Faith & Reason: Lions, Christians and Scottish heretics

There is a clear distinction between campaigning for conformity and campaigning for people's liberty to choose whether or not to conform
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The Independent Culture
I AM often thankful that I didn't have a religious upbringing. Because there were no moral absolutes (apart, of course, from doing what my mother told me), tolerance wasn't the dirty word that it is in so many religious circles. I learned that other people were just as likely to be right as I was; and this conviction, though considerably modified, has never left me. I have brought it with me into my later religious life, or perhaps subconsciously picked a form of religious expression that is in sympathy with it.

My chosen brand of religion, Anglican Christianity, is not immune from the intolerant tendency, however; and Scotland, currently, is the amphitheatre where various lions are being fed to the Christians. Next week it plays host to the triennial Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), an international body as dynamic and relevant as its name suggests. The Council has no legislative powers, but it could, conceivably, become more important to the international Anglican Church, which lacks a centre of authority. On the other hand, the Council might be further sidelined, since it was blamed by many of the bishops at last year's Lambeth Conference for being dominated by decadent Western liberals.

Step forward Richard Holloway, the head of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who promotes a version of Christianity that reminds me very much of my upbringing - though without the sort of mother who tells people how to behave. As a consequence, an archbishop in Singapore has labelled Scotland "one of the most heretical provinces" in the Anglican Communion and is staying away from the meeting.

Because there is an understandable so-what-ishness about higher church politics, let me digress to the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, when the Nazis made a concerted effort to ensure that there was nobody left to celebrate any more Jewish New Years. Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz until his suicide in 1987, wrote of his interview with an Aryan chemist in the concentration camp in If This Is a Man:

When he had finished writing, he raised his eyes and looked at me . . . That look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.

Primo walks back to the Jewish compound in the company of Alex, a German thug turned supervisor, and the glass of the aquarium thickens. Alex catches hold of a metal cable. "Donnerwetter, he looks at his hand black with thick grease . . . Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of the hand, to clean it."

There are always dangers in comparing the Holocaust to anything, but for post-war generations its gates have stood as a warning of what can lie at the end of the road of prejudice and intolerance. Its relevance here only is that Bishop Holloway is being criticised not for what he does but for what he tolerates. He no longer smokes cannabis, but he would like to see it legalised. He does not indulge in teenage sex, but he will not condemn it if it is consensual. He is not a gay priest, but he campaigns on their behalf. As a consequence, US websites hold dossiers about him, and conservatives around the world circulate e-mails about his latest shock pronouncements.

Liberals are often accused of being as intolerant as their traditionalist opponents. Remember Tom Lehrer's sardonic preamble to "National Brotherhood Week": "I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that." But in general the accusation is unjust: it might just be my upbringing, but I see a clear distinction between campaigning for conformity to a particular standard, and campaigning for people's liberty to choose whether or not to conform. The former is motivated by fear that an ideal will be watered down by people, the latter by a fear that people will be melted down for an ideal.

My best example of tolerance comes, though, from the opposite pole to Richard Holloway. A group of conservative American churchmen are contemplating leaving the official Anglican Church because of its equivocation over gays. They teeter and scheme and campaign and agonise. In their vanguard is Judith Gentle-Hardy, who is standing out against the liberal Bishop of Massachusetts, Tom Shaw, because of his pro-gay stance.

But Judith Gentle-Hardy, courageous, principled and conservative, is a woman priest, and therefore ought to be anathema to the group of churchmen, who, as a rule, continue to oppose women's ordination. What can they do? Their e-mails show their dilemma: "Judith may be `confused' about her orders, but she certainly speaks with clarity, and acts on what she speaks!!!!!" "Anglo-Catholics of my stripe may question her orders, but her leadership here is not sacerdotally relevant, only baptismally relevant." "Friends don't always agree, but we must be in the business of making some."

In other words, let's overlook differences on the women issue in order to unite against a greater foe, i.e. gays. I don't see why the same argument can't be applied to gays - but though who the "greater foe" might be doesn't bear thinking about.