Jonathan Sacks in 2013.
Jonathan Sacks in 2013. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Jonathan Sacks remembered by Rowan Williams

Jonathan Sacks in 2013. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

8 March 1948 – 7 November 2020

The former archbishop of Canterbury recalls the former chief rabbi, a friend and inspiration who was an eloquent defender of classical liberal values

Sun 13 Dec 2020 09.30 EST

For many commentators in the UK, Jonathan Sacks was one of the more acceptable faces of religious faith. The force and clarity of his exposition, in person and on the page, was favourably contrasted with the style of other religious leaders (I couldn’t possibly comment), he was an eloquent defender of classical liberal values and an opponent of any suggestion of using faith to legitimise violence, and the energetic warmth of his personality was always in evidence. There were times when we shared platforms in relatively formal settings. But I have strong memories of his effective engagement with secondary school students, where that energy and directness held the attention of a quite challenging audience – and also of an event with Archbishop Tutu, whose typically expansive gestures had the two of us (flanking his seat) surreptitiously moving our chairs back, to accompanying laughter, so as to avoid grievous bodily harm.

There were more domestic moments, journeys and family meals together, which cemented our friendship. A specially significant experience was when the two of us organised a visit to Auschwitz for British faith leaders. I think that part of what we wanted to do was to share with our colleagues – Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Baha’i – something of what the specific religious history of Europe involved, the legacy of two millennia of murderous Christian contempt translated into the secular mode of racial fundamentalism and industrialised mass slaughter. We wanted them to know something of how wide a gulf interreligious reconciliation sometimes has to cross.

I have a clear memory of walking with Jonathan in uncharacteristic silence across the waste land of the camp on a bitterly cold day, neither of us knowing what to say to each other or to our companions, but knowing we had to find words somehow. We did, eventually, though I can’t recall what. It seemed a necessary sharing. I think it was an important moment for our friendship, and for the relationships between all the members of that very diverse group. Hard to pin down, in retrospect, but I sensed that the intensity and intimacy among us all lasted well beyond that long winter’s day.

I asked Jonathan to address the Lambeth Conference of 2008, the 10-yearly meeting of Anglican bishops from around the world. My hope was to invite a number of “outside” voices to try and open up the atmosphere a bit at a moment when disagreements over sexuality and authority were sharp and tense (to the extent that a number of bishops boycotted the conference). There was no doubt in my mind that Jonathan should be among those voices. He did not disappoint. He spoke on a theme he had explored in a recent book, the idea of voluntary covenant as the basis for social life – the decision to continue being connected through and beyond all the possible stresses, divergences and even betrayals. He could hardly have guessed just how apposite his words were for us; and they made the deep impression they did because – as always – he displayed both philosophical acumen and psychological shrewdness in his interweaving of sophisticated biblical exegesis and personal experience. Somehow, he gave us not only an intellectually substantive lecture but something approaching a revivalist summons to faith. It was a high point for the conference.

Jonathan Sacks and Rowan Williams at the National Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 2008.
Jonathan Sacks and Rowan Williams at the National Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 2008. Photograph: Liverpool Daily Echo/PA

From time to time we shared some of our feelings about the divisions within the communities we served, and the way in which authority figures have to cope with blasts of anger and hostility from all points of the compass. If it’s true that the archbishop of Canterbury has more responsibility than actual power, it is even more true of the chief rabbi: the title suggests a far more unambiguous authority than is the case, even within the Orthodox Jewish community – and there are plenty of other Jewish communities, across the spectrum, from ultra-traditionalist to the opposite, for whom the chief rabbi’s position is more or less irrelevant. Yet the expectation of speaking for the community is still a strong one; and Jonathan’s intellectual independence produced at least one serious set of upheavals, and a demand for public recantation. I think we were both grateful to be able in private to be honest about the pressures and frustrations. You can love a community with all your heart, and yet desperately need somewhere to admit that it is driving you mad. We could at least do that for each other.

I shall miss Jonathan sorely. He was not only a man of manifest and manifold stature, but an energising, positive, enriching personal presence. I am so abidingly thankful to have had him as an interlocutor, inspiration and faithful friend in the years when we shared the public space.