When primates of the Anglican Communion issued a communiqué at the end of their meeting in January, media (including the Anglican Journal) focused on the “consequences” imposed on The Episcopal Church for allowing religious weddings for gay couples. It was, arguably, a development that needed to be reported prominently.
But there was another equally important message in the communiqué that was drowned out in the narratives and counter-narratives that ensued from the controversial decision to censure the U.S. church. The primates had condemned homophobic prejudice and violence “and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation.” They also reaffirmed their “rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted couples.”
Some have dismissed these statements as empty rhetoric intended to appease the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, which had been dealt yet another blow by the primates’ latest salvo.
Such statements may not mean much to those living in countries like Canada, where LGBTQ rights are already enshrined in the constitution and same-sex marriage is legal.
But they do matter in five countries and in parts of two others, where homosexuality is punishable by death-including death by stoning.
They do matter in more than 70 countries where homosexuality is still illegal, with punishments ranging from 100 blows of the whip to life imprisonment.*
And they will matter when one considers the troubling developments in countries that are either introducing harsh new laws, reintroducing penalties or strengthening existing punishments for homosexuality.
India has changed its stance three times: homosexuality was criminalized under British colonial rule in 1860, decriminalized in 2009 and criminalized in 2013.
In February 2014, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni tried to introduce a new anti-gay bill that would have sentenced first-time offenders to 14 years in jail, set the maximum penalty of life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” and required citizens to report suspected homosexual acts to the police. The bill originally prescribed the death penalty for some homosexual acts, and this section was removed only after an international outcry.
The legislation-which received widespread support from the population, including some Christian churches-was later annulled by Uganda’s Constitutional Court; Museveni has since dropped plans to pursue it.
Uganda, of course, is not alone in its stigmatization of homosexual people. Being gay is a crime in 38 countries in Africa, according to Amnesty International. Homophobia is still rife, even in countries that have decriminalized homosexuality.
It is for this reason that the joint statement issued February 22 by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa is noteworthy. Yes, the church’s position remains unchanged-it will still not allow same-sex blessings nor ordain those in same-gender unions.
But it has declared, “All baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.” It is “an important first step” in a country that allows same-sex marriage but remains largely conservative, says its primate, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba. It has great implications in parishes where, for instance, same-sex couples who are civilly married bring their children for baptism and confirmation. “No child brought for baptism should be refused merely because of the sexual orientation of the parents, and particular care should be taken against stigmatizing not only parents but their children too,” Makgoba says.
Some will undoubtedly say it doesn’t go far enough. But steps, however small, that uphold the dignity of human life need to be recognized.
The challenge is for primates of other churches to really mean what they say and bring the words of their communiqué to life.
*Source: UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights; BBC