Justin Welby and that radio phone-in…

Justin Welby - RadioIt is now almost 2 weeks since the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby linked acceptance of same-sex relationships with the murder of Christians in Africa.

“I’ve stood by a grave side in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far far away in America, and they were attacked by other people because of that and a lot of them had been killed.  We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact” he said.

Asked about why conducting same-sex marriages in the CofE can’t be left to the conscience of individual clergy he said, “Well, why can’t we just do it now? Because, the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic.”

He then finished the interview by reiterating the threat of violence by quoting the attackers, What was said is ‘if we leave a Christian community in this area’…I’m quoting them, this is not obviously something I think…’if we leave a Christian community in this area we will all be made to become homosexual and so we’re going to kill the Christians’. The mass grave had 369 bodies in it and I was standing with the relatives. That burns itself into your soul, as does the suffering of gay people in this country.”

While there was an immediate chorus of disapproval from many commentators, others found themselves stunned into silence at the enormity of the charge. Could it be that by accepting and blessing same-sex relationships, we would be condemning large numbers of Christians to death?

It was not the first time that I had heard of Justin Welby making such a connection.  I was told some days before of him making exactly the same link in an answer to children in a school visit.  Presumably the point had hit home there, and so he thought it was ready to be broadcast on a wider stage, but what played well in a school did not play well in the media.  The echoes of his statements have been reverberating around the UK and indeed the world ever since.

The effect has been felt most keenly in the United States, not least because he appeared to blame the mass grave which he visited on events ‘far, far away in America.’  During his visit there last week, he was asked to clarify his comments and asked to justify the linkage he was making, but without success.

At the bottom of the controversy there appear to be 3 issues at play:

1.   How accurate is the assessment which Justin Welby has given?

There have been many who have questioned the accuracy of the assertion he made.  This has not been helped by the Archbishop refusing to give any more information about the mass grave he was taken to.  Was it is Sudan or Nigeria or perhaps somewhere else?  Who told him that these Christians were killed because of church acceptance of sexuality, and was that true?  Unfortunately, without more information, there is no way to assess the validity of the claim.

The Episcopal Café website in the USA has noted that “secular human rights groups have documented many massacres in Sudan and Nigeria, and attributed none to the actions of gay-friendly churches”.

Similarly on this side of the Atlantic, Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow commented that , “The tone of the Archbishop’s answers seemed to be that we needed to trust him on this because he was right” and also lamented the fact that “He has also said that he won’t provide any evidence to back up what he is saying.”

The sad truth is that mass violence in many parts of Africa is commonplace.  Recent events in both South Sudan and Nigeria have demonstrated this and this month’s anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda is a grim reminder of how far such violence can go.  The reasons for violence are complex and deep rooted.  History, tribal and religious identity, as well as politics, and the actions of political leaders all have their part to play.  At the end of the day, men of violence will always find an excuse to justify their violence, but that does not mean the excuse given is the true cause.

2.   Even if it is true, should we give in to people of violence?

This is always a difficult question.  Our instinct is to protect the vulnerable whatever the cost, and if it were some abstract issue which did not affect the lives of real people, then perhaps we should take a step back, rather than expose others to unnecessary risk.

But attitudes to LGBT people and their relationships are not abstract issues, and indeed, LGBT people also suffer greatly from violence and even murder by those who like to use violence in Africa and elsewhere.  The growth of so-called ‘corrective rape’ against women accused of being lesbians also demonstrates the flimsy nature of such excuses for violence.

Yet the same African Bishops who warn of the danger to Christians if the Church of England blesses same-sex relationships are often the ones who have supported new draconian laws against LGBT people and their support groups.  By doing so, they fuel the atmosphere of suspicion, discrimination and violence against that community while doing little or nothing to challenge the ill conceived fears on sexuality in their own congregations.

The civil rights movement in the USA and elsewhere has always had to face down the threats of those bent on perpetrating violence.  While it is wrong to ignore the threat of violence, it is also wrong to simply bow to its pressure.

3.    How should the church proceed in the light of all this?

The best and most balanced analysis of what Justin Welby should have said is reproduced below.  Sadly, it may well be discounted by many simply because of who wrote it – you can find out who it is by following the link at the end.  It recognizes the dilemma which the Anglican Communion faces, while also making clear statements about the principles on which we must build.

‘So how might the Archbishop have responded differently? Perhaps something like this: “Look, the church must consider many things in discerning whether a change is warranted in our consideration of blessing the marriages of same-sex couples: what scriptures says, how the church’s historical understanding has developed, and our own experience of gay couples’ relationships. We are in the midst of that discernment right now. In addition, we must always be aware that our decisions here in England are being watched by the world’s 80 million Anglicans and their enemies; sometimes being used as an irrational and unwarranted excuse by those enemies for violence against Christians. I have seen the graves of those who have suffered because of these unjust and irrational connections between LGBT people and murder, and it breaks my heart.

Even so, we cannot give in to the violent acts of bullies and must discern and then pursue God’s will for all of God’s children. Violence and murder of Christians is deplorable, but so is violence against and murder of LGBT people. And as the spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, permit me to point out, it is not helpful for some of our own Anglican archbishops, bishops and clergy to join in support of anti-gay legislation and rhetoric in their own countries, thereby fueling the hatred and violence against innocent LGBT people, who are being criminalized and murdered for who they are. These are complicated issues, and with God’s guidance, we will discern what is right to say and do.”’

For the author’s name – follow this link

Let us know your thoughts.

Benny Hazlehurst