Sounding Board

Tolerance? Intolerable!

National debate used to be encouraged by the Anglican state — but those days are fast disappearing

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

And this is the law that I’ll maintain Until my dying day, sir:
That whatsover king shall reign,
I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.

Has any song more thoroughly lampooned the pusillanimity of the Anglican parson than “The Vicar of Bray”? If you don’t know it, Google it now; it will repay the effort. Our parson leaps from defending the Divine Right of Kings under Charles II, to wholeheartedly supporting first James II then William of Orange; he jumps from Toryism under Queen Anne to Whiggery under George I, until he says triumphantly at the end, “And so preferment I procured from our new faith’s defender …”

It’s a witty and brutal song that tells you more in six verses about that crucial moment of British history than you’ll learn in six chapters of a serious tome. But for all the mockery of the ever-flexible vicar, lurking behind the song is the brutal reality of seventeenth and eighteenth-century England: that if you hold the wrong view you might, at best, be put out of your job (as under William III, were those, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who wouldn’t renounce their oath to James and were turfed out of their parishes and their homes) or even thrown in prison (where those who opposed James’s policies of toleration were put on trial, including the same Archbishop of Canterbury).

These disputes were themselves a fruit of the fact that you were forbidden to hold political office or military rank if you would not publicly affirm your belief in certain mandated theologies or perform certain public acts of conformity, as demanded by the Test and Corporation Acts — in short, if you were a nonconformist of either a Catholic or a Protestant flavour.

Debating learnt by clerics became the quintessentially British model of how to negotiate difference

And yet the complexities of the Anglican settlement meant that within its warm embrace you were pretty free to say what you liked. The fact that the Church of England was born in dispute, and grew up trying to keep as many people as possibly within its boundaries, meant that debate was encouraged and furious and constant.

The absence of a fixed authority to determine and impose doctrine has meant that English Protestants and Catholics (and even Cambridge Platonists) have had to work out how to live with each other within the same church as best they can for 400 years.

The model of public disputation, learned by clerics as they studied at Oxford and Cambridge (and which is the forerunner of the tutorial system) spilled over into adult life so that debate became the quintessentially British model of how to negotiate difference.

This was the yin and yang of the Anglican state: tolerance for those within its boundaries, with freedom to debate and discuss more or less whatever they would like; but intolerance and exclusion for those who would not come within its tolerant embrace. Intolerant of intolerance, to borrow a phrase.

And that tolerant approach to internal disagreement stamped itself on the British mind so firmly that, as the walls around the Anglican hegemony fell and, one by one, dissenters, non-Christians and atheists were allowed into the body politic, the fundamentally Anglican model of public discourse became the norm for two centuries.

While the penalties for crossing the border are harsh and often total, the borders themselves are very vague

But this is now under threat. The shadow side of tolerance is growing in strength again: tolerant of everything except intolerance. And we are seeing the creation of new Test and Corporation Acts: the idea that a person should not be able to hold office (even as an unpaid adviser on trade matters) if he holds the wrong views on sexuality; opinions on sex and gender that appear to owe more to ideology than biology, which you must hold or find yourself unemployable in vast fields of public and private work.

There was one comfort in the old Anglican hegemony: you knew what you had to do because it was enshrined in law. If you were prepared, as the Vicar of Bray was, to “set conscience at a distance”, you could comfortably continue believing whatever you wanted, provided you swore you didn’t believe in Transubstantiation and you were prepared to receive Anglican communion four times a year.

These days there is no clarity. While the penalties for crossing the border into intellectual non-conformity are harsh and often total, the borders themselves are very vague.

Deny the right of anyone to marry whom they wish and you are a homophobic bigot; be a lesbian who says she only wishes to marry (I think this is the correct term) People with a Cervix, and you will be condemned as a transphobe, bullied off social media and threatened with unemployment until you publicly recant.

Support the British Empire: you are racist and merit punishment; support antisemitism, your cancellation waits on the electoral verdict of the British people. (Indeed, like the last Confessional State, much greater latitude of thought is granted to those who are inside the walls of conformity. See also, for instance, the equanimity with which Barack Obama’s and Angela Merkel’s previous opposition to gay marriage is greeted.)

The absence of a clear border makes any public discourse impossible. If we are to have a new Test and Corporation Act, and I fear we’re going to get one whether we want it or not, could we please have clarity over what we are not allowed to believe? And if there are to be a series of propositions which we must hold in order to be secure in employment, could they please be written down?

You could even use the opening words, “I believe”.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover