The tradition of liberal tolerance, fostered in Britain, was one of the greatest gifts this country gave to the world. That inclusive tradition of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, however, always leaves itself open to abuse by people willing to use liberalism's flaws — not least its tolerance of intolerance — to end liberalism.
The Church of England, in its time, has often been far from liberal. In the nineteenth century, it ended the careers and livelihoods of liberal theologians as adamantly as did the Church of Rome. But in the twentieth century, the story changed. Partly spurred by the loss of confidence caused by diminishing church attendance, by the late twentieth century the Church of England had dropped its reputation as "the Conservative party at prayer," and became something more like "the Liberal party at prayer." No accommodation seemed too extreme. No public expression of doubt seemed too disconcerting. For some years now, the Church of England has been led by its members — not thanks to, but in spite of, the embarrassing public doubts of its leadership.
And here is the liberal dilemma expressed in just one story this week. The former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries — a kindly and learned man — used a debate in the House of Lords to suggest that the coronation of the next monarch in Britain should perhaps include some verses from the Quran.
It would be a demonstration of "inclusive hospitality," he said, should Muslims in Britain have some of their holy scripture read at the crowning of the next head of the Church of England. Cue a certain degree of pandemonium. For courtesies like this have become expected of the Bishops even as, in my experience, they cause despair among their erstwhile flock.
Because of course, the whole gesture is deeply demoralizing for your average British Christian. And of course, it is fraught with errors that must be pointed out.
First, it is true that there are many Muslims in Britain. It is also true that it might make some of them feel happy if, on the big day, verses of the Quran were recited in Westminster Abbey. But then we have a lot of Hindus and Sikhs in Britain, too. True, none of their community has distinguished himself or caused any wider public notice by, for instance, blowing up a tube train at rush hour. But surely, some reading from their scriptures should be squeezed in anyway? And how about the largest growing faith in Britain: atheism. Why should not doubters or disbelievers in any faith find themselves represented with a reading? Not to mention Jews, Buddhists, animists and the remaining followers of the Druid faith. Britain is going to have to prepare for the longest coronation service in a very long time.
Second, there is the matter of which passages from the Quran should be read at the next King's coronation. I assume we shall not hear "slay the infidel wherever you find them," and not the passages that read, "Cast terror into the heart of the unbeliever... Smite at their neck." I suspect these passages will not make the cut, so to speak; the families of the decapitated soldier Lee Rigby, not to mention the aid workers from Britain recently beheaded in Syria, might take exception were this to happen, even if no one else did.
Third, of course, including passages from the Quran in the next coronation of a monarch is a mistake because of the old problem of reciprocity. I will not dwell on the obscenity of having readings from the Quran in one of the holiest shrines of Anglican Christianity at the same time as no Christian (let alone Jew) can even set foot in Mecca. That point somehow seems just so 2000s. But it is worth asking why British Muslims should have their scripture represented in the coronation of the new monarch, when many, in their mosques, will not even pray for the well-being of that monarch. In synagogues in the UK, British Jews every week have a prayer in their services for the long life and happiness of the Queen. It is a moving and heartfelt moment, not to mention a clear signal given to any doubters that Jews in Britain are utterly loyal to the state.
So why should British mosques not have some similar prayer? Whenever I have mooted this to Muslim friends in Britain, they have always dismissed the idea as if it were an example of a willful provocation on my part even to raise the issue. The underlying theme is that everyone knows this would be impossible.
But why not? If Muslims in Britain want to show that they are loyal to Britain, why not take a leaf out of the Jews' book and have a prayer in every Friday service up and down the land for the Queen as head of state, head of the Church of England and head of the armed forces. It would be a wonderful sign.
It is also, of course, a million miles away from happening. Many British imams, if they even suggested this, would have a riot on their hands. And that is where Lord Harries's liberal "inclusive hospitality" hits its utterly foreseeable buffers. Because many Muslims in Britain simply do not share the good Lord Harries's kindness, tolerance, inclusivity or indeed liberalism. In fact, they much more admire another faith, which seems confident and strong, than they admire a religion led by people who appear not to even have very much faith in their own Faith.
This, then, is another chapter in another part of Britain's contemporary tragedy. Willing to be endlessly open and hospitable, the country finds itself at a loss when that hospitality is neither respected nor returned. What is the answer? Perhaps a bit more kindness, a bit more generosity, the offering up of a few more of our own treasured traditions? That will do it, we think, surely?
Well perhaps there will be verses from the Quran at the next coronation. But the king who will be crowned there will no longer preside over an even nominally Christian nation.