With Friends Like These

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Although I disagree with Archbishop Peter Jensen’s views on homosexuality, he has every right to them and I have no doubt they are sincerely held. One may debate the role of gay men and lesbians within the church – indeed, as Jesus Christ said not one word on the subject, it is a topic that is eminently debatable.

But what truly disturbs me is the company he keeps in his stubborn battle to bring the Anglican Communion back into line with his way of thinking, namely his allies in the African Church – the Anglican Archbishops of Uganda, Central Africa and Nigeria.

As Archbishop of the diocese of Sydney and Metropolitan of the church province of New South Wales, Jensen is among the most influential Western leaders to support the conservative wing of the Anglican Communion, the so-called Global South, that has threatened to split the Church unless the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of those in committed same-sex relationships by liberal diocese is halted and reversed. Note that the liberals are not asking to force their policy on conservative diocese.

Between them, Jensen’s allies in Uganda, Central Africa and Nigeria hold sway over nearly half the world’s Anglicans, and their leadership on the issue of homosexuality has gone far beyond any Christian or conservative’s call of duty.

In Uganda, where homosexual acts between consenting adults can result in life imprisonment, Archbishop Henry Orombi has excommunicated members of pro-gay Anglican groups – including ministers and even a bishop – for campaigning for the mere decriminalisation of homosexuality. Orombi has stood idly by as Government ministers have called for homosexuals to be cast out of the country and threatened to expel NGOs for providing safe-sex and AIDS education to Ugandan gays.

The Most Reverend Dr Bernard Malango, Archbishop of the Diocese of Central Africa (all of which’s member states criminalise homosexuality) and until 2007 a protector of the Reverend Norbert Kunonga, one of Robert Mugabe’s closest allies, has sat silently while Zimbabwe has unleashed wave after wave of persecution against homosexuals and banned even hugging and hand-holding between people of the same sex.

But worst of all of Jensen’s allies in the Global South is Peter Jasper Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria.

For many years, homosexuality has attracted a sentence of 14 years imprisonment under Nigerian national law and, in the Muslim north of the country, the death penalty by stoning under Sharia. Then, in a wave of panic following South Africa’s 2006 legalisation of same-sex marriage, the Nigerian Government under then President Olusegun Obasanjo drew up the Prohibition of Relationships Between Persons of the Same Sex, Celebration of Marriage by Them, and for Other Matters Connected Therewith Bill – one of the most draconian pieces of legislation ever raised against a minority in human history.

Obasanjo, a former military dictator voted back into power in 1999, is a Christian of Yoruba extraction (as is Akinola) and his People’s Democratic Party relies heavily on the support of Nigeria’s large Anglican community for its grip on power.

The proposed law not only bans same-sex marriage, but makes entering into one, performing one, or attending one as a guest – whether inside or outside Nigeria – a very real crime with a penalty of five years imprisonment.

It also criminalises any public sympathy for gay causes; the founding or membership of groups aimed at changing laws that target gays; the renting or selling of property to gays; the renting, making, owning, selling, or viewing of any document, publication, film or other media concerning homosexuality, whether fiction or non-fiction; and the provision of safe sex information to homosexuals.

It bans heterosexuals from associating with homosexuals and homosexuals from associating with each other, and even outlaws the taking or possessing of photographs of gay and lesbian individuals – all with a possible penalty of five years in prison.

The Bill is nothing short of a pogrom against gay men and lesbians in Nigeria and an attack on the democratic rights of all Nigerians, whether straight or gay, yet it has been agitated for by Akinola and the Nigerian Church at every step since its first drafting in 2005.

Only national elections and condemnation from the European Parliament and US politicians have halted the passage of the Bill, which has been approved by the Nigerian Federal Executive Council and tabled with its National Assembly.

And with the People’s Democratic Party still in power under Obasanjo’s successor Umaru Yar’Adua, the Bill may be moved forward again.

It is one thing to have deeply held reservations about what role homosexuals should play within the Church, but it is another thing altogether to deny them the very right to exist. Jensen does not appear to believe that homosexuality should be illegal, nor that they should be treated differently under the law (at least as single people).

Yet throughout, Jensen has been silent on his allies’ role in the persecution of gay men and lesbians in what remains the most homophobic continent on Earth – where gay rights are commonly presented as a Western plot and homosexuality discussed as if it were indistinguishable from rape and paedophilia.

Rather than confront these human rights violations head on while retaining a conservative stance on human sexuality, Jensen has chosen to stand next to these men on the international stage while they fan flames of persecution and bigotry at home.

And why? Jensen touched on the issue recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, writing: "The [ordination of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson]affected churches around the world."

"In particular," he continued, "the churches of the Global South had to own the name ‘Anglican’ while living in societies where the actions of the Americans were condemned by all, especially Muslims. The action of some North Americans severely hurt the witness of these churches."

In other words, Anglicanism in Africa is locked in a bitter struggle for souls with Islam and other Christian denominations, and acceptance of gays by liberal Anglicans taints them in the eyes of a homophobic African public and hampers the conversion process.

But with allies like these, any successes Jensen has may well turn out to be pyrrhic with the verdict of history.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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