Giles Fraser is an Anglican priest, a philosopher by training and a journalist who for a time wrote a column for The Guardian and now regularly contributes to Unherd.
Until the autumn of 2011 he was Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. Until, that is, the arrival of Occupy – some 3,000 people camped out on the steps of the Cathedral to protest against the way capitalism had developed, enriching the few and impoverishing many. The background was the financial collapse of 2007-2008 and the way governments responded by bailing out the banks even though the crisis was created by the banks in the first place.
The protest caused problems for the Cathedral – concerns over health and safety, disruption of worship and disruption of tourism leading to loss of income. Eventually the Chapter (the small group of clergy in charge of the Cathedral) voted by a small margin to have the protesters evicted. Fraser voted against, and then wrote to the Dean giving notice of his intention to resign. He had wanted a theological response from the Cathedral – some serious engagement with the issues raised by the protest and some acknowledgement that the Bible (and Jesus in particular) have a lot to say about the right use of money and issues of economic justice. The prospect of an eviction possibly leading to violence in the name of the church was more than he could stomach.
Fraser’s decision to resign from the Cathedral Chapter precipitated his own crisis, a tumultuous upheaval at once personal, relational and theological. He tells his story in Chosen: Lost and Found between Christianity and Judaism.
He needed a job. Various possibilities were suggested to him, including becoming Dean of Liverpool Cathedral. It wasn’t a post he wanted (he didn’t get it) but he went for the interview anyway.
Arriving early in Liverpool he decided on the spur of the moment to visit the synagogue in the city which had been run by his great-grandfather’s brother Samuel for over thirty years. Entering the building he found himself confronted by a portrait of Samuel, which, for reasons he couldn’t explain at the time, reduced him to floods of tears. He was suddenly caught between his identity as a Christian priest and his Jewish heritage, stung by a sense that – having just left a prestigious position in the Church of England – he didn’t quite fit in either camp. And were they – are they – two camps anyway? The heart of the book is a personal and theological exploration of the relations between the two faiths, how they came to diverge and how he has worked out a way of living with a foot in both camps.
Along the way he also gives a fascinating inside story of how he came to resign from the Cathedral, touches on his decision to go into therapy and the eventual collapse of his first marriage, and tells something of the story of his subsequent marriage to an Israeli citizen. The book ends with Fraser baptizing his new son in the river Jordan.
Fraser writes very engagingly, with wit, candour, humility and without rancour towards those he disagrees with. The book is a rich blend of personal testimony with philosophical and theological reflection. (He cites Augustine’s Confessions as his inspiration.) My only criticism is there is too much detail – for my taste – about his family history on his Jewish father’s side.
Although Fraser had given his notice to the Dean he was working out his notice and therefore still a Canon of the Cathedral. And he was listed to preach at evensong the following Sunday. Somebody advised him to preach on the Bible readings set for the day. The assumption apparently was that this would be a harmless thing to do with little likelihood of finding any immediate relevance – let alone anything controversial or upsetting – in the Bible. The assumption was wrong. The Gospel text from Luke 6 included these words from Jesus:
Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation.Luke 6
It was almost absurdly apposite and, given the circumstances, there was absolutely no way such a passage could be ignored.Giles Fraser, Chosen page 44
He made sure not to preach in a triumphalist, self-righteous See-how-Jesus-agrees-with-me kind of way:
There is sometimes an easy piety in protest that can make people close down to their self-critical vigilance, and I wanted to challenge that, both in myself and in others. ‘We all own shares in the way of the world,’ I said. And we were all up to our necks in this economic system – mostly all beneficiaries, mostly all complicit.Chosen, page 46
Sometimes, despite any assumptions to the contrary, the Word of God speaks very sharp challenges to our lives. Let the writer to the Hebrews have the last word: