There is no place for homophobia in the church, anywhere in the world
Gay and lesbian people are still criminalised in many countries but the church must welcome all regardless of sexuality
In 1967 it was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who spoke in the House of Lords to support the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country, thus making a clear distinction in British law between a moral and a criminal issue.
No such distinction exists in many parts of the world and, as a result, people are suffering horrendous abuse and even death for being who they are and loving who they love. Many of us have met people who have shared the most disturbing personal stories, including a very small number who have been granted asylum on grounds of sexual orientation in this country.
Others in this debate have rehearsed the ways in which laws criminalising same-sex sexual activity between adults have been repeatedly found in international law to violate fundamental human rights, and this debate serves also to highlight effectively the way in which criminalisation gives rise to persecution. I want, however, to concentrate on the way in which discriminatory interference in the private sexual conduct of consenting adults is an affront to the fundamental Christian values of human dignity, tolerance and equality.
It is of course no secret, as others have made clear, that on the ethics of homosexual practice the churches in general and the Anglican communion bishops in particular are deeply divided, but that cannot and must not be any basis for equivocating on the central issue of equality before the law of all human beings whether heterosexual or homosexual. Further, many of us who are bishops in this country value and treasure our links with particular dioceses around the Anglican communion. We respect and appreciate the different, and often sharply divided, theological approaches which lead to different stances on the ethical issues. But, as the Lambeth conference of 1998 made clear, there is not and cannot be any place for homophobia in the church, and all are to be welcomed regardless of sexual orientation.
Few have spoken on this issue as unequivocally as archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said in 2010 at a United Nations high-level panel:
“All over the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are persecuted. They face violence, torture and criminal sanctions because of how they live and who they love. We make them doubt that they too are children of God – and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy.”
Indeed, in recent years, successive statements from the leaders of major Christian denominations in the west have made similar points, including perhaps most consistently, those from the Society of Friends, which has stated:
“We affirm the love of God for all people, whatever their sexual orientation, and our conviction that sexuality is an important part of human beings as created by God, so that to reject people on the grounds of their sexual behaviour is a denial of God’s creation.”
Many people the world over are now asking the churches to put their position beyond all doubt, by saying simply and clearly that criminalisation is wrong. I will put my position beyond all doubt by stating it in as clear terms as I can. If criminalisation leads, as it evidently does, to gay people concealing their own identity, that must be wrong; if criminalisation leads to many living in fear, that must be wrong; if criminalisation leads to the prospect of persecution, arrest, detention and death, that must be wrong; and if criminalisation means that LGBT people dare not turn to the state when facing hate crimes and violence, that must be wrong too.
It is within the adult lifetime of most of us in this House that the law was changed in this country to decriminalise homosexual acts. However, for our children’s generation, such a state of affairs must feel like ancient history – as appropriate to the moral climate of today’s society in this country as the burning of witches. We must all urgently pursue this journey to a completely new climate in those many countries of the world where same-sex relations are criminal offences.
• This is an edited version of a speech delivered in the House of Lords debate on homosexuality in the developing world on Thursday 25 October, 2012
Tim Stevens, the Anglican Bishop of Leicester (Church of England) reminds us of the fact that it was Michael Ramsay, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, who urged the House of Lords, in 1967, to support the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Great Britain. It was well known at the time that Archbishop Ramsay was keen on reform in this area, and as the leader of the Church of England, he was respected for this action which led the way to the alleviation of discrimination against homosexuals in the U.K. and in some other parts of the British ex-colonial world.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, now a passionate advocate for the LGBT community, was able to lead the Anglican Church in South Africa into an era of anti-discrimination against Gay people, that has led the way among the African Provinces towards a better and more tolerant understanding of the issues of gender and sexuality – a path which, sadly, some Provinces – especially those of Nigeria and Uganda (and the other GAFCON Provinces that have supported harsh criminal sanctions against homosexuals in their countries) – have declined to follow.
Bishop Tim Stevens’ speech on this subject in the House of Lords last Thursday, gives evidence of that level of support for the emancipation of LGBTs that must surely be a mark of the Gospel in the modern world – a world where hypocrisy on matters of gender and sexuality are no longer tolerated by the rank and file of the Church and community.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand