How Giles Fraser lost and then found himself

His memoir explores both his Jewish and Christian identities

May 05, 2021
Between worlds: Giles Fraser at a makeshift church in Calais' refugee "jungle". Credit: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/Alamy
Between worlds: Giles Fraser at a makeshift church in Calais' refugee "jungle". Credit: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/Alamy

Giles Fraser is one of the best-known Anglican priests in the country. But there’s a twist. His father was born a Jew and his second wife is an Israeli Jew (or “a daughter of Israel” as he describes her).

His memoir Chosen weaves between four different stories. It begins with his breakdown after resigning as dean at St Paul’s Cathedral, after the fierce controversy about the Occupy movement taking over the cathedral’s grounds in 2011. Fraser supported the protestors, but was outnumbered and resigned. It’s not quite clear why this led to such a dramatic breakdown, nor why he chose to try and write his way out of his crisis, but the result is this book.

Second, there is a fascinating and all-too-brief family memoir, which tells the story of how his ancestors, then the Friedebergs, came to England sometime after 1720, not long after Jews were readmitted to England. In 1916, the priest’s great-grandfather, Samuel, changed his surname to Frampton, which eventually became Fraser. Giles’s father later converted to Christianity. It is an extraordinary story, and Fraser tells it well. It also explains how he ends up Jewish by descent and Christian by faith.

The main section of the book is part theology and part religious history, exploring how Judaism and Christianity parted ways, with fascinating thoughts on the relation between the Old and New Testaments, angels, baptism and the Temple in Jerusalem—which brings us back to Christian architecture and the meaning of St Paul’s.

People who enjoy Fraser’s writing, podcast and appearances on the Today programme will find this interesting and accessible. Those who don’t will find it a light mishmash of theology, Freud and philosophy: “Heidegger once said...”; “prayer, wrote Rowan Williams, is a bit like sunbathing.”

The book ends with Fraser baptising his son in the Jordan River, reconciled to his mixed identity. From his Guardian days you would expect him to attack Israel, but married to an Israeli, he is more benign. It reflects a larger change, bringing together two very different parts of his life.

Chosen: Lost and Found between Christianity and Judaism by Giles Fraser (Allen Lane, £20)