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Tolerance and the Trebor moment

04 March 2016

ONE of the hardest problems we face as a society is reconciling inclusivity with diversity. Tolerance is put under strain when it has to tolerate intolerance. The Church of England has much to contribute to the management of social diversity because of its experience of managing minorities.

This was recognised in a speech by the Queen in 2012, in which she said: “The Church of England’s role is not to defend Anglicanism. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. . . Gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and, indeed, people of no faith, to live freely.”

I had these words in mind when I went to Westminster Abbey for the consecration of the Rt Revd Karen Gorham and the Rt Revd Mike Harrison as the Bishops of Sherborne and Dunwich respectively. As a member of the Chapter of Christ Church, Oxford, I was very close to the action.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury asked the people in the congregation if they were willing that Karen should be ordained bishop, a loud “No!” rang out. A protester was given a microphone, and duly informed the congregation that no woman could have authority over a man, and that, although it might be possible for men to ordain a woman bishop, God would not do so.

This was not the first time that I had been present at the consecration of a woman bishop, and not the first time that I had witnessed a disturbance of this kind; but, in the intimate space of the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, it seemed particularly shocking. Just for a moment, I felt the weight of the centuries in which most women were routinely humiliated because they were believed to be inferior to men. But what then struck me was the note of despair in the protest. It reminded me of something.

What came into my mind was the bizarre, comic, and disturbing TV ad for Trebor mints. The ringing “No!” in the cathedral had something of the echoing despair of the moment when, in the ad, the father of a son (who has confessed that he prefers soft, chewy mints to hard, extra-strong ones) turns and reveals that his face is not human at all, but deformed into the moon-shape of a hard Trebor mint. (Look at it on YouTube, under “Trebor ad”: “Choose your Trebor — Confessions”.)

The Abbey protest was deftly handled, with good humour from both Archbishop Welby and the protester himself, who, having made his point, left quietly. But that Trebor-mint moment remains with me. Painful and slow though it may be, the way to handle intolerant minorities is to let them say what they want to us, and, by doing so, to reveal who they are.

 

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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