The Anglican Consultative Council is currently in the middle of a fortnight-long meeting in Kingston, Jamaica. Made up of representatives from member churches throughout the world, it includes laypeople as well as bishops and other clergy. This gathering will be a test of its ability, amidst organisational politics, to hold on to its ideals and to balance unity with other values. These include justice, mercy and involvement by ordinary Christians as well as senior clergy in making decisions.
Kingston has a rich but troubled history, marked by slavery and colonialism as well as by resistance to these and other forms of oppression. Over 30,000 people filled the newly-built National Stadium in 1962 when independence was declared. There were high hopes of creating a truly independent and just society, but gradually these were blighted and – as in many other ex-colonies – Western economic dominance kept its grip.
Though Kingston was a major cultural centre, high unemployment and poverty remained. Frustration was sometimes violently expressed and gays and lesbians became a convenient target.
Violent homophobia in Jamaica has destroyed people emotionally and sometimes physically and has taught others to hate their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered neighbours. During a prison riot in Kingston in 1997, warders failed to protect supposedly gay prisoners, several of whom were stabbed or burnt to death. Horrific violence continues, sometimes justified on supposedly religious grounds .
International Anglican gatherings have repeatedly announced their commitment to human rights for all, including lesbian and gay people. Thirty years ago, the Anglican Consultative Council called on member churches and individuals to "rigorously assess their own structures, attitudes and modes of working to ensure the promotion of human rights within them" and "involve themselves in all possible ways with the struggles of people who are denied human rights".
Some Christians in the Caribbean (including senior Anglican clergy) have sought to promote greater acceptance and justice. Yet leaders such as the recently-retired Archbishop of the West Indies, Drexel Gomez, have had other priorities.
For over a decade he has been a crusader against the acceptance of "liberalism" in the Anglican Communion, in particular openness to the possibility of "out" gay or lesbian bishops and orders of service to bless same-sex couples. In 2001 he helped to draw up proposals to discipline national churches which took acceptance too far. These would have given archbishops unprecedented international power . The proposals were rejected, but he was later put in charge of preparing a "Covenant' which would supposedly bring about greater unity.
Though not in favour of extreme homophobia, Archbishop Gomez – along with many other church leaders elsewhere – helped to foster the notion that accepting same-sex partnerships was far more problematic for Christians than failing to challenge abuse and hatred.
There were strong reactions by some churches against earlier drafts of the Covenant and a new version has been produced, to be discussed by the Anglican Consultative Council in Kingston. Though this takes on board some of the concerns voiced earlier, the emphasis is still heavily on reining in those provinces which might do something "controversial". In practice, this is more likely to affect pro-inclusion churches than those where leaders have refused to enter into dialogue with lesbian, gay and transgendered people and their families, or to uphold their human rights.
It remains to be seen whether the Anglican Consultative Council, which has previously resisted attempts to over-centralise authority in the Communion, will give way in the interests of persuading "conservative" churches to stay. Many members of the Council have taken a bold and sometimes prophetic stance on respect and justice for all, caring and campaigning for the poor and marginalised, yet they face huge pressure.
Perhaps those attending the ACC gathering could spend a few moments remembering the many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in Kingston who have been terrorised, raped, beaten or murdered, or learnt to hate themselves, as well as the families and friends who mourn them, and the children who have been taught hatred rather than love of neighbour. There are no easy answers, but with thought and prayer, maybe the Council can develop an approach that recognises the evil of homophobia.
(c) Savi Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).
This article is adapted with acknowledgment from a recent piece on Savi's Guardian Comment-is-Free column. She has also written for Ekklesia about ACC and Rowan Williams' theology of reconciliation here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9406
A 'Cutting Edge' conference on faith, homophobia, transphobia and human rights is taking place in London on Saturday 16 May 2009 - more here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9436