Perhaps this puzzling title will seem to refer to the recent and disturbing controversy in the Middle East over a lecture that very few people have actually read. But I would like to look at Europe’s own past, and more specifically at a book review in the current Church Times of the Exeter historian Alexandra Walsham’s Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700. The reviewer, Dr Arnold Hunt of the British Library, only faults Professor Walsham for treating intolerance “as a problem of the past rather than as a problem for the future.”
The last line of the excerpt that I’ll provide below suggests that the occasional violent hostility directed by some of the English towards other Christians in the past “was one of the defence mechanisms that enabled people to cling on to a belief in religious uniformity in the face of widespread religious diversity.” It would be wise to meditate on the real difficulty that religious diversity presents to us and others, especially when it is mixed with rivalry and intense feelings of betrayal. Pope John Paul II’s encylical Ut Unum Sint thus closely links ecumenism with the need for repentance: “an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the ‘other side,’ of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption.” I’m sure that we can recognize some traces of these “exclusions,” “refusals,” and “disdain” within ourselves.
It truly is very hard to recognize the Spirit at work in other Christian communities, even when the “other side” presents rather inescapable and challenging demonstrations of holiness. So we turn to the comforting clarity of occasional violent hostility. This is perhaps even more the case when we are talking about different religions altogether. We must recognize our desire for these “defense mechanisms” so that we can refuse them and repent.
Enough of my superficial musings. Here is Dr Hunt on Professor Walsham on the history of English intolerance:
Many of the significant episodes of persecution – such as the execution of Roman Catholic priests in the reign of Elizabeth, and again at the time of the Popish Plot a century later – are already familiar to anyone who has studied the history of the period. Much more disconcerting, however, are the smaller, apparently spontaneous, outbreaks of mob violence directed against religious minorities.
In 1623, when a house in Blackfriars collapsed under the weight of people attending a secret Catholic service, a hostile crowd gathered to throw stones at the dead and injured as they were hauled from the wreckage. At about the same time, a Catholic priest captured in Dover was sewn into a bear’s skin and exposed in the town centre “to be torn in pieces by dogs and sported with as a monster”, before being rescued by some kindly passers-by.
This tradition of mob violence lasted well into the era of enlightenment. Walsham ends her book in 1700, but finds space for the Sacheverell Riots of 1710 and the Gordon Riots of 1780. Indeed, she could have gone further still, and discussed the anti-Ritualist riots of the 1850s, which show that even in the mid-19th century popular anti-Catholicism was a powerful force.
Yet at the heart of the book lies a paradox: that while many Anglicans regarded papists and Nonconformists as the enemies of Church and state, they seem to have lived, for most of the time, on perfectly friendly terms with their popish and Nonconformist neighbours. This is encapsulated by an incident during the Gordon Riots, when a group of rioters, incited to attack a house where Catholics lived, replied: “What are Catholics to us? We are only against popery!”
Walsham argues that tolerance and intolerance went hand in hand. The practical toleration granted to Catholics and Dissenters was, she suggests, the very reason why they were denounced with such ferocity. This was one of the defence mechanisms that enabled people to cling on to a belief in religious uniformity in the face of widespread religious diversity.