African woman holding anti-homosexuality sign

A few weeks ago the Government of Nigeria passed legislation forbidding same-sex relationships. This post asks how British and American Anglicans should respond.

The main provisions of the legislation are:
Up to 14 years’ imprisonment for people in same-sex relationships;
Up to 10 years for anyone who ‘directly or indirectly’ shows same-sex affection in public; and
Up to 10 years for anyone who participates in an organisation that works to protect gay rights.

Critical responses include a petition and an article by Savitri Hensman.

In Nigeria the legislation is very popular; the Pew Research findings show how greatly public opinion varies from one part of the world to another. Among Nigerian Anglicans perhaps it is also an opportunity to wave two fingers at Britain and the USA. Time was when we colonised one African country after another and imposed our Christianity onto the inhabitants. Along with our Christianity came lots of our values and customs, including the ban on same-sex partnerships which they accepted. Later, after much struggle, they got their independence. Now we are telling them that we got some of our values wrong, and expecting them to follow our lead once again. I can see why Africans like the idea of telling us to get lost.

For Anglicans, superimposed on this is a more recent story, the one about threats of schism and the proposed Anglican Covenant. It was an attempt by anti-gay lobbyists to ban same-sex partnerships across the worldwide Anglican Communion. Although the Anglican Covenant has been defeated, the controversy has changed the international situation.

  • It generated a string of official statements which have not been repealed, mainly Primates’ Statements and the infamous Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. These statements had to be sufficiently nuanced to keep all church leaders on board. They therefore provide both sides with an arsenal of weapons to fire against each other.
  • It polarised international Anglican opinion around the issue of gay and lesbian people. GAFCON was formed, an international organisation which has grand ambitions but in effect functions as a single-issue pressure group opposing same-sex partnerships.
  • The ‘Global South’ provinces were positively encouraged to take a more active leadership role in international Anglicanism. They can hardly be expected to abandon it as soon as the British and Americans decide they don’t like the smell of reverse imperialism.

So the debate continues. The Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, has stated (Nigeria Tribune, 28 January 2014) that those in same-sex marriages are questioning God’s authority and ‘heading for destruction’.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to the other primates, and to the presidents of Nigeria and Uganda (where similar legislation has been debated) quoting the Primates’ Statement of 2005 that urged pastoral support of everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. GAFCON replied by quoting Resolution 1.10. So did the Archbishop of Uganda, Stanley Ntagali.

This war of quotations could carry on for ever; there are now plenty of documents with the official stamp of Anglican approval, available to suit all tastes. Nobody is going to convince anyone this way.

I wonder whether anyone is even trying. Quoting texts like this is the kind of thing you do if you are struggling for power. The question at stake is: ‘Whose voice is the legitimate voice of Anglicanism?’ If, on the other hand, you want to know the truth – if you would actually like to know whether same-sex partnerships are or are not morally acceptable – this is not the kind of debate you would engage in at all.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a medical analogy. Let’s say medical researchers are divided about whether cancer of the pancreas is caused by x or y, and it makes all the difference to what kind of treatment is safe and would work. So some official body – let’s call it the Medical Association - arranges a meeting of all the researchers. They give every researcher one vote. The x supporters win by 55% to 45%. On the basis of this vote, the Medical Association then decrees that from that day on, all cancer researchers are to accept that cancer of the pancreas is caused by x. All research on it is to stop. The matter is settled once and for all.

They wouldn’t do it like that, would they? It would be utterly absurd. There would be a public outcry, not least from cancer patients. The only sensible response to the disagreement is to keep the research going. The x supporters and y supporters need to spend more time listening to each other and studying the strengths and weakesses of each position, until a consensus is reached.

That’s how to do it. Forget the official statements. It doesn’t matter what archbishops think, unless they have some expertise on the matter. We should be listening to each other, explaining why we believe what we believe, and working together to seek a common mind, using all the relevant research findings.

I would dearly love to persuade the Archbishop of Nigeria that he’s wrong, but he isn’t going to listen to me – especially as I’m British. If anyone persuades him, it will have to be a persuasion based, not on a quarrel over whose voice is the legitimate voice of Anglicanism, but on an honest search for truth.