Gays in the Church
A book examining homosexuality in the global church offers new perspectives on familiar debates.
By Puck Purnell
When Terry Brown, Bishop of Malaita and Senior Bishop of the Church of the Province of Melanesia, felt “the shock of the 1998 Lambeth Conference plenary debate and resolution unambiguously declaring any homosexual practice incompatible with Scripture and, therefore, a sin,” he decided to canvass the globe in order to understand the extent to which homosexual practice actually occurs in indigenous cultures.
The result was “Other Voices, Other Worlds,” a collection of 24 essays by writers of stature, some with ecclesiastical responsibility, all thoughtful and filled with compassion, that offers a rich and varied view of homosexuality throughout the world and in the church.
Many within as well as outside the Anglican Communion assume the current controversy centered on homosexuality in the Church (specifically the ordination of gay and lesbians and same sex marriage) is a north/south issue. The evidence presented here tells us that the proportion of homosexuals around the world is fairly consistent and that the various communities address the issue of homosexuality according to local expectation, experience, and custom.
In one essay, “Putting Right a Great Wrong: A Southern African Perspective,” John Matshikiza, one of South Africa’s best known journalists, is quoted by contributor David Russell, retired Bishop of Grahamstown, Church of the Providence of Southern Africa and former Dean of the Province, as saying, “the gay phenomenon exists everywhere—much to the chagrin of those who would piously claim that being gay is a European-imported disease.”
“Other Voices, Other Worlds” is filled with fascinating cultural facts. For instance, the Lakota, whose leadership happens to be female, speak in two distinct ways—women’s Lakota or slow Lakota, and Men’s Lakota or fast Lakota. In the Lakota culture, if a child expresses gender confusion a family ceremony helps the five- or six-year old choose his orientation. If the boy tends to the feminine, he learns to speak Women’s Lakota. According to Martin Brokenleg, “The gender role for ‘men-who-speak-with-women’s-grammar’ is broadly defined as that of a Lakota woman…A wi’i’nkte is defined as different and, as such, sacred.”
Brokenleg, Director of the Native Ministries and Professor of First Nations Theology at the Vancouver School of Theology, observes that Christian missionaries had a hard time with Lakota sexuality, both in the natural acceptance of female gender identification by some men and with the notion of several women sharing a man. Ultimately, the patriarchal missionaries could not deal with the fact that because there were more Lakota women than men, women were considered more valuable—a practical solution to a social reality.
In Oceania, regarding Leiti (men who identify themselves as women), Winston Halapau, Bishop for Polynesia in New Zealand/Aotearoa writes, “Members of this distinct community are not deprived of their roles in village communal life or of their rights or privileges to contribute their gifts as baptised Christians.” Halapau goes on: “Within an Oceanic worldview, the right of belonging embraces people irrespective of sexual orientation.”
Aruna Gnanadason, a member of the Church of India who works for the World Council of Churches, proclaims, “The church has for so long tended to ignore the gay and lesbian community, including gays and lesbians in its own body.” The presence of gays and lesbians in the Church of India, however, is undisputed. In that country, the struggle for recognition and acceptance is the same justice issue seen else where around the world.
Muslim ideas about homosexuality are also presented. The Qur’an specifically condemns homosexuality and being openly gay or lesbian in an Islamic country is extremely dangerous. Curiously, however, we learn that Turkey, a secular Islamic nation, has no prohibition against the practice. Stuart E. Brown’s enlightening article, “Muslim Attitudes On Homosexuality,” provides an important and too easily neglected, context for what happens culturally regarding homosexuality among the Muslim faithful. What we realize is that Christians are blissfully naïve if they insulate themselves on the world stage from Islamic views.
If the Episcopal Church USA is the lightning rod for homosexual issues in the Anglican Communion (along with some dioceses of the Anglican Church in Canada), northern Nigeria is the lightning bolt itself.
Not surprisingly, we learn that Nigeria does, in fact, have gay and lesbian citizens, although there is no mention of Changing Attitude of Nigeria and their leader, Davis MacIyalla, whose group staged a convention of some 800 gay and lesbian church-goers in November of 2005. The plight of homosexuals in Nigeria is dismal; according to contributor Rowland Jide Macaulay, a pastor with the Metropolitan Community Church, North London, “Traditionally, homosexuality is associated with an evil spirit, a demon that must be cast out of the person.”
Macaulay tells us that “If you are openly gay and profess to be a Christian, this assertion will be seen as a serious commission of sin that cannot be forgiven; homosexuality, as far as the churches in Nigeria are concerned, is an unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.” Macaulay further reports that Peter Akinola, Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria’s 25-million-member church, regards homosexuals as lower than beasts.
Macaulay’s essay provides a brief but very useful introduction to the cultural circumstances of Nigeria and the conservative nature of the church. Although Christianity is rapidly growing in the south of the country, it competes head-to-head with Islam in the north. One result is a fundamentalist theological interpretation of scripture combined with unflinching intolerance (presumably in part to match the Islamic fundamentalism and local tradition). He also details the governmental attitude towards homosexuals and the many dangers for homosexuals in Nigeria. After reading the essay, it is not difficult to understand where Archbishop Akinola is coming from, like it or not.
David Russell and others point out the all too obvious irony that some in the Church espouse following the Jesus of Scripture while also acting as Christian Pharisees by excluding homosexuals, the modern equivalent of prostitutes and tax collectors, from equality in the church: “While preaching God’s love for all people, the dominant tradition asserts that any and all homosexual practice is sinful.”
Humberto Maiztegui, Old Testament professor at Egmont Machado Krischke Seminary in Porto Alegre, Brazil, asks, “What kind of witness are we to be—a witness to exclusion or a witness to inclusion?”
On the one hand these essays tell us what we already know. On the other, they offer to those unconvinced yet one more opportunity to consider that Spirit is a dynamic and ever-acting power among us, and that that scripture and tradition should not automatically trump reason.
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