By Alex Elmore and Jeff Walton
September 26, 2011
The message of the Gospel being preached in Africa is not “good news” but rather “bad news” to homosexual persons that God does not love them, according to a former bishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda.
“What we need to do is have more and more countries decriminalize LGBT [Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender],” declared former bishop Christopher Senyonjo as he preached September 25 at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. and spoke at a post-mass gathering.
Introduced as a victim of discrimination, vilification and exiled from his church due to speaking out against opposition to homosexuality, Senyonjo asserted “the problem we have is with the Christian right” and said Ugandans “need education” to accept homosexual practices.
Bishop of the Ugandan diocese of West Buganda until his retirement in 1998, Senyonjo began a pro-homosexuality ministry in the East African country soon after. Senyonjo fell out of favor with the doctrinally traditional 9-million-member Ugandan church and was inhibited from ministry in 2001. In January 2007 Senyonjo was deposed as a bishop in the Anglican Church of Uganda for violating his inhibition and presiding at the consecration of a priest.
Senyonjo is now connected to a denomination known as the Charismatic Church of Uganda, although All Souls Church identified him as a retired Anglican bishop. Senyonjo claims that he was denied both his pension and the privileges of performing episcopal acts. Officials with the Anglican Church of Uganda contest the claim, arguing that the church does not have an equivalent pension system to the U.S.-based Episcopal Church’s Church Pension Fund. They do not deny that Senyonjo is no longer welcome to perform episcopal acts such as confirmations or to portray himself as an Anglican bishop in the former British colony, where approximately a third of the population adheres to Anglican Christianity.
Amplifying “Progressive Voices”
The post-mass gathering served as both reception and fundraiser, featuring a presentation and subsequent discussion of the work Senyonjo is doing as the Director of St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Centre in Kampala, Uganda. The meeting was part of a three-month tour of Europe and the United States, which will conclude with a Compass to Compassion event at Union Theological Seminary in October.
Supported by organizations like St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and a $140,000 grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Center exists to promote “reconciliation between the LGBT community and governments, civil society and religious leadership,” provide “women’s self help and advocacy programs,” teach communities about HIV prevention, and resource development through literacy and micro-loan programs.
While the Center exists to serve a variety of needs in the Ugandan community, LGBT individuals lie close to the hearts of both Senyonjo and the President of St. Paul’s Foundation, Canon Albert Ogle. Ogle currently serves on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego and until February was Vice President of National Affairs for Integrity USA, the unofficial LGBT caucus group within the Episcopal Church.
As one of the 75 countries worldwide that have defined homosexual behavior as criminal (a circumstance Ogle and Senyonjo attribute to the efforts of the religious right), Ugandans face far worse consequences for declaring homosexual behavior than in other communities-Ogle used words like “persecution,” “genocide,” being perceived as “not human.”
Through the ministry of Senyonjo’s center, the two hope to extend the message of the gospel to the underserved LGBT community, sharing God’s love and the good news of the gospel to them, without undermining their sexuality. They hope to “get ahead” of the “theology and politics” of the religious right, which Ogle and Senyonjo think has had a disproportionate and “damaging” effect on the culture and the LGBT community because of its advocacy of abstinence and therapy, as well as the previously mentioned measures to disincentivize homosexual behavior.
“If progressive voices can be amplified – they are there,” Ogle proposed, lamenting that they were “overwhelmed by [Evangelical] voices from the United States.”
Senyonjo said the focus of their efforts is and needs to be the decriminalization of LGBT behavior: “[Heterosexuality] is not the only human sexuality. LGBT is part and parcel of human sexuality.”
Overcoming “Anglican Toxic Waste”
In response to a question about the biblical sources of critiques to their message, Ogle mentioned passages in Romans and Corinthians like Romans 1:26-7, which says, “Because of this, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the man likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.”
In response to these passages, Ogle repeated scholars who argue that the word translated as “contrary to nature” in this context is also used by Paul to describe women with short hair, and so “it refers to a matter of fashion, not to a moral imperative.” Furthermore, Ogle noted that many scholars think “Paul was just wrong…he was a product of his culture as well.”
