"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
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
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
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in