Southern Africa reflects global Anglican shift on same sex marriage

By Savi Hensman
August 22, 2016

Southern African Anglicans are considering whether to allow church blessings of same-sex unions. Now at least half-a-dozen Anglican churches, in four continents, are discussing moving forward on celebrating such marriages.

Though resistance continues and the pace of change is often slow, this is welcome news for the Communion and wider church. It reflects a willingness to engage with the Bible in its entirety and listen attentively to those who have been marginalised.

Respecting diversity, seeking blessing

The Anglican Church of Southern Africa covers South Africa, Angola, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia and the island of St Helena. At its provincial synod in September 2016, representatives will discuss a motion from the Diocese of Saldanha Bay, near Cape Town.

If passed, this would let bishops strengthen support for clergy who want to improve the pastoral care of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. This could include authorising liturgies to bless civil unions and licensing married clergy and lay ministers, though not church weddings.

Attitudes and laws vary across the region. In South Africa discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is forbidden and both opposite-sex and same-sex couples can enter civil unions, either marriages or civil partnerships as they prefer.

In addition, the motion calls for a commission to be created which will reflect on, and share, theological, pastoral and prophetic principles connected with the pastoral care of LGBTI people and celebration of same-sex partnerships.

The background – of years of wrestling with the issues within the Anglican Communion and province of Southern Africa – is acknowledged. So is Anglicanism’s traditional use of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, which “provide a helpful space in which many voices can be heard and many insights shared, so that a loving pastoral response to those identifying as LGBT can be offered.”

Some of the measures proposed may be too bold for synod to agree at this stage. In February the bishops stated that "We are of one mind that gay‚ lesbian and transgendered members of our church share in full membership as baptised members of the Body of Christ."

But, according to Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, they agreed that “we will continue to regard ourselves bound by the broad consensus in the Anglican Communion‚ expressed by the Lambeth Conference in 1998‚ which is that we ‘cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions’. Having said that‚ we did address the questions of whether that decision is immutable‚ whether it has replaced scripture‚ and when a Province of the Communion‚ or a diocese within a Province may deviate from it.”

However he said in response to the Saldanha Bay motion, “Without anticipating what Synod will decide, this debate is overdue in the top councils of our Church, and I welcome it.”

He earlier instructed the diocese’s bishop, Raphael Hess, to revoke the license of a priest, Mpho Tutu, when she married her partner, Marceline Van Furth. Instead Tutu (daughter of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu) resigned. Hess made it clear that he was unhappy with the current situation and keen to see change.

Whatever synod’s decision, the motion will open up discussion and the likelihood, over the next few years, of moving forward. The strength of the theological case for celebrating self-giving, faithful partnerships has been increasingly recognised.

In 2015, the Dutch Reformed Church agreed to let ministers perform marriages of same-sex couples and enter into these themselves. Elsewhere in the world too, including among Anglicans, where it has been possible to debate the issue without fear, views have been changing.

A worldwide shift

Before the beginning of 2016, the Episcopal Church (covering the USA and other countries) had agreed to marry same-sex couples. In the course of the year, other churches have also considered how to be more welcoming to LGBTI people.

This has not been straightforward. In May, a synod of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia postponed until 2018 a decision on whether or not to agree a rite for blessing same-sex couples married in civil ceremonies.

This was frustrating to many seeking greater inclusion, especially since the proposals came from a working group set up two years previously. On the whole, Maori and Polynesian representatives were in favour of adopting such a service. But many of the white New Zealanders who were opposed would not give way. However there is “a firm expectation that a decision to move forward will be made” in 2018.

The Scottish Episcopal Church was bolder in June, when its synod met. It agreed to change the rules stating that marriage was between a man and a woman, provided this gets a two-thirds majority in 2017. If approved then, priests who wish to marry same-sex couples will be able to do so, though none will have to.

The Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil held a synod later that month which also discussed marrying same-sex couples. Consensus could not be reached. However a working group of biblical scholars and other theologians was set up and the issue will be revisited in 2017. Since this is one of the more inclusive provinces, there is a substantial chance of allowing church marriage.

In July, the Anglican Church of Canada general synod voted to move forward on letting clergy marry same-sex couples if their bishop agrees. This would have to be ratified when synod next meets, in 2019.

At first, due to a mistake, it appeared that the motion had fallen just short of getting the required two-thirds majority in all three Houses (of bishops, other clergy and laity). This caused great frustration, since the theological case for celebrating same-sex partnerships was made years ago and there is pressing pastoral need. Some bishops declared that they would go ahead anyway, since the rules governing church marriage in Canada are ambiguous.

At the same time, the Church of England synod had been holding ‘shared conversations’ on sexuality to try to strengthen mutual understanding and trust. No resolutions were considered. However church leaders are under pressure from members to act soon to authorise a service to pray for couples who have had civil marriages, and to let priests and lay ministers marry without fear of punishment. Gaining permission for priests to conduct church weddings will probably take longer.

Opposition

In all these churches and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, as in other denominations, the issue is hugely controversial. Many think it wrong to bar same-sex couples from getting married or at least blessed in church. But if they are allowed to act in line with their consciences, some opponents of change are ready to split away, though others will remain.

For instance 72 members of the Church of England’s synod (out of 467) wrote to the bishops urging them “not to consider any proposals that fly in the face of the historic understanding of the church” on human sexuality. This would “undermine our ability as members of General Synod to offer support and lead to a fracture within both the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.”

They represent only a small minority of those who identify as belonging to the Church of England. By the time of the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey, only about a fifth of British Anglicans believed that same-sex sexual relationships were always wrong and the proportion is now probably even smaller. Numbers are more evenly divided over marriage, surveys indicate.

Some opponents of celebrating marriages of same-sex couples have made sincere efforts to engage with the arguments in favour. But stereotyping supporters as weak in faith and inattentive to the Bible is still common, even though biblical scholarship has helped to drive the movement for change.

The Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Josiah Idowu-Fearon, was at one time a relatively tolerant archbishop in Nigeria, where church leaders have sought to intensify state criminalisation of LGBTI people and their allies. He has also tried to encourage dialogue.

But at a meeting in August of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa, he fuelled misconceptions about pro-inclusive Christians, though calling for a focus on issues other than sexuality.

“It was Bible-believing Christians who have transformed the face of Africa in the last 150 years, and we can transform it again,” he said. He tried to make out that those in more inclusive churches were racists who “present us as being 50 years behind the rest of the world. Their view of progressivism places them at the forefront of historical and social development — with us Africans bringing up the rear.”

Supposedly “deep down, they think that all of us, whatever our faith and commitments, have our price. They really believe that it will only be a matter of time before we fall in line with their view of the world, of culture, of marriage, of community either through conviction or, if not, then through convenience.”

He continued to peddle crude generalisations of godly Africans defending biblical truth from those overseas with different views from his own. “Our African churches can never be social progressives in the sense beloved of the West. We will never allow our churches to be taken over by views and programmes which suggest that the Bible is wrong. We will not crumble or bow the knee to a godless secular culture that despises the Bible and what it teaches.

”Actually, our African churches are already progressives. We are seeking to live our lives in accordance with the will of God in the kingdom of God, which is the real future for humanity that measures all human progress.”

He lamented that “I am deeply disturbed by some of what is happening in the Communion and its churches today. I have seen Anglicans who are poor and marginalised in their own societies plead for their right to maintain Anglican orthodoxy in their own churches, only to be swept aside by a campaign to change the churches’ teaching on marriage and so-called rights of equality. This is something I take to the Lord in prayer again and again.”

But many of the laws criminalising gay sex in Africa, Asia and Latin America have been inherited from the colonial era, when missionaries spread the view that same-sex love and other ‘native’ practices were wicked. And religious leaders and evangelists from every continent are involved in international campaigns against full acceptance.

And across continents, victimisation of minorities is often used by local elites to distract people from their own shortcomings, and exploitation by international corporations with which they are linked.

In South Africa, in contrast, Christians committed to justice have been both inspired by the Bible and acutely aware of its misuse to try to justify apartheid. While theologians have studied issues of sexuality carefully, church leaders have often been willing to confront the powers-that-be rather than just the marginalised.

In 2015 Hess spoke at the diocesan synod on the false self tainted by sin. “God is a community of self-giving and self-sacrificing love in which each person of the triune community lives for the others”, he said. That sense of inter-connectedness was conveyed by the metaphor of the vine and branches in John’s gospel. Yet human weakness led to isolation and selfishness, on both an individual and collective level.

This included treating intimate relationships “as a commodity – something we can enjoy and then throw away.” But it also encompassed the fact that “the mining sector has lived by this false ideology, proclaiming that the earth and its contents belongs to those powerful enough to control the land. For years and years in our own country, that ownership has resided in the hands of a few, usually internationally connected corporate players, largely enriching European interests.” Fundamentalism too was seen as an aspect of the false-self labelled by Paul as the “old self” or “old man”, from which Christ offered freedom through the cross and resurrection.

Saldanha Bay’s vision

The vision statement on the website of Saldanha Bay diocese is reflective of its own history and situation but will resonate with many other Christians in a supposedly post-colonial but still deeply divided world:

We, the people of the Diocese of Saldanha Bay,

are not afraid to dream and to turn our dreams into actions.

Bearing our ancient name, people of the Way,

we walk through the 800kms in which we live,

united and aware of our neighbours,

who may live many miles from us.

We walk with our shovels, fishing nets, grapevines,

industrial tools, through halls of literature and fields of toil:

With our Bibles, prayer books, psalters and hymns,

ever journeying, never those who have arrived...

We are constantly Called by a God of Love

who names us partners, family,

and co-creators – to bring about with God,

pockets of heaven on earth...

We are an ecclesia, ‘the people of God’ –

a ‘both-and’ Church fluent in paradox and ambiguity;

not afraid to fall into the Mystery – the Emptiness

and Easter of God

out of which New Dawns

will always arise...

We are a Eucharistic people,

offering ourselves as a living sacrifice to be sent into the world for the

work of whole-making, of mending and healing,

of loving, forgiving and uniting...

We look at each person

and see the image of God – this insight

explodes all the contraints that limit us. We see

no Jew or Gentile, male or female, no straight,

no gay, no colour, no culture that

separates, while loving all that each brings...

We have a gospel, and it is ours to proclaim in every village,

town, farm, beach and city, in every neighbourhood and township, in every shebeen and shop –

that God is love and seeks to make a home of love in us and in our world.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613

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.