After nearly 800 years, the people of High Wycombe have come together to apologise to the Jewish people for their expulsion from the town in 1234.
In an extraordinary act of confession involving some 300 Christians from 50 different churches, Jewish leaders were profoundly moved by the occasion during which the congregation joined in a declaration of repentance for past hatred.
The civic service, held at All Saints Church, was the fulfilment of a 15-year-old vision of Rev Tim Butlin, vicar for many years of a village parish nearby, who was set on “changing our future by confronting our past”.
Marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz when Holocaust Memorial events were held throughout the country, many worshippers were shocked to hear the history of how antisemitism took root in the church through so-called ‘replacement theology’, even contributing to the Holocaust.
After a moving response by Edwin Shuker, vice-chairman of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the congregation stood in a joint declaration of their intent to stand together with Jews as brothers in the future, a framed copy of which was presented to Mr Shuker. The town’s Muslim mayor was also in attendance.
One of the rabbis taking part afterwards wrote: “I felt the service was very dignified on the one hand and hugely transforming and therapeutic on the other. There was a moment when tears welled up in response to all the compassion being expressed…To feel that the historic pain of Jews was being addressed and that the fear lying deep within our collective Jewish consciousness was being responded to was emotional and cathartic. Memories of tonight will remain with me for a long while. I will share them with colleagues, family and friends.”
A Catholic deacon, Brin Dunsire, spoke on behalf of Archbishop Kevin McDonald, absent due to illness, and afterwards noted that the break between Gentile and Jewish believers had been the most serious of the church’s schisms. He further praised German colleague Johannes Fichtenbauer for his powerful book on the subject, Mystery of the Olive Tree.
Another Catholic reported that the service had led to “a totally new level of love for Jewish people”, adding: “The fact that Jews have been chosen by God, and that God’s only Son, Jesus, was a Jew: each reason is good enough to love them, but during the repentance service that fact went from my head straight into my heart to become a burning admiration and love for this nation. I now seem to understand Romans 11.17-24 from a totally different perspective.”
Dominic McDermott, also a Catholic, said: “The evening really moved me: that finally we were getting a chance to begin to put right centuries of terrible treatment by us Christians of those God loves so deeply.”
He said he was approached by a Catholic lady, who asked: “Why haven’t we heard about this before? I never knew anything about what we have done to the Jewish people; I was horrified to hear it, but we must share this with everyone!”
Anglican Peter Dusek said a number of people reported having understood the importance of the Jewish-Gentile relationship in a biblical context for the first time.
High Wycombe’s 13th century expulsion of Jews eventually led, in 1290, to England being the first nation to expel its entire Jewish population – and it was nearly 400 years before they were allowed back!
Rev Butlin, for his part, has developed a love for Jews since his earliest days growing up in his father’s rectory on the edge of a vibrant Jewish community in east Manchester and, after living in Israel in the early 1980s, he became convinced of the need “to heal the wounds of history”.
It was after discovering the tragic history behind the absence of a synagogue in High Wycombe – he believes persecution of Jews poisons the spiritual atmosphere of a place for centuries – that he first suggested a service of repentance, initially met with bewilderment.
But thanks to a core team of intercessors and the host rector being a Messianic Jew, he finally saw his vision become reality.
And in line with the Scripture which promises blessing for those who bless the seed of Abraham (Gen 12.3), Dominic was given a prophetic ‘word’ from God last year that repentance would allow the Lord to pour out his Spirit upon the town – a sign of which would be the restoration of a stream in a local park that had been dry for over two years. As the date for the service drew closer, the stream was reported to have started flowing again!
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon; Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com; and A Nation Reborn, available from Christian Publications International