetic readers a rather uncritical embrace of religious pluralism.
But I suspect that what he was always seeking to articulate was the sense that Jewish people were called not so much to orthodoxy of doctrine but to sheer fidelity to the task of inviting human beings into covenantal commitment with one another, despite the diverse accounts given of where that invitation ultimately originated. Absent that fidelity, no doctrinal utterance was going to make sense, let alone persuade anyone of its truth.
Never a culture warrior, then. The real strength of his vision is evident in The Home We Build Together, as is—for some at least—the sense of what is lacking: the edge of challenge to a consensus. His two or three pages on arguments about abortion and the law are tantalizingly inconclusive; the treatment of multiculturalism makes a good point about the risks of “silo” cultural identities, but sidesteps some neuralgic questions about the nature of cultural hegemony and the shifting self-definitions of cultures. But what remains is a practical, generous, and positive vision, a liberalism that is unmistakably morally and spiritually serious, very far from dogmatic “cultural levelling.”
Jonathan’s contribution to public discussion and public intelligence in the U.K. was immense. But I shall miss him as a friend whose positive energy and intellectual confidence were always enlivening and enriching. We shared a good deal, from joint sessions answering questions in London high schools to an unforgettable pilgrimage to Auschwitz. We shared meals, conversations, journeys, frustrations with the internal divisions within our own communities, and ultimately a pervasive sense of joy in the God who keeps promises. Jonathan may not have entirely transformed the face of Anglicanism with his Lambeth address; but he did give us a taste of that joy, so confident and forceful in Jonathan’s personality. I thank God for him and commend him to the God of the spirits of all flesh.
Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He is chancellor of the University of South Wales.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.