Nigerian bishops’ threat to Church of England on sexuality

By Savi Hensman
January 11, 2013

Nigerian Anglican bishops have condemned the Church of England decision to allow celibate clergy in civil partnerships to be bishops, threatening further action. The statement highlighted ambiguous attitudes to the Bible among Church of Nigeria leaders.

It followed criticisms by Kenyan and Ugandan archbishops. According to the Nigerian statement, the Church of England’s stance on civil partnerships when they came in was a “first step towards the recognition and institutionalisation of behaviour contrary to the plain teaching of scripture and reaffirmed for all Anglicans by the 1998 Lambeth Conference in its Resolution 1.10”.

The Nigerian bishops urged the Church of England’s House of Bishops to reconsider allowing partnered bishops, in view of “the call on all clergy, especially bishops, to live holy lives and not encourage what are, at best, morally ambiguous partnerships that make it impossible for a bishop to be a wholesome example to the flock. Especially since the supposed assurances of celibacy, while perhaps well intentioned, are both unworkable and unenforceable.”

The statement warned that “if the Church of England continues in this contrary direction we must further separate ourselves from it and we are prepared to take the same actions as those prompted by the decisions of The Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada ten years ago.” This refers to bids by Nigerian bishops to take over parishes in these provinces.

Despite claims to be defending biblical teaching and the advice of the Lambeth Conference, which brings together Anglican bishops from across the world, the stance of Church of Nigeria leaders on sexuality contradicts both. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7), says Jesus in the Gospels.

He also advises that loving God with all one’s heart, soul and mind is the greatest and first commandment, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22). But Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Nigeria’s top Anglican cleric, is fiercely hostile to those who are homosexual in orientation.

In an interview in 2011, he claimed, “that type of sexual orientation is unbiblical, ungodly, unnatural, unacceptable.” In his view, “society rules through procreation and when we allow a sizeable member of the society to be homosexuals or Lesbians we cannot expect procreation to take place so naturally it is against nature.” He would appear to condemn even celibate lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people, and perhaps celibacy more generally. Those who teach by word and deed that it is acceptable to be “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19.12), like Jesus and St Paul, might have received a frosty welcome in Nigeria.

According to Lambeth 1.10, “We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ”. Okoh is no more likely to heed this than earlier Lambeth resolutions calling for dialogue with homosexuals and “Human Rights for Those of Homosexual Orientation” – indeed he urged that Nigeria should leave the United Nations if it sought human rights for homosexuals.

The Church of England is reviewing its overall stance on sexuality. This may lead to recognition of the strong theological case for supporting loving committed partnerships, whether or not the partners are celibate. If it is to be faithful to the Gospel and effective in mission, it cannot please Nigeria’s bishops while they maintain such an unjust and unloving position towards LGBT people.

If a few congregations in England decide to try to break with centuries of Anglican tradition and claim to be part of the Church of Nigeria, this may be an unavoidable price to pay for the Church of England if it seeks to follow where the Holy Spirit leads.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a long-standing Christian commentator on religion and politics, Anglican affairs, theology and LGBT issues. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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