Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Limits of Tolerance (Taber-Hamilton)

by the Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton

On my refrigerator door I have a cartoon of two people dressed in simple 17th-century garb tied to stakes with wood piled at their feet. At the fringe of the wood pile is a crowd clearly dressed as Puritans carrying burning torches with one (the minister?) reaching forward to set the wood alight. And one victim says to the other: “I’m sure if we just try and engage them in dialogue one last time, we’ll be okay!”

One of the most significant failures of modern progressive Episcopalians is the belief that the application of reason to any given conflict will ultimately prove effective in convincing our opponents of the correctness of our cause.

This is proved false again and again, of course; people are often irrational. But our own innate – sometimes arrogant – belief in the reasonableness of humanity and its susceptibility to what we perceive as rational discourse seems to have the ability to overwhelm the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

This is clearly the case in the current struggle within the Anglican Communion. The majority in the Episcopal Church continues to maintain a tolerant attitude to those within our own province and in Africa who have adopted a stance toward our actions that has profound echoes of the scapegoating and exclusion that the first Puritans practiced.

It should be said that the perception of Episcopalian tolerance by these Puritan heirs is quite different than our own self-understanding. Part of their concern is, I think, that the very beliefs they abhor will be imposed on them, either by canonical action or the pressure of the majority. Calming fears is surely a part of toleration.

Yet those who stand against our vision are driven by a narrow imperial ideology that denies our right simply to exist and seeks to delegitimize our identity as Anglicans. The overall conservative message – certainly presented by the leadership cadre of this group – is “Think as we think, be ‘our sort of Christian,' or we will seek to exclude you from the Anglican community of Christians.”

Such rhetoric is not an empty threat. We continue to see well-planned and organized attempts to bring about the replacement of the Episcopal Church as the U.S. embodiment of Anglicanism by such groups as the American Anglican Council, the Anglican Communion Network, Forward in Faith North America, and, most recently, the “Convocation of Anglicans in North America” (Archbishop of Nigeria Peter Akinola’s extra-territorial “Nigerian” mission to the U.S.A.).

And such a strategy is being pursued elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, most notably in Canada, England, and Australia.

Until now we have not prepared well to face this assault. And so we have been blinded to this narrow totalitarian vision seeping into our nation’s and our faith’s – and even our Communion’s – DNA. It is a vision that threatens to destroy our open North American society and emerging Christian identity.

A refusal to see the threat as threat, disagreements in strategy and direction, and the general progressive malaise of much talk with no consequent organized action have also afflicted our part of the Episcopal Church. As a consequence, the neo-Puritan assaults are tolerated or even dismissed, as if they will have no effect on us or on the view of other Christians within our Communion about us.

The truth is beginning to dawn on us, however: toleration has its limits. Unlimited tolerance will lead to the end of tolerance, for the tolerant will be stamped out, leaving only the extremists. A tolerance that is unlimited in scope and boundary-less in expression represents a fundamental error of judgment on our part.

The canaries in the Anglican coal mine are our gay brothers and lesbian sisters and their supporters, attacked with increasing vehemence by the shrill voice of conservativism. Having spent the last 30 years berating and seeking to marginalize various ethnic minorities and women, conservative rhetoric condemning gays and lesbians has reached an Inquisitional pitch. If we are not alarmed by this trend, the liberating teachings of Christ will succumb to the religious fascism of our age.

If, therefore, we continue to tolerate those who are uninterested in conversation, mutual acceptance, and radical inclusion, then we place our own necks on Mme. Guillotine’s block and hand our opponents the executioner’s cord. These neo-Puritans are focusing intently on the destruction of tolerance’s foundational values. Our demise would result in the success of their narrow and puritanical agenda within the broader Church, and herald a similar victory over the open society of our North American culture.

We cannot allow this to happen. The foundation of any social contract is the preservation of the rights of individuals and communities, including the right to be free from the oppression of religion’s worst excesses – excesses which have contributed to some of the worst crimes in human history.

It is therefore our obligation within a free society and a faithful Church to preserve human rights based on our founding principle that all people are created equal.

It is also incumbent upon us as Christians to speak and act in defense of our expanding vision of Jesus’ inclusive, justice-based faith.
The time has come for us to claim the correct character of tolerance by establishing its limits in order to protect this very value from those who would take advantage of its practice. We can be tolerant of difference but we cannot be tolerant of the theological tyranny which threatens human diversity and dignity with doctrines of domination and conformity.

We must, therefore:
  • Keep the faith. We must continue on the pathway of diversity and inclusion begun with the ordination of women and the Book of Common Prayer 1979 in partnership with all of our members.

  • Be clear that we will abandon no one, and especially not those minorities who have, historically, been oppressed by the Church.

  • Be firm that, while we welcome everyone on this journey, we will not allow bigotry or threat to destroy this emerging vision of Christian faith in light of a God who makes all things new.

  • Be vigorous in preserving the institutional integrity of the Episcopal Church, including taking immediate legal action when any attempt is made to alienate the real property of our denomination, encouraging every bishop and Standing Committee to do the same.

