The Archbishop of Canterbury, equal marriage and safety of Africans

By Savi Hensman
April 6, 2014

Letting same-sex couples marry in the Church of England would be catastrophic for Christians in countries such as South Sudan, Nigeria and Pakistan, claimed Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. He also has “real hesitations” about equal marriage because of the Bible and tradition.

However he still wrestles with the issue. “I’m incredibly conscious of the position of gay people in this country, how badly they’ve been treated over the years, how badly the church has behaved,” he told listeners during a phone-in on radio station LBC.

He made the point that “We’re linked to churches all round the world”. In his view the Church of England should take account of their views and the effect on them of actions by Anglicans elsewhere.

He described standing by a mass grave in Africa with 369 bodies, massacred by neighbours who claimed that “If we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians.”

“That burns itself into your soul, as does the suffering of gay people in this country,” he said.

I do not doubt his sincerity. However in the interview he failed to acknowledge the even greater suffering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Christians in some non-western countries, and the responsibility of certain church leaders there for stoking up violent hatred, which may have backfired.

Though, earlier this year, Welby and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, spoke out against the victimisation of lesbians and gays internationally, they have not fully acknowledged the seriousness of church-based homophobia.

It is quite possible that, even if Anglicans worldwide had been united in rejecting LGBTI inclusion, those responsible for the massacre mentioned on LBC would have found some other excuse. However, if indeed homophobia was a decisive factor, this raises serious questions about the role of church leaders in the countries he mentioned.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, some senior clergy spent much time and energy publicising their own hostility and contempt for LGBTI people and contrasting this with other (especially North American) churches which were more inclusive. If they had not taken this stance, it seems unlikely that the media in those countries would have taken a sustained interest in the doings of independent overseas churches.

If Sudanese, Nigerian or Pakistani archbishops had been criticised for the actions of sister-churches overseas, they could have truthfully explained that they had no control over these churches and vice versa. But their high-profile interventions helped to keep the issue in the local news.

There were various reasons for this, from joining in with prevailing social prejudice and competing with fundamentalist churches to establishing themselves on the world stage. Some genuinely saw themselves as heroically championing biblical principles, while in reality they flung aside the basic Christian tenets of love of neighbour and treating others as one would wish to be treated, “for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22.34-40, 7.12).

They made common cause with rebel US clergy to boycott the international Anglican process of study and dialogue on sexuality agreed in 1978 and 1988. They organised to sabotage the outcome of the previously agreed (and South African-led) discussion on sexual ethics at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, instead voicing their vitriolic scorn for LGBTI people.

“Why do you come out and tell us what you do? Go to God and confess your sins,” said Bishop Michael Lugor from Sudan. Bishop Alexander Malik from Pakistan asked whether bishops who ordain non-celibate homosexuals would consider bringing a resolution supporting bestiality. Outside the conference hall, Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma from Nigeria shouted at the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement general secretary and tried to exorcise him from the “demon” of homosexuality.

LGBTI Christians growing up in these countries knew that they were at risk because of their faith, but that many of their fellow-Christians would hate or despise them too if their identity became known, a position of terrible isolation. Some were no doubt persuaded that God loathed them and that they were destined for eternal torment if they could not change their sexual orientation (which is rare).

Such leaders also abandoned Anglicanism’s longstanding support for global human rights, backing repressive governments in hounding already criminalised LGBTI communities. In some instances, they bore false witness in ways that helped to inflame homophobic prejudice to murderous levels while also keeping the topic in the headlines.

Allowing same-sex unions in Nigeria would result in “complete annihilation that would follow the wrath of God”, declared Archbishop Peter Akinola in 2009. Nigeria is at risk from an “invading army of homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexual lifestyle,” claimed his successor, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, in 2010. “The church in the west had vowed to use their money to spread the homosexual lifestyle in African societies and churches; after all Africa is poor. They are pursuing this agenda vigorously.”

In the short term, the security and prestige of Christians may sometimes be increased by joining in hate-campaigns against other minorities, whether ethnic or faith groups, LGBTI people or others. Yet ultimately this is not only a betrayal of Christ but also deepens a pit into which it is all too easy to fall (Psalm 7.15-16).

Certainly the safety of Christians in majority communities across the world should be a matter of concern to Anglicans in England, even if this has been endangered largely by their own leaders. It would best be served in the long term by reaffirming the theological case for human rights for all, promoting a thoughtful approach to the Bible, exposing the mechanism of scapegoating, challenging untruths about sexuality and gender identity and promoting love and respect for LGBTI people.

* Listen to Justin Welby on LBC here:


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.