February 6, 2014

Three Messages about Anti-gay Legislation

Last week, the Anglican universe saw a number of statements addressing the treatment of homosexual persons. The spate of commentary came in the wake of President Goodluck Jonathan’s signing into law a repressive anti-homosexual bill in Nigeria on January 13.

On January 27, Religion News Service ran a commentary, “The church’s role in, and against, homophobia across Africa.” The author is the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church’s General Convention. Jennings’ essay is not what you might expect, not simply a denunciation of the rampant homophobia in Nigeria and elsewhere. Rather than merely condemning the growing persecution of sexual minorities in Africa, she examines its causes, identifies its supporters, and suggests what Christians might do about it.

As an Episcopalian whose church has so often been vilified by African bishops, I was gratified to read what Jennings had to say about Anglicans elsewhere:
Many Christian leaders around the world, regrettably, have been largely unwilling to criticize Christian leaders in Africa who cheered the passage of these punitive laws.

The Anglican primates of Uganda and Nigeria enthusiastically support anti-gay legislation in their countries. I, like them, am a member of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide body of more than 80 million Christians. I am troubled and saddened that fellow Anglicans could support legislation that fails to recognize that every human being is created in the image of God.
Why do we not hear such criticism more often when it is so clearly justified? As long as our church is a member of the Anglican Communion—so often promoted as a significantly large, worldwide body of Christians—we diminish our own church when we fail to dissociate it from the outrageous behavior of our sister churches.

Western missionaries come in for much of the blame for African homophobia in “The church’s role”:
Along with the Bible, Western missionaries also bequeathed to Africans a literal understanding of how to read it. Today, that literalism continues to encourage fundamentalist interpretation of difficult passages like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
And there is this long-overdue charge that many have been waiting to hear from church leaders:
The voices of strident homophobic leaders in Africa have been amplified by large infusions of money from American right-wing culture warriors such as Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., who has bankrolled homophobia on both sides of the Atlantic and helped make common cause between right-wing American Anglican splinter groups and the Anglican churches of Nigeria and Uganda.
Jennings admits that Western Christians are limited in what they can do to counter homophobia in Nigeria, Uganda, and elsewhere, but she does have some helpful suggestions:
We can, however, stand in solidarity with progressive Africans and support their efforts to teach new ways of interpreting the Bible and understanding sexuality. When we see human rights abuses, we can speak out. And most of all, we can acknowledge with humility that we bear our share of the responsibility for this tragic legacy of empire and insist on repudiating contemporary efforts to expand its reach.
Jennings’ essay makes one proud to be an Episcopalian.

Alas, the letter written by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York January 29 does not make one equally proud to be an Anglican. We are told that the letter was written to “all Primates of the Anglican Communion, and to the Presidents of Nigeria and Uganda.” There had been increasing pressure to take a stand against legislation advancing in Nigeria and Uganda, particularly directed toward Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Welby is not only the nominal head of the Anglican Communion but also the senior bishop of the Church of England. (The Queen is the nominal head of the church.) The English population is increasingly accepting of gays and likely to be upset by persecution in its former colonies.

The archbishops’ letter begins badly:
In recent days, questions have been asked about the Church of England's attitude to new legislation in several countries that penalises people with same-sex attraction.
The phrase “same-sex attraction” is one favored by conservatives who consider homosexuality sinful and, for many, an affliction to be cured. To speak of “homosexuality,” on the other hand, might suggest an orientation, that is, a fundamental aspect of personality that is immutable or nearly so.

Although the letter ostensibly is going to be about the official view of the Church of England—the co-authorship of Archbishop of York John Sentamu, who, unlike Welby, holds no special position in the Anglican Communion, contributes to that impression—the letter expresses the personal views of neither letter writer. Instead, the bulk of the letter is a quotation from the communiqué issued at the end of the primates’ meeting that took place in February 2005 in Northern Ireland. The implication is that the Church of England follows the lead of the Anglican primates, who, in fact have authority over neither the Church of England nor any other member of the Communion.

The passage quoted by the archbishops is all about pastoral care for all:
…we wish to make it quite clear that in our discussion and assessment of moral appropriateness of specific human behaviours, we continue unreservedly to be committed to the pastoral support and care of homosexual people.

The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us. We assure homosexual people that they are children of God, loved and valued by Him and deserving the best we can give—pastoral care and friendship.
This, of course, says nothing explicitly about the legislation in question. Nor do the concluding paragraphs:
We hope that the pastoral care and friendship that the Communiqué described is accepted and acted upon in the name of the Lord Jesus.

We call upon the leaders of churches in such places to demonstrate the love of Christ and the affirmation of which the Dromantine communiqué speaks.
If any criticism is intended here, it is for the readers to infer (or not). The writers have not articulated any particular moral outrage. Moreover, one has to suspect that Sentamu’s co-authorship—Sentamu is a native of Uganda—is intended to soften the message, which becomes nothing more than a friendly reminder to be nice. (Niceness, I suggest, is the bane of Anglicanism.)

As for Welby’s involvement with this letter, it must be said that he apparently feels torn by competing loyalties. As the chief cleric in the Church of England, one might expect him to condemn the developments in Nigeria and Uganda and perhaps even to accept some responsibility for the colonialism cited by Jennings. On the other hand, recent Archbishops of Canterbury have avoided criticizing the behavior of Communion churches in the questionable name of unity. Welby, who has a reputation as reconciler, apparently intends to continue this dysfunctional tradition.

The day ofter the Welby-Sentamu letter, i.e., on January 30, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church Katharine Jefferts Schori weighed in with a statement. Her brief message is clearly identified as a church position:
The Episcopal Church has been clear about our expectation that every member of the LGBT community is entitled to the same respect and dignity as any other member of the human family. Our advocacy for oppressed minorities has been vocal and sustained.
There is no hiding behind six-year-old communiqués here. Without actually naming names or, as did Jennings, articulating underlying causes, the presiding bishop gets directly to what she sees as the presenting problem:
The current attempts to criminalize LGBT persons and their supporters are the latest in a series, each stage of which has been condemned by this Church, as well as many other religious communities and nations.
Nowhere does Jefferts Schori invoke the Anglican Communion. Her concern is instead for the human community and for her church’s understanding of God’s will for his children:
Our advocacy work continues to build support for the full human rights and dignity of all persons, irrespective of gender, race, national origin, creed, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability or inability. To do less is effectively to repudiate our membership in the human community. No one of God’s children is worth less or more than another; none is to be discriminated against because of the way in which she or he has been created.
Obviously, a different view of the nature of homosexuality underlies this statement. She concludes:
Our common task is to build a society of justice for all, without which there will never be peace on earth. Episcopalians claim that our part in God’s mission is to love God fully, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That means all our neighbors. 
As I suspect many Episcopalians are at this time, I am proud of the courage and honesty of my church leaders. Also like many Episcopalians, I have been disappointed yet again at the conspicuous lack of courage and honesty shown by Archbishops of Canterbury.

There is, I suppose, some point to being in the Anglican Communion. Looking to the Communion for courageous Christian witness, however, is a fool’s errand.

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