  • Resist all attempts by some in our Communion to impose an un-Anglican institutional vision upon us and our fellow Anglicans world-wide, including opposing any Anglican “Covenant” or curial instruments, as threats to the faith on which our institutions are based.

  • End the prevaricating, and, instead, organize, network, communicate with each other, speak out, and act.

© Nigel Taber-Hamilton 2007 -- Permission granted to reprint with attribution

About the Author: The Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton lives on beautiful Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife, Rachel, and their two collies and two cats. He is rector of St. Augustine's in the Woods Episcopal Church, Freeland, in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. He is a deputy to General Convention and has served on, and chaired, committees and commissions of several dioceses and Province V.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree. We see tolerance constantly being abused on some of the excellent Episcopal blogs by fundamentalist extremists who claim to be spokespersons of "the True Faith." We joke about their being only temporarily inconvenient "trolls" while nevertheless continuing to engage them... out of a sense, I'm afraid, that our liberal credentials require us to allow them to continue to be disruptive. Perhaps this is the same kind of naive innocence represented by the guy at the stake in your cartoon. It has becoming blatantly clear that their motive is not engagement at all.. but rather division and conquest... and to torch the fires at the stakes they have erected.

"Innocent as doves" is fine to a point. But it appears as if now is the time to sound the alarm.

5/31/2007 12:29 AM  
Blogger Ormonde Plater said...

This is alarming, as it should be. I am concerned that standing committees in conservative dioceses may not take action to preserve the property of defecting congregations.

5/31/2007 6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not that the people you call the "Puritans" nowadays want to deprive the Episcopal Church of the "Anglican" franchise in the USA. It's that the Episcopal Church has broken faith with most of the rest of the members of the Anglican Communion, to the extent that TEC is not respected as Judaeo-Christian anymore, but dreaded as a devotional club for social workers, therapists, and the sexually confused.

5/31/2007 8:33 AM  
Blogger C. Andiron said...

"One of the most significant failures of modern progressive Episcopalians is the belief that the application of reason to any given conflict will ultimately prove effective in convincing our opponents of the correctness of our cause."

I'm curious. Have you ever read any of the exchanges on SFiF between William Witt and Fr Tom Woodward? Who is using reason and who is using rhetoric? Who really wants to think the issues through and who seems to have an irrational emotional inability to think it through?

5/31/2007 8:38 AM  
Blogger Robin Bugbee said...

I am in total agreement with Taber-Hamilton and it is interesting to note that of the four comments his post elicited (before this one) two were negative. What is the problem here with the conservatives? They have clearly staked out a position of exclusion-so be it. The clear majority of the American Episcopal Churck is one of inclusion. We have been taught to love thy neighbor...not to love the neighbors we like. Property is a major issue here as is independence from direction from any ploitical authority. We should not tolerate a small faction attempting to seize on real property any more than we should tolerate that faction's attempts to seize the intellectual arguement here. We broke with the Church of England hundreds of years ago. If Canterbury cannot steer a path of inclusion and take the moral, ethical and holy high ground...we need to continue to do so and to include even those we differ with in the bargain.

5/31/2007 1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taber-Hamilton says that his tolerance has limits. The tone of his article suggests that he did not have much tolerance to begin with. His name calling and guilt by association tactics give the lie to the "reason" he claims for himself.

5/31/2007 1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ormonde Plater said...
This is alarming, as it should be. I am concerned that standing committees in conservative dioceses may not take action to preserve the property of defecting congregations.

That has already taken place in the Diocese of Dallas where Christ Church Plano was allowed to take the property. Indeed they repaid their debt to the diocese but the property itself is worth much, much more in its location.

5/31/2007 3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus didn't call us to tolerance but transforming love. The message of the gospel isn't rational dialouge, but seventy times seven. Jesus argued with the Pharisees, but he didn't give up on them. I don't care to call people I disagree with by names, i.e. Puritans which implies that I am therefore orthodox as "Anglican"--I have no particular love for the Caroline divines or either side of the 17th century arguments. I am a liberal and appalled by the divisions going on--"tolerance" is how the powerful treat the less powerful which makes real dialouge impossible. If we divide, we have been doing this since the first century unfortunately, but try to maintain love and the mystery of God. The PB models calm faith--I am trying to do the same. Rebecca

5/31/2007 8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems that most of the comments on this blog are hit and run smears by fundamentalist trolls.

Perhaps you would make a good start on what Fr. Nigel advocates here by ceasing to allow them to use this blog as a platform for their propaganda.

Just a suggestion....

6/01/2007 11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that, as Fr. Nigel pointed out in his comments and reference to the cartoon, as well as some comments here, a problem that traditionalists/conservatives/whatever you want to call them, have with "dialogue" is that there is a presumption among the more "progressive" (or whatever) that if they talk long enough, the other guy will come around. This presumption is quite annoying. It makes "dialogue" a euphemism for thought control.

