Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Uganda has condemned the decision by Church of England bishops to allow celibate clergy in civil partnerships to be bishops, claiming this violated biblical faith and Anglican agreements.
Yet the decision in England is more in line with international Anglican principles, as well as local church policy, than that of the Church of Uganda.
The move by the Church on England’s House of Bishops slightly eases the discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people but does not remove it. As with heterosexuals, only a minority are called to celibacy. For most Christians, whatever their sexual orientation, a loving committed partnership can assist spiritual and emotional growth.
Yet even this modest measure has been met with anger by people strongly opposed to greater inclusion, including Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya, a leader in the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.
The removal of the ban “is really no different from allowing gay Bishops. This decision violates our Biblical faith and agreements within the Anglican Communion,” claimed Ntagali, who recently became the Church of Uganda’s most senior cleric. It “only makes the brokenness of the Communion worse”, and “Our grief and sense of betrayal are beyond words.”
It does indeed involve allowing gay bishops – and this is an area of difference within the family of churches that makes up the Anglican Communion. International gatherings, while recognising that most Anglicans think that sexual relationships between members of the same sex are wrong, have since 1978 called for acceptance of homosexuals and an objective approach to the theological debate.
This includes support for human rights, and willingness on the part of church leaders to listen to the views of those in their dioceses who are attracted to members of the same sex. Bishops had previously agreed that the Bible had to be read carefully and as a whole, not by taking a few verses out of context: “It is no part of the purpose of the Scriptures to give information on those themes which are the proper subject matter of scientific enquiry, nor is the Bible a collection of separate oracles, each containing a final declaration of truth” (Lambeth Conference 1930).
The church should value the work of “devoted scholars who, worshipping the God of Truth, have enriched and deepened our understanding of the Bible, not least by facing with intellectual integrity the questions raised by modern knowledge and modern criticism” (Lambeth Conference 1958). Many theologians have now come to believe that same-sex partnerships involving sexual intimacy are in line with Christian ethics. Ordinary churchgoers, in countries where gay sex is not banned and they can observe the quality of love between same-sex partners, largely agree.
However in Uganda and some other parts of the world, top church leaders have been hostile or patronising to LGBT people, and failed to listen carefully to them or weigh up the evidence for and against greater inclusion, drawing on the Bible, tradition, reason and experience. They have not even resisted the criminalisation of LGBT people, contrary to Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
In 1991, England’s House of Bishops published Issues in human sexuality. Though weak in some areas, it recognised the need for the church to repent of “prejudice, ignorance and oppression” towards homosexuals, listen more attentively to them and be open and welcoming.
The removal of the ban on bishops in civil partnerships, if celibate, is a small step in this direction. The move is also more in keeping with what the Anglican Communion has resolved on justice, sexuality and approaches to the Bible than the openly anti-gay attitudes of some overseas archbishops.
Ironically, in an interview in December 2012, Archbishop Ntagali declared that "My main task and the whole mission of the Church would be to preach God's love to the people of Uganda without discrimination", while also declaring that "I have been a member of the House of Bishops of the Church of Uganda and we resolved not to associate with anybody, any church, any province in the world which condones homosexuality or promotes it", and indeed condoning criminalisation of gay people.
(c) Savitri Hensman is a long-standing Christian commentator on religion and politics, Anglican affairs, theology and LGBT issues. She is an Ekklesia associate.