The Archbishop of Canterbury has made public statements that reveal at best a lamentable naiveté and at worst both homophobia and colonial thinking. Archbishop Justin Welby has claimed that the Church of England — if it marries gay and lesbian people in England — is responsible for the deaths of homosexuals in Africa.
The archbishop was shown the mass grave of Christians from a village in Africa, killed, he was told because their neighbors did not want to become gay by association with people whose religion supported rights for LGBT people. It is clear that the archbishop was shocked by the brutality behind this mass murder and the very scale of the killing. I too am overwhelmed by it. In the face of tragedies larger than a human can take in, I think we often go to answers and solutions that we know, that are familiar. Here, I think the archbishop fell back on a solution that was already unjust, but familiar to him: retrench around marriage as only between a woman and a man. Don’t inflame violent people further.
Welby’s argument is parallel to saying that the segregation laws in the United States that obtained until the mid-60s and the disenfranchisement of women in the United States until the 20th Century should have both been continued if someone claimed that blacks and women in other countries would be endangered by moves towards greater justice here.
In a very simple world, with very few variables perhaps we could credit archbishop Welby’s reasoning. If the only factor in the safety of African LGBT people was the maintenance of unjust laws in England and the United States, I hope we would all pause to absorb this and see what could be done about it. But our world is an exceedingly complex place and the archbishop’s simplistic logic only privileges the colonial power position Great Britain once held with respect to her now-vanished empire — the Africans pay close attention to everything the center of the empire thinks and does.
Instead, Africa is a continent of countries, each with its own history apart from and intertwined with former European empire masters. Surely there are at least as many factors at work within Africa itself influencing the safety of LGBT people (and Christians in general, as Welby argues) that counterbalance whatever focus Africans may have on England.
The archbishop could be helpfully involved in Africa on behalf of the safety of vulnerable LGBT people if he wished to be, and in ways that did not continue the oppression of LGBT people in the United Kingdom. He could support the ministry of retired Bishop Christopher Senyonjo in Uganda, a courageous and nearly lone voice in the religious leadership of that country. Archbishop Welby could speak clearly to the Churches in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria among others about their open support of legislation that criminalizes even the very being of LGBT people.
If I am right and empire thinking underlies the archbishop’s remarks, his proposed way forward — continue to oppress LGBT people in the UK — will fail to keep Africans safe for this reason: if Africa is watching the UK as closely as the archbishop would have us all believe, then they will not miss that the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion is on the side of continued second-class citizenship for LGBT people.
Twice in the hour-long phone-in program in which the archbishop made his remarks, Archbishop Welby used the modifier “incredibly” to describe how the Church must attend to the witness of the LGBT community — listen incredibly carefully and be incredibly conscious. To remember a great line from The Princess Bride, I’m not sure the archbishop knows what incredible attentiveness means.
We should remember that the archbishop has made his views on same-gender marriage clear. In an address to the House of Lords he reiterated, as he did in the radio interview most recently that marriage is a sacred institution reserved for heterosexuals. In fact, in this most recent interview the Guardian wrote that the archbishop did not want LGBT people to be treated with any greater severity than adulterous heterosexuals are treated. The core idea here if anyone cares to look closely is that same-gender relationships are sinful.
Today, local media in the diocese I serve showed one of my priests — a partnered, gay man — being led away by law enforcement officers for an act of civil disobedience on behalf of immigrants in danger of deportation. Such acts on the side of justice are, I’m happy to say, commonplace in this diocese, done all the time by gay and straight folks. Faithful, rather than sinful seems a better word to describe this priest and the many like him here.
Archbishop Welby asserts that marriage should be only between a man and a woman, and says that scripture supports his position. I would hope for a better reader of scripture in the spiritual head of our Church. Let me point to this coming Sunday’s gospel, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, in the Gospel of John as a good place to look for guidance on the issue of the safety of Christians, both straight and LGBT in Africa and elsewhere.
Jesus is so deeply moved — by the death of his friend, by the oppression of his people, by the suffering of the world — that he risks everything to go to the cave where Lazarus is buried to raise him back to life. Thomas says, “Let us go with him and die.” In order to raise Lazarus from the dead Jesus has to go right into the turbulent political waters in and around Jerusalem, where his life is danger, and where he will shortly be betrayed, tortured and killed.
This courage and compassion should be my guide, and I suggest our guide as we identify with Christ, as Christians. There are other scripture passages that might point us to how to view the question of same-gender marriage; the raising of Lazarus from the dead gives us guidance on how we should act when we confront injustice, evil and sin.