March 12 marks the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women priests within the Church of England. Yet while today marks one milestone, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people remain second-class citizens.
Next year the Anglican bishops from around the world will meet for the Lambeth Conference. Except that a tranche of them, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, will boycott the event because of the toleration (as they see it) some churches show towards ungodly behaviour.
In their eyes, this is because the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States (and one or two others) have welcomed and included LGBT+ people in the life and ministry of their churches and support equal marriage.
The Archbishop of Canterbury sits poised anxiously and uncomfortably on the fence between these two blocks.
He doesn’t want to be seen as being nasty to the gays, but he doesn’t want to be the man on whose watch the Anglican Communion (the loose worldwide federation of Anglican churches) falls apart terminally. He daren’t offend the anti-gay churches by being seen to be too supportive of the English LGBT+ faithful and their frustrated cries for inclusion.
So the LGBT+ community faces oppression for the sake of a greater goal – inter-church unity.
This Anglican Communion only exists because of British colonialism. As the empire spanned the globe, so too did the Church of England. And after some time, indigenous churches sprang up along the Church of England model. This is not all the story – Scotland and the United States have a close relationship and an entirely independent route through history into this family of independent reformed catholic churches. But the dominant influence was churches being established on the coat tails of British [colonialism].
Those colonial churches have been independent for many years. They are in places where the British introduced harsh laws against homosexuality. The majority of the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations criminalise sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex, and other forms of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.
Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in 35 of the 53 sovereign states of the Commonwealth and legal in only 18.
This has been described as being the legacy of the British Empire. In most cases, it was former colonial administrators that established anti-gay legislation or sodomy acts during the 19th century and even earlier. The majority of countries have retained these laws following independence.
Due to the common origin of historical penal codes in many former British colonies, the prohibition of homosexual acts, specifically anal sex between men, is provided for in Section 377 in the penal codes of 42 former British colonies, many of whom are today members of the Commonwealth.
Perhaps, then, LGBT+ Christians and their allies in the Church of England should give some attention to this toxic legacy. We should be supporting the work of groups like the Human Dignity Trust. Changing the law in these Commonwealth countries requires lawyers who will work to get this done – they need our support. It is work that needs to be done for its own sake.
However, when decriminalisation arrives in, for example, Uganda, Kenya or Nigeria, then it will start to put real pressure on, for example, Uganda’s churches to change their homophobic tune. Those Anglican churches that are most virulently anti-gay are also financed and resourced by extreme conservative Christians from the United States.
These links also need exposing and breaking.
It might also free the Archbishop of Canterbury from the bind he now finds himself in and help him to do the right thing by the many LGBT+ members of his own church who are tired of being second-class Christians.
By Jeremy Pemberton
Jeremy Pemberton is a former canon in the Church of England who, in 2014, became the first priest to marry his same-sex partner.
All opinions are the writer’s own (first published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation).