By Joel McFadyen
14 August 2022
Philosopher Karl Popper once wrote that if a tolerant society extends limitless tolerance to the intolerant, then tolerance itself will be destroyed, and the tolerant themselves with it.
Fiona McLean argued for the rejection of tolerance in August’s Melbourne Anglican. If we as Anglicans allow such calls to take hold and plant roots, we will risk destroying ourselves at the same time. Mrs McLean argued that tolerance poses a danger to the church, and that not all forms of diversity are helpful. That’s not true. The rejection of tolerance can offer the church only a decline into irrelevance, and cloud Christ’s great commandment to love our neighbours. Every kind of diversity or identity is helpful in God’s eyes, as we are taught in 1 Corinthians 12:21-26. We simply need the discernment and imagination to see it.
It is a hard truth that many people view Christianity as irrelevant, harmful, and oppressive. Every year we watch the same tableau play out in Christian conferences and synods: first a lamentation on falling attendance, a decline in giving, and flatlining youth interest. We see that people do not want what we are offering. Then comes speculation on what might renew parish life and bring back congregants. Finally, in the same breath, there is condemnation of the efforts to welcome queer and gender-diverse people into the fold. The meeting concludes with the Grace, light refreshments to follow. It is clearer than ever that rejecting “unhelpful diversity” will not fill the pews of our cold and empty churches, inspire generous giving, nor rekindle a passion for religion in the next generation of our society.
On the other hand, I have seen what embracing tolerance can do. Ten years ago, a school chaplain created a kind and gentle space for me, in which I first experienced God’s love. His compassion, and his assurance that God loves me and made me perfectly the way I am, finally convinced me that there was a place for me in the church, in the very moment when I was prepared to turn away forever. It was tolerance, kindness, empathy, and solidarity that modelled for me what living as a Christian meant. If we allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting intolerance, flattening those kind and gentle spaces, the church will continue its current state of suffocation.
As faithful Christians we don’t need to decide who to tolerate. God has already done that. We have been taught to become all-inclusive – to be one in Christ, as we read in Galatians 3:28. Christ’s call is one of radical tolerance, one that seeks to abolish the need to be tolerant altogether by tearing down social barriers in favour of a unifying love. By fixing our eyes on our human behaviour, and picking by ourselves who is welcome in the church, we risk losing sight of the truth: God’s house has many rooms, and Christ has prepared a room for all who earnestly follow Him (John 14:1-2). There is no way in which an unyielding refusal to embrace tolerance and diversity can be compatible with that belief.
To reject tolerance breaks Christ’s great commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves recorded in Matthew 12:31. The suggestion that we should exclude anyone from the church based on who they are is at its core a contradiction. We cannot scorn our neighbours without scorning ourselves. We hold many different identities, and our commitment to embrace each other is only the stronger for it. The erosion of our Christian identity will come not through the acceptance of diverse cultures, sexualities, or genders. It will come through the rejection of tolerance that drives the members of Christ’s body apart from their neighbours, and apart from those outside the church we hope to embrace. Therefore, a teaching that we should resist tolerance cannot bear good fruit, and will have Anglicans scrambling for grapes among thorns.
LGBTQ+ people, or people of any demographic that could be accused of being unhelpfully diverse, are approaching the church openly and honestly. We are not trying to sneak into parishes, disguised as something else, to leap from the pews mid-service, flinging rainbows and glitter and wreaking havoc. It is a fearful thing to enter a space unsure if you will be welcome. My heart raced and my hands shook the first time I walked through St Paul’s Cathedral with painted nails and a rainbow pin. I was scared that if I was met with hostility, I might never feel safe here again. I had nothing to fear. The smiles and greeting I received were just as sincere as they had ever been, and my fear turned into joy. I knew then that the kind and gentle space shown to me before is just as present in the place I now call my spiritual home. Here, where we don’t entangle ourselves over who we should welcome or tolerate. Together we are standing plainly in front of Christ, witness to His sacrifice. Together we are known and accepted by Christ in our entirety.
The only thing to be intolerant of, then, is intolerance itself. We must abandon it as a needless distraction from our calling. Every kind of diversity that any human can offer the church can be taken up to make known Christ’s light; every person can use their gifts to serve God, we read in 1 Peter 4, verses 10-11. Christ’s love is so strong that we can’t ever be separated from it, Paul writes in Romans 8, verses 31 to39. That love, the foundation of God’s church, cannot be compromised in any way by something as simple as tolerance. God has given us the tools to overcome the false divisions between us. To turn our backs on tolerance would reject that gift.
No call to reject tolerance can overcome the boundless and reckless love that God revealed to us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To call for a limitation on tolerance is to carve away a fundamental part of who we are as Christians: loving our neighbors unconditionally, just as Christ loves us. If we tolerate everything we do not, in fact, stand up for nothing – we stand for the universal acceptance of oneness in Christ regardless of race, class, gender, or sexuality. If opponents of tolerance want to invoke a Trojan horse at the gates of the Anglican Church, then, they may find that in their own metaphor they are in the horse, not in the city.
Joel McFadyen is a proudly queer Anglican and a congregant at St Paul’s Cathedral.