LGBTIs and Christian hate: Welby and the Anglican Church need to pick a side
The author of a new book on sexuality in the church says the price of avoiding a split in the Anglican communion may be too high
One of the member churches got into trouble for letting same-sex couples marry. Meanwhile archbishops who had backed criminalization were not called to account.
While I believe Welby is genuinely concerned about the ‘pain and suffering of many LGBTI people around the world,’ apologies are not enough. It is time to act.
He had just chaired the primates’ gathering. This brought together the most senior bishops from the family of churches in the Anglican Communion. Several of those most opposed to greater inclusion had threatened a walk-out if they did not get their own way.
He managed to prevent, or at least delay, a major split. But the price may prove to be too high – and not just for LGBTI people and those defending our human rights globally.
For three-quarters of a century, Anglican scholars have argued over whether the Bible and Christian tradition really rule out same-sex relationships. Increasingly views have shifted, at least where there has been open debate.
More Christians have come to believe that churches should celebrate faithful, self-giving partnerships. And many who are heterosexual now think it is wrong to refuse LGBTI people the joys and challenges of marriage. To them, this is a matter of treating others as they wish to be treated and loving their neighbors as themselves.
But this has not happened everywhere. To begin with, in a world of rapid change, some people are reluctant to rethink what they were taught, or are not yet convinced that same-sex relationships are what God intended.
What is more, scapegoating is a problem in many societies, where one minority or another is singled out. In some countries, LGBTI people have been targeted, especially where governments have tried to shift attention from their own misdeeds. Sometimes church leaders have played along with prejudice and power.
In societies torn apart by religiously-motivated violence, being cautious is understandable. But when Christian leaders join in by implying that fear and persecution of LGBTI people can be justified for reasons of faith, they become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
In contrast the Episcopal Church, which covers several countries including the USA and Haiti, has tried to act in a more just and loving way. It is preparing to let same-sex couples marry and moving forward on trans equality. So it is accused of going against what has been agreed by the Communion as a whole.
But each church is independent. And since 1978, international meetings have also urged member churches to take part in studying sexuality deeply and be in dialogue with lesbians and gays. Many have failed miserably.
From the 1940s, time and again Anglican conferences have called on churches to defend human rights for all. This is not a uniquely Western concern. African, Asian and Latin American people helped to develop international thinking on rights and sometimes risked their lives to defend victims of abuses. Bishops once passed a resolution championing ‘Human Rights for Those of Homosexual Orientation’.
Last month the primates (at least most of them) did condemn ‘homophobic prejudice and violence’ and ‘reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.’
Though their communiqué did not mention gender identity, they also declared ‘that God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.’
Yet the church which tried hardest to live up to this ideal was targeted for punishment. The words ring hollow.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope. He has no authority over national churches. Yet he does have a fair deal of influence because of the Church of England’s historical role and ongoing connections.
When he has been politely but publicly critical in the past of overseas church leaders who failed to respect and defend their LGBTI parishioners, they have ignored him and even worn this as a badge of pride. A change of tack is needed.
It is time to point out that violating human rights goes against what is best in Anglicanism – and confess the Church of England’s own failings.
It backed the British state in bringing in anti-gay laws and promoting bigotry at home and throughout the colonies. In addition in the UK all kinds of ‘cures’ were tried, which did not change people’s orientation or gender identity but caused terrible misery.
By the mid-20th century, England’s archbishops realized how cruel this was. They helped to get gay sex decriminalized, despite pressure from those who felt that harsher attitudes made for a more ‘moral’ society. The same boldness is needed today.
Attitudes have continued to change. Today few people who feel they are part of the Church of England believe that same-sex relationships are always wrong. Those who think it can be right for same-sex couples to get married outnumber those who believe it is wrong. Many clergy are frustrated they cannot yet conduct such weddings.
Church leaders should be willing to show through their actions that they are truly committed to including LGBTI people and our families. But the church is above all a community in which ordinary members have a vital role. This can involve creating welcoming congregations and reminding bishops of the harm done when anyone is treated unjustly.
The Anglican Communion can be a force for good but only if it is willing to take a stand for all who are pushed to the margins. Serving God involves caring for everyone and working for a better world free from every kind of injustice.
Savitri Hensman, a writer and activist, was born in Sri Lanka and lives in England. She is the author of Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church, Ekklesia, 2015.
Savitri Hensman is a respected journalist (‘Ekklesia’ and other pubications) and social worker in the City of London, whose own disturbing experience of racial and sexuality discrimination gives her a unique perspective on these issues.
Having personally met Savi while in London, and discussed these issue with her, I have become aware of the situation in the Church of England, which still – even after the recent Primates’ Meeting, called by the Archbishop of Canterbury to find some resolution of the obvious differences between them – seems not to have found a way to adequately address the problems of sexism and homophobia that still linger in the Church of England and which divides the Provinces of the world-wide Anglican Communion.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand