The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has nearly commented on the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill. His press office have given their official line to the Times' religious affairs correspondent Ruth Gledhill, who has promoted it uncritically (see http://timescolumns.typepad.com/gledhill/2009/12/archbishop-of-canterbur... ).
The Archbishop has been under pressure for weeks over his failure to speak out against the proposed bill, which would introduce the death penalty for certain sexual relations between consenting adults. Now Gledhill has quoted Lambeth Palace as saying that attempts to influence the situation publicly would be “divisive and counter-productive” and that the Archbishop's contacts with Uganda will “remain intensive but private”.
But if the pressure is to be entirely behind the scenes, why have Williams' press office given the quote to Gledhill and why has she written this article? Supporters of the Bill can point to it to say that Williams is interfering, while opponents will continue to be angry that he has not spoken in public. Lambeth Palace have demonstrated their well-known ability to annoy both sides at once.
Having spent years working as a press officer myself, I am very aware that there are situations when pressure can work best behind the scenes. But this is almost never a reason to say nothing in public, rather a reason to be very careful about what you say.
Most of the media portray disputes within Anglicanism as a conflict between a “traditional” Africa and a “liberal” West. Those whose voices are heard least in the whole debate are gay, lesbian and bisexual Africans. But they are the people who are at the forefront of fighting this Bill. Of course, as Gledhill points out, public comments from the West will be presented as colonial intervention. But if we never spoke out because our position could be misrepresented, we would never speak at all. For reasons of both principle and effectiveness, it is vital that our starting-point is support for the Bill's Ugandan opponents. Only yesterday, Ugandan Canon Gideon Byamugisha said that the Bill would be “genocide” - his courage should put us to shame.
While Gledhill, Williams and Lambeth Palace speak of the damage that public comment would cause, do they have any idea of the damage caused by public silence? Even if we believe that Williams is subtly influencing Ugandan church leaders, how much harm is he causing to human rights around the world, by giving the impression that Christian leaders will not condemn homophobic abuse? Since launching a petition urging him to speak out, I have read messages from people in many countries who are truly and deeply bewildered and upset by his silence. They include both gay Africans and victims of homophobic laws.
While there are grains of truth in Ruth Gledhill's argument, I'm simply not convinced by it. Rowan Williams' silence has already caused much damage, and I will continue to call on him to speak out before the damage becomes even deeper and more severe.
To sign the petition urging Christian leaders to speak out against the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, please visit http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/Uganda_Christians/index.html .