For services to Inter Faith and Community Cohesion, Dr Jane Lesley Clements was awarded Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in The Queen’s Birthday Honours list in October 2020. Previously Chief Executive at the Council for Christians and Jews, Jane is now Chair at FODIP – The Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine – which she founded. In a timely post, Jane sets out her journey with God and her work to host and facilitate sensitively interfaith dialogue on the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
“Like many people, my early ambitions in life were inspired by David Attenborough. In the 1960’s, he presented a programme called ‘Adventure’ (available here on BBC iPlayer) in which he encountered people and tribes in many distant parts of the world. So began my fascination with humanity as a whole, how we interact, what we hold important and, most importantly, what we believe. This inspiration was a novelty concept at my Primary school, where I remember on more than one occasion being singled out to tell visitors to the class what I wanted to be when I grew up; they never expected a 10-year-old to reply ‘An anthropologist!’
In my last year at school, however, I received a strong calling to go into teaching, against my expectations. Within the space of a week, and totally out of the blue, three different people had told me that I would make a good teacher and that I should pursue it. Since then, I have always looked for three confirmations of any calling. God has been gracious and always provides them!
Some years later, when I was teaching ‘A’ level Religious Studies, our department wanted to change the syllabus. God drew me to the papers in Judaism, in spite of my focus at the time on Islam and Biblical Studies. A timely encounter with a Jewish teacher at a conference provided a gateway into the world of the Jewish community in Britain. At the same time, my once a week History classes included the appalling topic of the Holocaust. When I finally felt the need to take a break from teaching and study for a Masters Degree, it was clear that I needed to continue in depth my study of Judaism. Towards the end of the course, expecting to go back to teaching, I received out of the blue an invitation to join the staff of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), the national organisation dealing with the relationship between our two faiths.
The more I learned about modern rabbinic Judaism, the more I began to appreciate aspects of my Christian faith, such as baptism and the Eucharist. The gospels ceased to be just familiar stories as I understood more about the concepts and perceptions that would have been around at the time. It was an incredible privilege to hear how rabbis approached Biblical texts, opening up new ways of looking at scripture. I also needed to face up to the fact that Christianity has been responsible for so much anti-Judaism, both overtly and implicitly, which has fuelled some horrific acts over the years. Coming from an evangelical background, there were those who confronted me for not promoting the need for Jews to confess Jesus as Lord, but someone else told me, ‘Whenever you speak to someone as a Christian, you are witnessing to Christ’. Certainly I have been fortunate in that my work has always been based on my identity as a Christian.
Working at CCJ showed me that there was much that was good, positive and even innovative in inter faith relations in this country. However, there was one topic that stood in the way of such dialogue: Israel/Palestine. I could see that the many organisations involved in promoting good relations could not deal with this; it was such an emotive topic that it often threatened to destroy the bridge building that had taken so long to establish. On one occasion, after a vote in General Synod about disinvestment in certain organisations linked with the conflict in the region, a trustee was so incensed that he told me I was part of ‘an antisemitic organisation’, by which he meant the Church of England. It became clear that a separate organisation was needed to deal with this – an organisation based on the principles of respectful dialogue – where Jews, Christians and Muslims could explore their perspectives in a safe, facilitated environment, especially when items in the news could adversely affect community relations.
In a step of faith, I left my secure, salaried role at CCJ and set up FODIP; the working title was the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine. The name stuck. But even that was – deliberately – controversial, because there were many on both ‘sides’ who did not recognise the existence of either Israel or Palestine as valid words. The next few years were hard, financially, as FODIP became a registered charity and I dealt with the administration, fund raising, project delivery and public speaking single handed. I was fortunate in that my husband provided a roof over my head and food on the table – and helped out on a few occasions! But I met the most wonderful people – Jews, Christians and Muslims – who shared the vision and became committed colleagues.
As I look back now, I can see God’s hand in every move and each experience. I had a brief spell back with CCJ as Director, but it was clear that, once I had accomplished certain tasks, God wanted me back at FODIP, where I am now joint Chair. Over the years, I have been so privileged to be part of so much. I was a founding trustee of the national Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which led to me exploring Holocaust Education for a PhD. I have also been immensely privileged to be part of the Anglican Jewish Commission, discussing theology with Israeli rabbinical counterparts and bringing concerns of Christians in the Holy Land to the table. With other members of the Commission, I was part of working groups producing documents on Anglican Jewish relations and the Holy Land; the most recent endeavour was the Church of England’s key document ‘God’s Unfailing Word’, published last year.
There have been hairy times, too. But the most rewarding things have been meeting people, sharing ideas and faith and helping to provide opportunities for learning, understanding and reconciliation. Although FODIP’s focus is on improving relationships here, I have led many inter faith study tours to Israel and the West Bank. These have included some amazing moments when, across ideological, religious and ethnic grounds, people have recognised the humanity in the other. On a FODIP tour in 2018, my husband came too. Thinking that he was just an ‘also ran’, he was astonished to find himself being asked deep theological questions by a Muslim scholar; ‘when would I otherwise find myself talking to a Muslim woman about such things?’ he asked.
However, life in the Holy Land is still impossibly tough, the situation veering from critical to more critical. Here at home, we see the antisemitic tropes resurfacing in social media, ‘casual’ prejudice against Jews and Muslims and the resurgence of the extreme right wing. And yet, the face of God is still to be found in those we meet and the Spirit can be seen working in others – both Christian and non Christian. I thank God for directing and guiding me through it all – and, of course, for David Attenborough.”