The Anglican Communion rebukes American, Canadian and Scottish churches that stray from its party line against same-sex marriage, but remains silent as conservative African churches ignore the Communion’s call for an end to homophobic prejudice, violence and criminal laws targeting LGBT people.
LGBTI equality activist the Rev. Colin Coward challenged those positions in a talk at last week’s Intimate Conviction conference in Jamaica.
The Oct. 12-13 conference focused on the role that churches played in supporting anti-sodomy laws in the former British Empire and potential roles for repealing those laws in the 36 Commonwealth countries that have retained them.
Coward was one of a group of LGBTI rights activists; Anglican bishops, priests and lay members; many other denominations’ ministers and lay representatives; plus Jamaican residents with varied views about same-sex intimacy who attended the conference — about 5o people overall.
Coward’s remarks focused on how the Anglican Communion, composed of churches that descended from the Church of England, has treated its progressive provinces differently from the conservative ones that belong to GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Conference.
These were Coward’s remarks, which he made as a member of the panel on “Building an Ecumenical Dialogue for Decriminalization”:
For the first twenty-two years of my life in the UK, homosexual sexual activity was illegal. Fortunately I didn’t know that when I was playing around with other boys at school. Later, when I was 16, and the curate at my church seduced me sexually, I did know. I knew that if I reported what he was doing, he was likely to end up in prison and I would be humiliated. I kept silent. That’s one of the effects of the criminalisation of homosexuality. People, young and old, live in abusive cultures. To change the culture from within is almost impossible. That is why this conference is so vitally important.
I have spent the last twenty-six years of my life trying to change the culture of the Church of England from within. I have observed the changing attitudes in my church and of the Anglican Communion to homosexuality, some positive, many negative.
I have lived through two decades when constant warfare has raged in the church over my sexuality, a war instigated by those who hold to the conviction that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and stipulates that sexual intimacy between two people of the same sex is an abomination.
At their meeting in Canterbury in January 2016 the Primates agreed to condemn homophobic prejudice and violence. They reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people. They recognised that the Christian church has often acted in a way towards LGBTI people in ways that have caused deep hurt.
But actions speak louder than words. Two weeks ago the Diocese of Sydney, a member of the GAFCON group, donated $1 million to the campaign opposing marriage equality in Australia. The Archbishop of Canterbury declined to write a statement of support for this conference. It probably didn’t occur to him to appoint a bishop to officially represent him here. The continuing hostile actions and the failure to implement the commitment to oppose criminalisation are signs of failure, Gospel failure to raise up the broken-hearted and proclaim God’s Kingdom of justice for all people.
The GAFCON axis has an intimidating effect on the Archbishops and bishops of the Church of England. This has compromised my church’s ability to make progress in step with the dramatically changed social attitudes and legal protection and equality in UK society. GAFCON Provinces refuse to observe the statements agreed at Primates’ meeting opposing the criminalization and oppression of LGBTI people. Unlike the Provinces of the US, Canada and Scotland, where sanctions have been imposed as a result of their decisions to recognise marriage equality, sanctions are never imposed on the GAFCON Provinces.
The Primates of every Anglican Province have already, in theory, committed themselves to oppose criminalisation, and therefore, presumably, to support movements working to remove laws that criminalise LGBTI people. How can further progress be made, how can the Primates be encouraged to implement their commitment?
In England, I have witnessed how social and legal change is effected as people are sensitised and educated thanks to media attention paid, initially to campaigns opposed to anti-gay legislation, then to the injustice perpetrated against LGBTI people, and eventually to coverage of the lives and experience of gay people as members of society for whom equal dignity and protection is a given.
In countries like Nigeria and Uganda, thanks to the introduction of anti-gay marriage and anti-homosexuality legislation, a public conversation has been initiated thanks to widespread media and social network coverage. Eventually, as in the UK and other countries, this conversation will lead to growing awareness, dawning understanding, and diminishing prejudice leading to decriminalization.
We have to work using the same process – initiating and encouraging public conversations and growing understanding and awareness that will eventually lead to diminishing prejudice.
My own conviction is that God is unconditional, infinite, intimate love. Conservative Christian theology tends to be rooted in a belief that God’s love is conditional, restricted to those who conform to so-called ‘orthodox’, traditional dogma and teaching. The Christian dispute about human sexuality is at root a dispute about the nature of God.
If I am right in my conviction, and God’s love is universal and unconditional, I question whether the hostile stance to LGBTI people held by GAFCON and other conservative networks can be described as Christian.
We need to take personal responsibility for building networks with allies, identifying people who are open and aware as well as with those hostile to LGBTI people, building an international network to share information, provide support and education and strengthen alliances between denominations and Christian and other faith networks.
The Rev. Colin Coward is an Anglican priest and the founder of the Changing Attitude advocacy group, which campaigned for equality for LGBTI people in ministry and relationships in the Church of England. Earlier this year, it merged with LGCM (formerly the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement) and became OneBodyOneFaith. In 2014, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Coward an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his work.
Related articles about the conference:
- Beyond Sodom: A biblical case for repealing sodomy laws (October 2017, 76crimes.com)
- Taking aim at anti-LGBT laws dating back to Henry VIII (October 2017, 76crimes.com)
- Church leaders target anti-gay laws; conservatives protest (October 2017, 76crimes.com)