British homophobia's African problem

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
2 Dec 2009

When Ugandan politician David Bahati proposed his Anti-Homosexuality Bill recently, he may have given little thought to the effect it would have on his allies in Britain. But in seeking to respond to the Bill, anti-gay Christians in the UK have shown themselves to be confused, divided and plainly out of touch with Christian, as well as public, opinion.

Those British Christians who regard all homosexual activity as unethical have long insisted that they are not prejudiced. They say they are criticising a behaviour, not a group of people, and that they do not want gay people to be persecuted.

This assertion is central to the way in which they present themselves. The sincerity of their position is now being put to the test. And different groups and individuals are responding to that test very differently.

The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill is backed by the country's government, although it was proposed as a Private Member's Bill by Bahati, a man who lists 'Bible reading' among his interests. Perhaps he skips over the many passages concerned with compassion towards the vulnerable. His Bill prescribes life imprisonment for anyone who “stimulates the sexual organs” of someone of the same sex, with the death penalty for anyone whose same-sex partner is under 18 or disabled. It would allow people to be imprisoned for failing to report an instance of homosexuality.

The Bill's supporters present homosexuality as a Western import. But the Bill is not as 'African' as they would have us believe. There has been a steady build-up of evidence of the support and assistance provided by conservative evangelical groups in the USA. In order to avoid playing into the homophobes' hands, it is vital that international opponents of the Bill never appear anti-African but focus on supporting those Ugandans who are campaigning against it. At the forefront of opposition is Sexual Minorities Uganda, a network of individuals and groups whose courage cannot be doubted in a country in which homosexuality is already illegal. Many other African organisations are working alongside them.

In Britain, the proposed legislation has been condemned by many Christian organisations supportive of LGBT people's rights, such as Ekklesia, Inclusive Church and Accepting Evangelicals. No surprises there, you might say. But there are as many silences as raised voices. Most denominations in the UK have yet to make any formal statement on the issue. The pressure on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is growing every day, but still he keeps his silence.

Like most people who have signed the petition urging Christian leaders to speak out, I cannot imagine that Williams has the remotest sympathy with the Bill. The most common interpretation of his silence is that he fears to alienate the “traditional” wing of Anglicanism. But who are these “traditionalists”?

There can be no doubt that some 'traditional' Christians are genuinely horrified by the Bill. The prime example is Fulcrum, an evangelical Anglican group which is actively encouraging opposition to the Bill while maintaining its own position that homosexual practice is wrong. While I strongly disagree with its general attitude to sexuality, I applaud its comments on Uganda, and the effort it has put into a helpful briefing on its website. Fulcrum's approach is evidence that the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill could be an opportunity for British Christians who often disagree on issues of sexuality to work together.

But take a look at the websites of many other 'traditionalist' Christian organisations and you will search in vain for a reference to the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill. These include groups such as the Christian Institute and Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON), who campaign against what they call the “homosexual lobby”. They often suggest that Christians in Britain are being persecuted and denied freedom of speech to criticise Islam and homosexuality. Their passion for freedom from persecution does not seem to extend to Uganda, about which they have said nothing.

It seems that the 'traditionalist' wing of British Christianity is split. Some are sincerely opposed to oppression of LGBT people in Uganda, and some can see the tactical value in expressing their opposition to it. Others may value too much their relationship with certain African Christians or may be more sympathetic to the Bill than they might wish us to think. Many, I suspect, have given the matter little thought, their energy too consumed by the imagined persecution of British Christians to worry about the real persecution of Ugandans.

Those individuals and groups who criticise homosexuality while sincerely opposing the Ugandan Bill, may well be as horrified as I am by the silence of some of their traditional allies. Many of these moderate evangelicals are among the crowds of British Christians who have actively campaigned on issues of poverty, climate change and war. They are now faced with tough choices to make about their priorities, methods and allies – and perhaps even about their ethical beliefs. I urge them to consider whether their faith might not have more in common with those Christians who take a different view on sexuality rather than those who will not condemn even the most vicious persecution.

Of course, there is still time for the silent Christians to speak up. But time is short. And influential organisations such as the Christian Institute and CCFON will lose any claim to be taken seriously on issues of sexual ethics and civil liberties if they do not clearly condemn the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This column appeared originally in The Samosa on 1 December 2009. See http://www.thesamosa.co.uk/index.php/comment-and-analysis/society/173-br....

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To sign the petition urging Christians to speak out against the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, please visit http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/Uganda_Christians/index.html.

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