Anglican unity, homophobic prejudice and religious violence

By Savi Hensman
January 22, 2016

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has praised “the unity that was so remarkably shown” at a controversial gathering of Anglican primates the previous week. He apologised for “the pain that the church has caused LGBTI people”, while emphasising the plight of Christians facing “religiously-motivated violence”.

Much can be said for his efforts to avoid a split in the Anglican Communion, while at the same time encouraging greater care and respect for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. However he failed to recognise that some church leaders’ actions amount to inciting or enabling religiously-motivated violence.

The Episcopal Church had been singled out and asked not to take part in certain international Anglican activities, supposedly because its moves towards greater inclusion had not been approved by the Communion as a whole. However there were no penalties for provinces where senior clergy refused to engage in deep study of sexuality and dialogue with lesbians and gays, or even uphold basic human rights. But these too had been called for repeatedly by international Anglican gatherings.

The primates’ communiqué did affirm “their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted adults.” But the wording was ambiguous. Fiercely homophobic and transphobic senior clergy may believe that “same-sex attracted” adults should be tolerated only if never acting on their feelings, whereas even a moment of sexual intimacy should be punishable with prison or worse.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s soft-touch approach to leaders who promote human rights abuses against LGBTI people may in part be because his past public criticism of such behaviour was ignored or even worn as a badge of pride. However it appears to result partly from his admiration of, and concern for, Christians in countries affected by large-scale religious violence.

He wrote movingly of “the desperate situation of so many Christians around the world living with the threat and reality of religiously-motivated violence. The primary fear for many, probably near a majority of Anglicans in the world today – just as it is for our brothers and sisters in other parts of the Christian Church and for other communities entirely – is the violence that confronts them and their families daily.

“It’s the risk of a Congolese woman getting raped by a militia when she goes out to fetch water. It’s the risk of church congregations in Pakistan being killed by a suicide bomber as they worship on Sunday morning. And it’s a thousand other risks besides.”

As someone born in Sri Lanka (Ceylon as it then was) and who was a citizen of that country for most of my life, I am well aware of the horrors of religiously-motivated violence. A twisted version of ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ deplored by many Sinhalese and Buddhists was used to justify mass killing and ethnic cleansing. It also opened the door to horrific human rights violations by anti-state fighters. Some of my family live in India, where worsening communalism poses a huge threat. And I know all too many people from Africa and Asia whose families and friends are at risk.

Also as someone who is LGBTI and committed to human rights for all, I am very much aware of Isil-Daesh throwing men off roofs for being gay, Sharia courts in Nigeria and Iran sentencing lesbians to flogging or jail and other such cruelty.

So it is profoundly disturbing to me when prominent fellow-Anglicans promote violence in the name of God. This includes propaganda claiming that letting LGBTI people be safe and free threatens society (which can lead to hate-crime); and encouraging the state to seize and imprison LGBTI people in often dreadful conditions. Whatever one’s views are on same-sex partnerships, promoting such violence is unacceptable.

For example Archbishop Stanley Ntagali – who walked out because the primates did not denounce the Episcopal Church strongly enough for his liking – has vigorously promoted further criminalising LGBTI people in Uganda (though he did oppose the death penalty).

So has his predecessor Henry Orombi. “The team of homosexuals is very rich," he claimed in 2008."They have money and will do whatever it takes to make sure that this vice penetrates Africa.” Such false witness has had devastating effects.

Likewise, former Nigerian primate Peter Akinola and his successor Nicholas Okoh pushed for his government to jail even more LGBTI people, while also fear-mongering. In 2010 Okoh alleged, “The Church in the West had vowed to use their money to spread the homosexual lifestyle in African societies and Churches.”

Earlier, in campaigning for a law prohibiting “same sex marriage” (including long-term partnerships), Nigerian Anglican leaders threatened “complete annihilation that will follow the wrath of God should this practice be accepted as normal.”

Promoting practices known frequently to lead to self-harm and suicide could also be termed religiously-motivated violence. This includes teaching that those attracted to members of the same sex can easily be ‘freed’ if they are truly Christian.

At the heart of the matter is whether the church is faithful to Christ crucified. This is not about being judgmental. Almost all of us, at some time, give way to the temptation to stand instead with the condemnatory religious and civil authorities, brutal Roman soldiers or jeering or passive bystanders.

But if churches in today’s world are to be effective in resisting religiously-motivated violence, they cannot practice or condone this themselves.

* Ekklesia associate Savitri Hensman is the author of Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church, which can be ordered from The Book Depository AbeBooks, and Waterstones, price £12.99, or as an ebook at £3.99 from office@ekklesia.co.uk.

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

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