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Religious liberty honoree Rabbi Lord Sacks builds bridges among faiths

Published: Wednesday, May 14 2014 11:40 p.m. MDT

Emeritus chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, right, leaves the Supreme Court in London during an appeal hearing for the JFS school Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009.

Matt Dunham, Associated Press

Most clergy can be expected to help heal rifts within their own congregations, perhaps even their own denominations. Rarely is a minister called upon to transcend the boundaries of his own faith to help a totally different religion's leaders find common ground.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, 66, found himself in exactly that position six years ago when the worldwide Anglican Church was fracturing over the ordination of a gay bishop in the United States.

Rabbi Sacks addressed an assembly of hundreds of Anglican bishops in a speech credited with helping mend divisions in the church. Then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said Rabbi Sacks' words were "undoubtedly one of the most significant addresses" of that session.

Indeed, Rabbi Sacks has forged alliances with clergy of many faiths in Britain, including Hindu and Muslim leaders, cooperation seen as especially valuable after the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in central London.

"If you're going to fight for the liberty of one religion, you have to fight for the liberty of all. You can't be a sectional advocate," Rabbi Sacks said in a telephone interview from London. "You have to be willing to stand alongside other faiths (even) when your own liberties are under attack."

His interfaith work and his passion for religious freedom were recognized Thursday by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty with its 2014 Canterbury Medal, an annual prize recognizing "an individual who has 'most resolutely refused to render to Caesar that which is God’s,’ ” the group said.

Becket Fund President William Mumma said in a statement that the emeritus chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth "has been a clear and compelling voice for religious liberty. Supporters of religious liberty from all faiths and from all parts of the globe are grateful for his leadership."

Helps calm waters

Rabbi Sacks may have seemed an unlikely person to help calm Anglicanism's troubled waters. But it turned out that, in the summer of 2008, he was just the man for the task.

The global Anglican Church — known in Britain as the Church of England, with its U.S. branch being the Episcopal Church — was divided over the American group's 2003 ordination of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a homosexual then living with another man, as bishop.

The contentious debate over the ordination reached its zenith that year at the Lambeth Conference, the decennial assembly of 650 Anglican bishops from 185 countries representing 85 million members.

But in the middle of this near-chaos, Rabbi Sacks was called to the gathering to speak about covenant, and how that concept was applied in Judaism, words that resonated with the Lambeth congregation.

"(A) covenant is a way of holding together two or many millions of individuals who may be very different indeed, but who come together to achieve together that which they could not achieve alone," Rabbi Sacks explained. "And (a) covenant respects the difference, and integrity of that difference, of the different parties to that covenant. … So I think that perspective from an outsider helped people."

Archbishop Williams, in an email, said the talk "did a great deal to give a common language to a very diverse group of Christian leaders."

Thought leader

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