I think that one think that has been lost in the shouting is the ability to disagree with another civilly, without being called a homophobe or heretic, or without the disagreement descending into name calling and bile. There's a tendency to give up and write the other person off as a lost cause and anything they say as "hate speech". That happens over and over and over, on all sides. Some of the most distressing name calling comes on the HoB/D listserve.

Also, FWIW, Christ Church Plano funded its own building with minimal financial assistance from the diocese. The payments it is making to the Diocese are to compensate the diocese for its lost assessments.

6/01/2007 12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, anyone who disagrees with the writer is a "fundamentalilst troll." Sounds inclusive and rational to me!

6/02/2007 6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Keep the faith" applies to us all -- not the faith of some General Convention but the faith of Christ. I don't recall that Jesus called anyone a troll.

If we liberals wish to claim the moral high ground, we first have to rise above the gutter.

6/03/2007 1:10 PM  
Blogger David said...

What Ormonde Plater said about Christ Church, Plano is quite true. And it leads to a very substantial rumor about how AAC/ACN bishops may try to avoid property litigation.

On the sly, encourage as many parishes in their dioceses as they can to go the "Christ Church, Plano route," then give them sweetheart deals on their property for pennies on the dollar. Finally, when the assets of the diocese are gutted, announce they're leaving TEC to be the "Anglican" bishops of, you guessed it, those same parishes.

6/04/2007 4:30 PM  
Blogger tbcmg said...

There is no such thing as varying levels of tolerance. Either you are tolerant or you are not. You can be mildly intolerant, very intolerant, or homophobic biggoted intolerant, but it is still intolerance. Mild intolerance against those who are less tolerant is still the same: intolerance.

So maybe they'll burn us at stake. But did not Jesus get crucified for his tolerance and call to dialogue? And maybe we don't see how our tolerance will possibly win the day. But could we humanly, reasonably, logically then, 2000 years ago, see how Jesus' death would bring about a new dawn of humanity? If people around us disagree so violently that they would do to us as they did to Jesus doesn't it mean that we are doing something right? For if we truly follow in the footsteps of our Christ we should expect the persecution; after all, we are not of this world.

So if we truly believe in the cause of our struggle and in what we are striving for and towards than let us gladly place our necks on Mme. Guillotine’s block, and do as Jesus did, walking meekly to the cross. We may not see how our cause will succeed, but it will.

So if people, parishes and dioceses want to leave, let them leave, and even with our blessing. In this way we shall heap burning coals upon their head and show the world the light of Christ's love. We shall turn the other cheek, and give them also our cloaks when they steal our tunics.

What troubles me is that when we retaliate in kind and even consider intolerance we demean ourselves to their level, and to unchristian standards. If we lower our Christian standards, then we become no better then them, and we defeat the very cause we claim to be fighting for.

6/07/2007 8:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ignoring the occasional 'drive-by' this is an interesting conversation.

Working backwards:

1. Victor, you make the usual progressive response that I highlight in my opening paragraph, namely the claim that tolerance should be unlimited. Perhaps this is simply hard-wired into the progressive metaphor. You also claim that Jesus displayed unlimited tolerance. This is not so. Even a cursory examination of Jesus' actions shows a number of occasions where he placed limits on what he was willing to tolerate. Mostly it was over issues of justice, but one notable occasion was when he overturned the money-changers' tables in the Temple Precinct. This is hardly an act of tolerance!

2. A number of "Anonymous" posts essentially suggest that limiting tolerance is to be associated with bigotry. This is hardly so. Bigotry involves, at the very least hatred of the other (or so, anyway, say a number of dictionaries!). Limiting tolerance in no way presupposes hatred. It simply says "I am going to protect myself, my identity, and my community from those who are actively trying to take it over or to destroy it. If you cease the attack we can live within the same, larger community."

3. Yet another "Anonymous" (must be a big family!) rolls out the tired argument that the majority have the right to exclude. This is, of course, the exercise of the same sort of Domination system that Jesus confronted in the first Century. It is also a purist tactic. Jesus railed against the Pharisees for exactly this reason: they used the law to draw tight purity boundaries around themselves and their communities and excluded those who did not meet their criteria for pure. The "Rest of the Anglican Communion" (an odd claim, really - better to say "some of the Primates") is perfectly entitled to its opinion. It is when it seeks to exclude part of the Body on purity grounds (hence "Neo-Puritan") that the issue of tolerance and its limits is raised.

Thanks to all for posting.

Nigel Taber-Hamilton

6/09/2007 11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What still puzzles me is how & when our differences as Episcopalians led to excluding those who didn't agree with us -- certainly not the Episcopal Church I joined, which delighted in and joked about its diversity.

I do think the puritan mindset has been the culprit in Anglicanism from the beginning (happily, through the centuries, the puritans keep separating from those unworthy of them).

As to words -- someone suggested that the Elizabethan Church was not tolerant because it didn't need to be -- it was comprehensive.

10/24/2007 1:45 PM  

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