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Where liberal tolerance meets fundamentalism

20 March 2015

Offering hospitality in our churches for worship by other faiths challenges our understanding of God's love, writes David Bryant

"YOU are a Christian minister. My son tells me that your church needs re-carpeting, and that you have no money. Buy what you need, refurbish your place of worship, and I will settle the bill."

It was not the financial content of the offer that astounded me, for the speaker was a wealthy businessman. A devout Muslim, he did me the honour of allowing his two daughters (whom I was coaching) to study in the same room as me, unchaperoned. His spiritual generosity and untrammelled trust in the presence of an infidel left me dumbfounded. In terms of interfaith relationships, his willingness to direct his zakat, or almsgiving, to the Anglican church merited five stars plus. It was in total contrast to the uneasy, half-hearted approach we often exhibit when considering the possibility of closer harmony with those of different world religions.

It is easy to see where we go wrong. Unwavering faith and religious certainty carry with them the danger of withdrawing behind the comfortable defences of dogma, doctrine, scripture, and church history. We become possessive, inward-looking, and nervous of strangers; wary of religions that are unfamiliar, and jealous of our culture, tradition, and Christian ethic. If you doubt that, look at last week's headline in The Times: "Christians turn on vicar who hosted Muslim prayers in church." The vicar in question, thank goodness, met the storm of protest with what is surely a Christian basic: "We should be offering people a place to pray. We are the Church of England."

This is the point at which polarisation creeps invidiously into the equation, and tolerance is hurled out of the window. We make the somewhat arrogant claim that our faith alone offers salvation, and that those outside are second best. The whole unsavoury inferno is tottering on the brink of an indignant war of words, and rests on an undercurrent of hostility, if not downright fanaticism.

TOLERANCE has strong biblical antecedents. Take Cyrus, King of Persia, who reigned in the heartlands of the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Not only did he allow the exiled Hebrews to return from Babylon, but he encouraged them to rebuild the Temple, and gave them carte blancheto practise their faith. Then there is Jonah. When he tried to persuade God to zap the Babylonian city of Nineveh and its polytheistic inhabitants, he got an uncompromising reply. "Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" In other words, God has no favourites. He is universalistic, and his love embraces all mankind.

This message is significantly strengthened by Jesus. In telling the engrossing tale of the passer-by who gave first aid to the mugged traveller on the Jericho road, he wryly points out that he belonged to the ostracised, despised Samaritan sect. The instruction to us is non-negotiable: "Go and do likewise."

The woman with whom Jesus struck up a conversation at the well had to cope with a double whammy of insult and ridicule from her compatriots. Not only had she precociously run through seven husbands, but she also belonged to a spurned sect, and the respectable were supposed to turn up their noses at her faith.

IN FAIRNESS, I suspect that most mainstream worshippers exhibit at least a degree of tolerance. We engage in cross-cultural dialogue and try, somewhat bemusedly, to understand the nuances and key beliefs of others. By and large, we favour a society that is happy to incorporate different dress codes, religious observances, and customs. At the multi-racial comprehensive where I used to teach in London, we organised visits to Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples, and Jewish synagogues, trying to penetrate the mysteries and intricacies of other faiths. I remember with affection the warm welcome we received from the Sikh community, combined with a much-appreciated invitation to join them for a meal.

So far so good but, when it comes to sharing religious buildings for worship and prayer, the barbed epithets fly. It is "illegal", "offensive", and "appalling". The cardinal question seems to be, "Would God agree?" Somehow I doubt it.

Any attempt to limit the love of God would seem to make nonsense of the Cross, and outrageously to devitalise St John's rich and profoundly satisfying musings on the all-embracing nature of God's compassion.

TOLERANCE at best is an undemanding virtue. Often it means little more than relegating to the category of the curious, far-fetched, or outlandish the deeply held beliefs of others. "By all means practise your own faith, but keep it low key, and do not mess with mine." It is a fragile papering-over of the cracks in our religiously disparate, distrustful society.

We need a more radical approach. Think kenosis. Traditionally the term is used to denote the process whereby God empties himself of his divinity in order to share our humanity. The Orthodox Church takes it a step further. "Kenosis" denotes a fresh spiritual beginning, a purging, whereby we slough off all resentment, prejudice, indifference, exclusivity, and arrogance of belief, allowing divine love to pour in with cleansing, healing power. It enables us to understand that truth is elusive, imprecise, veiled in cloud, and not the prerogative of any one faith. That really does pull us all together.

The mark of true tolerance is when Muslims carpet Anglican churches - and PCCs cheerfully cough up for Islamic prayer mats.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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