We call for an intensification of the dialogue over our response as Christians to the debate over human sexuality, writes Thabo Makgoba.
As we were preparing to celebrate Human Rights month we were saddened to learn of the horrendous decision by the Ugandan government to pass a law that essentially makes loving another person of the same gender a criminal offence. As the church we have a duty to condemn any discrimination as it goes against the gospel of inclusivity and embracing everyone regardless of their sexual orientation.
The Ugandan government, and any other that discriminates in this way, is wrong. Equally wrong and unprincipled is any government that seeks to condone such conduct in the name of respecting the sovereignty of a nation that so blatantly disregards human rights.
This week, as we celebrate Human Rights day, it will ring hollow if we are shy as a society to call on the government of Uganda to reverse this immoral piece of legislation and ensure that we call their acts of disregard for our common humanity by their real name: evil.
In the current debate over the expression of human sexuality, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa experiences the same tensions within our own ranks as the Anglican Communion does internationally.
We have two polarities: those who believe homosexual relationships are not permitted by the Bible and others who believe that we should treat same-sex unions in the same way as we do heterosexual relationships. In addition, in South Africa – although not in other southern African countries in our church’s jurisdiction – our constitution permits same-sex marriage and protects the rights of gay and lesbian people .
Our approach as the church is similar to what we did during the apartheid era, when our church was deeply divided on a range of issues, ranging from the ways in which we fought apartheid to questions such as whether to ordain women as priests.
We don’t believe the issues of sexuality are so fundamental that they should divide the people of faith. Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered are God’s people, created in God’s image, just as heterosexual people are, and in our church we are committed to dialogue with one another over how we respond to the challenge of ministering to all of God’s people.
As a consequence of our experience under apartheid – when the state outlawed marriage between people of different races – we jealously guard our right as the church to decide whom we shall and shall not marry. It is not for any state, either, to compel or prohibit the church from administering the Christian sacrament of marriage.
The church is not perfect in dealing with these difficult challenges. Given our constitution, which has stood the test of time, we can only offer the world and our counterparts in Uganda and other parts of the continent our own model of dealing with difference: patient dialogue in which we wrestle with difficult issues for as long as takes to reach consensus. We emphasise that this is an offer to act as a bridge for communication – we cannot, neither do we wish to, impose our model on anyone.
This, however, does not mean that where we see wrong we will not speak out. In 2010, the Synod of Bishops of the Church of Southern Africa recorded its concern at Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill and said it saw the bill as a gross violation of human rights.
Our Synod said at the time: “As bishops we believe that it is immoral to permit or support oppression of, or discrimination against, people on the grounds of their sexual orientation, and contrary to the teaching of the gospel; particularly Jesus’s command that we should love one another as he has loved us, without distinction (John 13:34-35).
“We commit ourselves to teach, preach and act against any laws that undermine human dignity and oppress any and all minorities, even as we call for Christians and all people to uphold the standards of holiness of life.”
Although that bill was amended – in particular by removing the death penalty as a punishment for certain acts – we remain deeply concerned at the law, as enacted recently by President Museveni. It continues to brand homosexuality – defined as “same gender or same-sex sexual acts” – as an offence. In its definition of the offence, it includes not only homosexual sex but says a person “commits the offence of homosexuality if… he or she touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.”
Touching is defined as including touching “(a) with any part of the body; (b) with anything else; (c) through anything…” Offenders under this section of the law are “liable, on conviction, to imprisonment for life.”
Moreover, a person who “attempts to commit the offence of homosexuality” or anyone who “aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality” is liable to imprisonment for seven years. The same penalty is imposed on “a person who purports to contract a marriage with another person of the same sex” or a person who “conducts a marriage ceremony between persons of the same sex”.
The persecution of anybody, including minorities, is wrong. All human beings are created in the image of God and therefore must be treated with respect and accorded human dignity. As our Synod of Bishops said in 2010, we are deeply concerned about the violent language often used against the gay community and we appeal to lawmakers to defend the rights of these minorities.
The response of the South African government was at best meek – the fact that these atrocities are committed in 38 other countries is no excuse to speak in muted tones where we are supposed to speak out and rally other countries to highlight the plight of those who are suffering at the hands of governments that are determined to trample their rights. The same way we expected others to speak out against apartheid, we need to speak out when it is our turn to show solidarity with others who are similarly oppressed.
We call for an intensification of the dialogue over our response as Christians to the debate over human sexuality, within Africa and in the wider faith community.
And as we wrestle with the theological, moral and legal issues of the debate, our behaviour towards one another must be modelled on the imperative to love our neighbours as ourselves.