Savi Hensman

How do we negotiate the global church sexuality conflict?

By Savi Hensman
December 20, 2014

In various denominations, debates on sexual ethics and treatment of minorities have sparked heated international controversy. This is sometimes seen as a conflict between a ‘liberal’ west and ‘conservative’ south. But the reality is more complicated.

Both acceptance of, and hostility towards, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people can be found across continents and cultures. And, while those most opposed to celebrating, or even allowing, same-sex partnerships sometimes claim to be protecting their people from the influence of the west, their actions serve to reinforce global power imbalances and western domination.

In January 2014, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a draconian law targeting an already criminalised LGBT minority, along with families and friends. A mother who let her gay son live with his partner under her roof, or theologian putting forward a biblical case for accepting same-sex relationships, risked being jailed for ten years.

This was praised by various church leaders. The decision “not to bow to international pressure in the promotion of unethical and immoral practices of same sex union and other related vices is indeed a courageous one,” declared Catholic Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama.

He commended the president for resisting a “conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent, the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices, that have continued to debase the purpose of God for man in the area of creation and morality, in their own countries.” Human rights defenders in Africa and internationally had pointed out that the new law would violate fundamental principles and persuaded western governments to distance themselves.

Later however, at an international Synod on the Family in October, he distanced himself from the criminalisation of LGBT people while still resisting recognition of same-sex partnerships. Though over 200,000 Nigerians die of AIDS each year, he condemned international organisations which “give us condoms and artificial contraceptives. Those are not the things we want. We want food, we want education, we want good roads, regular light, and so on” – as if these were mutually exclusive, and Nigerian anti-HIV activists had not sought affordable protection.

Several other supporters of the law remain unrepentant, including Anglican Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, who also praised the president, stating that those opposed to this law were rebelling against God. Okoh had earlier helped to whip up support for the bill, for instance spuriously claiming in 2010 that Nigeria was at risk from an "invading army of homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexual lifestyle" and that "The church in the west had vowed to use their money to spread the homosexual lifestyle in African societies and churches.”

In Uganda too, Anglican leaders had backed a punitive anti-homosexuality bill, when amended to remove the death penalty and requirement that clergy and professionals inform on LGBT people in their care. A spokesperson told the Christian Post in 2014 that “we support Uganda's national sovereignty and our right to self-determination in establishing this law, and will not bow to international pressure to change that part of our culture that aligns with our biblical convictions.”

Such leaders have expressed unwillingness to be in fellowship with those who treat LGBT people equally, and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told a Times interviewer in December 2014 that there may end up being “a sort of temporary separation” in the Anglican Communion.

While many opponents of full inclusion are less extreme, in other denominations such as the United Methodists too, international tensions have arisen over the issue of same-sex partnerships. Some explain such differences as the result of a cultural and spiritual rift between the south, especially Africa, and more liberal (especially western) countries.

At present, in much of the world, those strongly against inclusion may seem to have the upper hand. Yet bold people still organise for change, often seeing this as part of a wider movement for a more just and loving world.

In reality a spectrum of views on sexuality, along with other issues, had developed among Christians in the south. In 1992 an assembly of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, issued a powerful statement: ‘A cry for life: the spirituality of the Third World’. This developed a far more positive approach.

Moreover, in August 2014, over thirty African leaders from ten countries, meeting in South Africa with World Council of Churches support, issued the KwaZulu Natal Declaration, calling on all religious institutions – especially churches – to “care for the least amongst us as Christ has done” and “create safe spaces for encounter with the sexual diversity within the body of Christ”.

A WCC gathering later in the year in India, with delegates from across the world, focused mainly on economic justice and the environment, but the focus was on achieving an Economy of Life, “measured by the quality of life of those dwelling in the margins (Matthew 10:42)” and in which “all people – regardless of class, gender, race, caste, sexual orientation, indigenous identity and religion – have a voice and participate in decision-making at all levels.”

Ultimately, if the Holy Spirit is at work in even the bleakest situations, the fruits of the earth will be more justly shared and truth and compassion win out over scapegoating and prejudice.

I have explored these issues in more details in a research essay published here (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21191), and excerpted in this article, which looks at both the evolution of these debates and how the current signs of reaction may be giving way in other places to affirmative understandings of biblical and church tradition that enable us to move beyond a crude 'conservative' versus 'liberal' theological stand-off.

* See: Better understanding of international church conflicts over sexuality - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21191

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© 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.

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