Savi Hensman

Caribbean Anglican leaders: homophobia, debating sexuality, upholding human rights

By Savi Hensman
May 13, 2013

In a statement opposing same-sex unions, the House of Bishops and Standing Committee of the Church in the Province of the West Indies tried to justify persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people. Meanwhile human rights activists in the Caribbean and beyond continue to work for decriminalisation and protection from violence, causes that Anglicans worldwide should support.

Context: criminal penalties, harassment and violence

In Belize, criminalisation of gay sex, introduced under British colonial rule, is being challenged in the courts. Leading activist Caleb Orozco of the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UniBAM) has been verbally attacked and had a bottle smashed in his face for battling a law under which “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” can lead to ten years’ imprisonment.

His critics include Pastor Scott Stirm of the anti-LGBT group Belize Action. According to a flyer from this group, UniBAM is “bringing foreign attorneys from foreign homosexual organisations with huge foreign funding to impose their foreign values” – though Stirm is himself from Texas in the USA. They have tried to make out that legalisation will put children at risk.

However, mainstream churches too have joined the campaign to resist decriminalisation, including Anglican and Roman Catholic leaders.

“Fundamentalist Christian groups from North America have been exporting their homophobic hatred to Belize for many years,” Maurice Tomlinson, a leading Jamaican LGBT rights campaigner and lawyer, told Gay Star News:

‘Stirm and his ilk are using increasingly incendiary language to whip Belizeans into a frenzy ahead of the first domestic challenge to the Belizean anti-sodomy law,” he said. “The government of Belize has resisted calls by local and international groups, including the UN Human Rights Committee, to repeal its archaic and discriminatory law, out of fear of the powerful religious right, successive governments have refused to do so.”

In Jamaica too human rights activists are seeking to overturn a colonial-era law that helps to fuel extreme prejudice and violence against LGBT people.

Meanwhile in Uganda and Nigeria, some politicians are trying to make homophobic laws even harsher, with the support of some church leaders, though there are also Christians opposed to such injustice.

Elsewhere in the world, objections have been voiced to supplying overseas aid to support governments which victimise their LGBT citizens or carry out other human rights violations. In the UK for example, after much campaigning in the twentieth century, gay sex was decriminalised. It is widely accepted now – even among those opposed to opening up marriage to same-sex couples – that threatening LGBT people with imprisonment if they ever have sex with someone they are attracted to is cruel and unjust.

Failure to conform?

Against this background, Anglican leaders in the Caribbean published a statement on same-sex unions. This appears to confuse the issues of decriminalisation, legal recognition of partnerships and marriage equality, as well as making out that defending an aspect of the legacy of colonialism somehow reflects national pride.

The document claims that “matters related to human sexuality have been elevated to the level of human rights and are being promulgated as positions which must be accepted globally. Frequently, failure to conform by developing nations like our own, results in the threat of various sanctions, including the withholding of economic aid.”

“More specifically, there is a re-definition of gender to accommodate gay, lesbian and transgendered people, and the creation of a plurality of definitions which leaves the issue of gender to self-definition, thereby dismissing traditional definition of male and female. Additionally, there is the passage of legislation among a number of metropolitan nations whereby marriage is defined as a human right in which any two persons may be joined, inclusive of persons of the same sex.”

In reality, parts of the USA do not offer even limited legal recognition to same-sex unions while lesbians and gays can marry in South Africa and Argentina. However such facts do not fit the picture which the document is trying to portray, of a dominant West trying to impose its values on the rest of the world, and so are ignored.

But, claims the document, “While we acknowledge that there is a diversity of family patterns within our Caribbean region, these have been understood by our people to be between a man and a woman, whether defined in terms of the natural order of creation or on the basis of religious beliefs which see these grounded in the purpose of God.”

It declares that “We are conscious of the fact that our political leaders within our Caribbean region are being subjected to pressures from nations and institutions from outside of our region. Frequently they are pressured to conform to the changes being undertaken in their redefinition of human sexuality and same-sex unions, under threat of economic sanctions and the loss of humanitarian aid.”

As far as I am aware, this is utterly untrue (though I would be interested if anyone knows of any such instances). Countries that hunt down and jail minorities or unleash or permit brutal violence against minorities or dissidents, including on grounds of sexual orientation, may face international economic pressure. But that is a very different matter.

Perhaps there is an underlying fear that, if repression and hatred abate and LGBT people are no longer treated as sub-human, more heterosexuals in the Caribbean will come to realise that their brothers and sisters whose sexual orientation or gender identity is different from their own have similar needs for love and companionship.

