Colonialism’s legacy seen in marriage debate

Joey Royal, suffragan bishop of the diocese of the Arctic (left), Raphael Hess, bishop of the diocese of Saldanha Bay (Centre) and the Rev. Michael Coren offer contrasting opinions on the attitude of Western provinces in today’s same-sex marriage controversy. Photos: Benjamin Royal, Diocese of Saldanha Bay and contributed by Michael Coren
Published May 1, 2023

Fifth instalment of Hearing the Lambeth Calls, a 10-part series on the calls to the global Anglican Communion made at the 2022 Lambeth Conference. This month’s call: Human Dignity.

Some Anglicans are debating whether an attitude of superiority continues to affect the Communion’s wealthier Western provinces in discussions around same-sex marriage, despite explicit condemnations of colonialism in a statement by Lambeth bishops that deals, among other things, with same-sex unions.

The text on human dignity, one of 10 draft “calls” released at the Lambeth Conference last summer, prompts the Communion to consider its stance and obligations in dealing with colonialism, racial inequity, gender justice and the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade among other topics. It includes an affirmation of inter-cultural community, which concludes, “Any Christian commitment to human dignity must celebrate the rich diversities of contextual theologies and take account of Anglicanism’s complicity in brutal and extractive colonialisms.”

Similarly, passages in other calls acknowledge and repudiate a legacy of colonialist expansion, imperialism and cultural supremacy in the church’s past. The third call, on Anglican identity, challenges the church to achieve this in part by giving priority “to the voices of Indigenous leaders, women, young people and the laity,” which it describes as “too often marginalized.”

The Lambeth calls are intended to be discussed in each bishop’s home diocese and are subject to change.

There’s much in the calls about the need to lift up the voices of colonized peoples, says Joey Royal, a suffragan bishop of the diocese of the Arctic who has Mi’kmaq ancestry on his mother’s side. However, he adds, there’s some dissonance in the fact that those same voices are often keen to be heard disagreeing with some Western churches’ decisions to move forward with same-sex marriage.

“When we talk about lifting up marginalized voices, I have questions about who’s doing the lifting up. It’s always the powerful,” he says. By supporting same-sex marriage, some Western churches have made what he sees as a major change in doctrine. That creates a gulf between them and others in the Communion, he says, even as those same Western provinces remind those who disagree how important it is that the Communion continue walking together.

“Sometimes what it amounts to is: ‘you speak and participate but your opinion won’t make a lot of difference as to the direction we take. And we would prefer you think like us’,” he says.

Since the provinces of the Communion are autonomous, there is no basis in church law to prevent them from changing their doctrines independently of the other provinces. But Royal says the problem is not about legality but attitude—a sense of entitlement born of wealth and comfort.

In February, a theologically conservative grouping of provinces called the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) released a statement in which it expressed concerns about the Church of England’s recent decision to bless the civil unions of same-sex partners, though not perform the marriages themselves. In that statement, which shows 10 Anglican bishops as signatories, the authors say they cannot remain in communion with provinces that have adopted “false teaching” about same-sex unions.

But that doesn’t represent the opinion of every Anglican in the global South, says the Rev. Michael Coren, an Anglican priest, author and columnist. He says framing the conversation entirely in terms of West versus South falls into the error of painting Anglicans in the global South as uniformly against same-sex marriage. There are parallel conversations to consider, he says: the one between provinces in the Communion and those within those provinces. Coren is concerned with the danger facing Christians in countries like Uganda—where the government has instituted the death penalty for gay sex, among other laws against gay people. Even there, he says, there are dissenting attitudes about same-sex relationships.

“The church is made up of its members. And there are a lot of gay Christians in churches in Africa. But also [for] gay people in general, it’s more difficult for them to be philosophical about this,” he says. “We are talking about peoples’ lives here.”

Raphael Hess is the Bishop of South Africa’s diocese of Saldanha Bay and describes himself as “coloured,” a term used in South Africa which means he has both Black and white ancestry. His diocese is in the minority in South Africa, having come out in favour of same-sex marriage. It’s a stance Hess describes as honouring, respecting and endorsing it while waiting for the rest of the province to do the same.

He says colonialism is largely responsible for the negative attitude toward homosexuality across Africa. “To reduce it to that only would be to simplify the issue. But certainly we inherit our laws from our colonial past because we’ve been taught that that is wrong … In Africa, those laws are still on our statute books. They weren’t invented by us.”

The Arctic is among a number of dioceses that do not allow same-sex marriages in a Western national church where some dioceses permit it. Hess, for his part, sees Saldanha Bay as an early adopter in the Church of Southern Africa.

“I also want to speak to my African brothers and sisters and say that we also need an introspection that will say, ‘Let us recognize who we are … The persons who we say … are not behaving in accordance with God’s law are our brothers and sisters who are amongst us,’Inter” he says.

Addressing the concerns Royal raises about the West continuing to dictate the terms of the discussion, Hess tells the Journal, “I don’t think you are like that, or the West wants to be like that. I think you want to be in a place of equality and respect. We are at the same level and we can listen to each other.” He cites the position of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who throughout the Lambeth Conference endorsed the idea of the Communion holding together and continuing to listen to each other in disagreement.

But Royal remains concerned. There are problems that can’t just be waved away with the Western provinces’ determination to forge ahead on same-sex marriage while asking churches who express concerns to remain onboard, he says.

“On the issue of same-sex marriage, which has caused such division worldwide, we have to say more. All we say about this is that ‘we commit to walking together.’ How long have we been saying that? There has to be something concrete here that we do as a Communion to make some progress on this,” he says.

As an example, he points to the Anglican Covenant, a 2009 document (so far adopted by only some provinces of the Communion) which he says at least establishes that provinces in the Communion have responsibilities to one another. He says the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO), an international Anglican body of which he is a member, will be looking at how provinces can differentiate themselves from others they disagree with, while remaining in communion.

In an address at this year’s meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said he would hold his own role very lightly if giving it up would aid the Communion’s unity.

“English General Synod joked this last week, we are deeply in disagreement … because we do interpret Scripture differently [and] are therefore all always wrong to some degree,” Welby said.

Correction: Bishop Joey Royal is of partly Mi’kmaq ancestry. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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