The Jeffrey John affair has pushed the Church of England’s domestic sex wars on to the world stage in a new way. Homosexuality is, perhaps unconsciously, the chosen vehicle for a conflict that is really about many other things – not least how the Bible should be interpreted in a 21st-century world of global capitalism which over-rewards a lucky few while impoverishing the many. The row touches on issues of race, gender, culture and sexuality in a combination that could be fatal for the Anglican communion.
International ecclesiastical politics mirror international secular politics, and the units of power – money and power – are the same in both cases. The Church of England is asset-rich and cash poor, with adherents thin on the ground; by contrast, Anglicanism in the southern hemisphere is people-rich but relatively cash poor, and in the US it is relatively rich on all fronts. But while the Episcopal Church in America and the Church of England are riven with internal division, Anglican leaders in the developing world seem able to present their communities as monochrome and united. At least for now.
Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, for instance, who wrote a vitriolic piece attacking lesbians, gay men and their supporters in Church Times last July, is often assumed (incorrectly) by Christians in the UK to speak for the whole African continent. But his mistake is to refuse to acknowledge that sexual diversity is universal, not simply a product of western capitalism. Indeed, others familiar with contemporary African societies know that same-sex sexual activity is as common there as it is in Europe and America.
The difference comes in how this activity is conceptualised, and how open people are about it. Only a tiny minority embrace a lifestyle that would be recognised as “gay” in the west. For the vast majority of people in Africa, refusing marriage and a pro creative life-pattern is simply not a possibility; survival depends on being part of an extended family. Ironically, though, early Christian missionaries were shocked by the homoerotic activity they encountered among African cultures, and worked hard to stamp it out.
The real underlying question is, who gets to define “reality” within the Anglican communion – the ecclesiastical representatives of western capitalist nations, or those from the two-thirds world? The big temptation for the communion is to iron out this macro-conflict by uniting around the oppression of sexual minorities. This may bring short-term peace, but it is not a viable long-term solution.
And the Church of England should know, for it is currently reaping the whirlwind of just such a misguided strategy. Some 12 years ago, faced by a possible schism over homosexuality, it shelved the whole debate. Issues In Human Sexuality, the discussion document that declared itself “not the final word on the issue” became, in effect, the final word. Heterosexism and homophobia tightened their grip within the institution.
The appointment and “resignation” of Jeffrey John have given the debate a new impetus, but now the backdrop is a society that has made huge strides towards lesbian and gay equality. The Church of England has been exposed as a ridiculously out-of-date defender of institutional discrimination, and the Anglican communion looks set to go the same way.
There is an alternative. When putting together the post-apartheid constitution for South Africa, the ANC recognised that justice is indivisible, and outlawed discrimination on grounds of race, gender and sexuality.
It is no coincidence that Desmond Tutu, and his successor archbishop of Cape Town, have both championed the rights of gay and lesbian people. They know that you cannot build the liberation of some on the oppression of others. They know, too, that disenfranchised people usually become less silent and more powerful with time. Anglican primates take note.
Alison Webster is social responsibility adviser for the Oxford diocese