Religion and culture

At any rate, the Anglican bishops and their associates defiantly conclude that “The threat and use of economic sanctions are not new experiences for us, neither is the claim to a superior morality convincing for peoples who have known the experience of chattel slavery in our past. While claiming to invoke human rights as the basis for such imposition, we submit that the same principle must allow us the right to affirm our cultural and religious convictions regarding our definitions of that most basic of social institutions, marriage.”

Perhaps they hope that such passages will provoke enough righteous indignation among black people, and guilt among white people, to obscure the shakiness of the logic.

Are Christian leaders really arguing that, because of the misdeeds of the governments of some nations centuries ago, they should never exercise any moral judgement in foreign policy, and blithely back the Syrian regime, for instance? Surely the strength of support for human rights throughout the world is in part a reaction against the horrors of the past, from slavery to the Holocaust?

Even if there is an element of hypocrisy in some condemnations of anti-LGBT persecution, is it only the morally perfect who have the right to criticise the US government over Guantanamo Bay, for example, or regimes that persecute Christians?

Again, while cultural and religious convictions around marriage and family life carry weight on human rights grounds, for Christians surely culture and ethics should always be open to re-examination in the light of the Gospel? It would have been pathetic if, half a century ago, Church of England leaders had declared that racism and the prejudice that led to the jailing of gays were facets of English culture and so not open to question, or if Episcopalian bishops stated that some people genuinely believed that racial segregation was ordained by God so it should be upheld.

With regard to religion, are not the Bishops and Standing Committee of the Church in the Province of the West Indies part of the same Anglican Communion which held the 1988 Lambeth Conference of bishops, which passed a resolution on “Human Rights for Those of Homosexual Orientation” which, among other points, called for “each province to reassess, in the light of... study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation”?

Such resolutions are not binding but, if it is so contentious that “matters related to human sexuality have been elevated to the level of human rights”, why was there not an outcry at the time? To be fair, it is nearly sixty-five years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, and there has been little or no recent discussion in many churches about the theological importance of human rights for all. It is time to return to this important topic.

More fundamentally, are not senior clergy and other Caribbean church leaders supposed to be followers of Jesus who, when asked which commandment was the greatest, replies that love of God is the greatest and first, “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 22.37-40). In the Gospels, does he not likewise teach, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7.12)?

How can these leaders reconcile their support for mistreating LGBT people who are their neighbours, and often fellow-Christians, with their faith? If Jesus gave a new commandment that “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-35), what kind of discipleship are they promoting?

In Belize, as human rights campaigner Caleb Orozco faced vandalism and further threats, Bishop Phillip Wright tried to dissociate the church from non-state sanctioned intimidation and violence against LGBT people. He declared that “We do not support any form of violence against persons of a homosexual orientation and we distance ourselves from any such action or tendency in the wider population. After all, the church has to find a way to bring people together and to encourage hatred and that form of bigotry really is not acceptable in our book at all."

However church leaders have disastrously failed to share the good news of God’s love for all and helped to create a climate where contempt and even hatred can take root.

Debating sexuality, upholding human rights

In recent years, many theologians and sizeable numbers of Christians in various denominations have come to accept their LGBT members and, in some cases, support blessings of same-sex partnerships. Others still believe that celibacy is a better way but oppose persecution, in part because they recognise how hard it is for anyone (especially if feeling no particular call to the celibate life) to abstain completely from sexual intimacy and tender companionship.

Anglicans are part of a family of autonomous churches, so members of the Communion may debate with one another but not impose their own values. This is not to say that the stance of other churches does not have an impact on their members – not only institutional reputations but also the wellbeing of people who have close connections with the countries concerned.

For instance there are numerous people in Britain who are of Caribbean descent, including those who are LGBT themselves and heterosexuals have been taught to hate or despise LGBT people, causing profound spiritual damage. My late partner was of Jamaican descent, and I am aware that there have been a number of scholarly and insightful Caribbean theologians over the past century, so I find the stance of the Bishops and Standing Committee especially saddening. They certainly do not, by any means, represent the totality of Caribbean Christian opinion.

However, on the positive side, the issuing of such statements may encourage leaders in other provinces such as England to stop trying to placate senior clergy and laity elsewhere who will not even challenge human rights abuses or truthfully address the issues with their congregations.

Sooner or later, in response to the urging of their own members and workings of the Holy Spirit, Anglican and other churches in the Caribbean and beyond will move forward towards greater commitment to justice and inclusion of LGBT people. Meanwhile, in places where debates on marriage equality are underway, a more rigorous approach by many churches which takes into account scientific and theological developments would be helpful.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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