This post was first published on the Westminster Faith Debates blog.
The Anglican Communion made global headlines a few weeks ago, after the Primates (the senior bishops of all the Anglican churches worldwide), assembled in Canterbury, decided to take measures against one member church, the Episcopal Church in the United States, because of its ‘recent change of marriage doctrine’.
Understandably, this decision was interpreted by many commentators as the Episcopal Church being penalised for its recognition of gay marriage. Indeed, it was seen as another illustration of the anti-LGBT stance of the Anglican Communion as a whole – even though the Primates sought to avoid this impression by stating that they condemn ‘homophobic prejudice and violence’.
What is perhaps most surprising in the official Communique is not the announced ‘consequences’ for the Episcopal Church, nor the obligatory condemnation of homophobia, but something that seems to have gone generally unnoticed in the media: the statement that the Primates also ‘reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people’.
This statement is surprising because many of the assembled Primates are coming from countries in Africa and other continents where same-sex practices are criminalised. In recent years, the Anglican churches in Uganda and Nigeria have actively supported the introduction of new, fiercer anti-homosexual legislation. They could do so without facing any ‘consequences’ for their role in the Anglican Communion. On the contrary, within the Communion the leaders of these churches have been pushing for the measures currently taken against the Episcopal Church – although they wanted these measures to be much tougher.
The inclusion of the statement rejecting criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people can be seen as the result of the extraordinary diplomatic skills of the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, Justin Welby. Yet one wonders what this statement is worth. How are the Primates, the churches they represent, and the Anglican Communion as a whole, going to follow up on this?
Homosexuality is currently criminalised in 77 countries around the world. 40 of them are part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and their penal code dates back to the colonial period. Might it be possible that the Anglican Communion – itself the by-product of British Empire – joins forces with human rights activists worldwide in actively opposing the anti-sodomy laws that many countries inherited from the same Empire? The idea of this possibility may have been one of the reasons why Ugandan church leader, Stanley Ntgatali, walked out of the Primates’ meeting and left Canterbury with frustration.
LGBT Christians and activists who were protesting in Canterbury last week are offered in the Communique a sign of hope. It is a sign they should capitalise on strategically. African LGBT activists have repeatedly stated that same-sex marriage is not a priority for them – so they may not be much bothered by the doctrinal definition of marriage that is being used as an argument to suspend the Episcopalian Church. Decriminalisation of same-sex practices, on the other hand, is on top of their priorities. As stated in the African LGBTI Manifesto,
We commit ourselves to … challenging all legal systems and practices which either currently criminalize or seek to reinforce the criminalization of LGBTI people, organizations, knowledge creation, sexual self expression, and movement building.
The decriminalisation of homosexuality will make a major difference in the daily lives of many same-sex loving people, who under the current legislation in their countries live under constant fear of threats, harassment and persecution.
Much attention has been paid in the Western media to the new anti-homosexuality laws in countries such as Uganda and Nigeria. But within Africa there is also another development, of a growing momentum for decriminalisation. I do not just refer here to South Africa with its progressive constitution guaranteeing equal rights and explicitly protecting against discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation. Only a year ago, Mozambique dropped the colonial-era clause outlawing “vices against nature” from its penal code, effectively allowing for same-sex relationships. Prominent figures such as ex-President Festus Mogae of Botswana are advocating throughout the continent for decriminalisation. In the same trend, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2014 adopted a landmark resolution on the protection against violence and other human rights violations against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
If the Primates are serious about their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex loving people, African LGBTs and human rights activists around the world have found important allies. In that case the outcome of the Canterbury meeting would be more positive than appears at first sight. It’s up to the Primates, and the Archbishop of Canterbury as their primus inter pares, to show that the latter isn’t just wishful thinking. We have to take these church leaders at their own word, and will call them to account.
Photo courtesy of the Peter Tatchell Foundation