Another attendee asked about Canterbury’s position. Ogle represented Archbishop Rowan Williams as “inconsistent” in his statements related to this issue, and suggested that Canterbury has positioned itself “as a referee” to the debate rather than an advocate for either side. Senyonjo mentioned his hope that Williams’ successor would take a more “progressive” stance on what Senyonjo perceives to be a human rights issue.
“It’s Anglican toxic waste that we’re talking about,” Ogle described, noting that 40 of the nations with anti-homosexuality laws are in the British Commonwealth, and attributing attitudes critical of homosexuality to the colonial period. “We are going to extend the inclusive gospel into the whole world.”
In an open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury published earlier this year, Senyonjo articulates his concern for the Ugandan LGBT community, a community imprisoned and threatened with death “because of who they are….God has given us this gift [of sexuality] and to defame, condemn, imprison and kill human beings because of their God-given nature, is a great human error.”
An error they compare to events in the church’s history like the holocaust, the crusades, and the trials of early natural scientists: “The church has a tragic history of condemning Jews, Moslems, scientists and LGBT people. Our teaching and theology has a causal effect and if we do not learn from our own historical mistakes, we will repeat the same sinful destruction of lives, families and communities.”
Ogle perceives Senyonjo as a contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and apparently unsuccessfully appealed to Episcopal authorities for financial support on this basis.
At least one similarity does exist: Senyonjo is running some risks for the sake of his beliefs and his ministry. He concludes his open letter with a purpose statement:
“We must agree to demolish all forms of institutional homophobia beginning with the removal of all laws that punish human beings for being gay or living in loving relationships. This will be the first step in providing basic human rights to a largely invisible international community who live in daily fear of their lives.”
According to Ogle, Canterbury has not responded.
An Argument from Compassion
In his sermon message, the former Ugandan bishop preached that salvation was available to all people who were able to “switch on the image of God within them.”
Senyonjo proposed that people had essentially two brains: what he termed an instinctive and irrational “reptilian” brain and a “new” discerning, thinking brain that enables people to be “co-workers with God.”
“The image the God gives us makes us new creatures, and we become compassionate,” Senyonjo explained. Referencing author and former Roman Catholic nun Karen Armstrong’s book, 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, Senyonjo said that Jesus’ compassionate life should be our compass.
“The Buddhists know compassion, Islam knows compassion, Hinduism knows compassion, and Judaism knows compassion,” Senyonjo claimed, proposing that compassion was “a very important component” of the religions of the world.
In contrast, the former Ugandan bishop held up what he termed the “Hang the gays bill” as a sign of people using power in an irrational manner. The proposed legislation, Senyonjo assessed, was a symptom of a people lacking in compassion.
“Some human beings are heterosexual like me, some are homosexual LGBT,” Senyonjo declared, asserting that it was wrong to “punish people for being created the way they are.”
Instead, the former official of the Anglican Church of Uganda advised that Christians should “do what we can to teach people that God created people different.”
“We need a lot of training and teaching so that people can be less discriminatory,” Senyonjo assessed.
This Internet report of a sermon given by former Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo gives evidence of his acceptance of LGBT persons as co-bearers of the Image and Likeness of God with heterosexuals. On the Bishop’s retirement from the Diocese of West Buganda in 1998, he began, openly, to advance the cause of people in the Church and the World who, by virtue of their God-given sexual-orientation, were deemed by many African Christians as intentional sinners, needing to change or be responsible for their own persecution by Church and State.
Bishop Christopher, since his retirement has devoted his time and effort to trying to persuade Churches of the Anglican Communion to listen to Gay and Lesbian people, in order to try to understand their situation – which is not of their own making, but rather a natural consequence of being part of differently-gifted humanity, needing to the loved and accepted the same as all other persons in society.
Like Bishop Desmond Tutu, we here have another African Bishop who is prepared to challenge his own society’s cultural and religious bias against homosexuality, in what they both see as a Gospel imperative in the modern world. For both Anglican Leaders, they believe the Church needs to move forward on the issues of gender and sexuality – as a matter of justice and equality for ALL people.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand