I am an advocate for open and accepting churches, and would recommend that every diocese should have an ongoing ministry and chaplaincy for same-sex persons which will find best practices in the art of accompaniment for our brothers and sisters in their journey of faith. However, I hold on to my Christian and African conviction that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
“The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”
With these words the primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion came down with a clear affirmation of the traditional definition of marriage. The church leaders also acknowledged that ‘the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt’ and expressed ‘their profound sorrow’ for all forms of homophobia. They also affirmed that “every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the Church should never by its actions give any other impression.” The leaders went on to state their commitment to being open and accepting of homosexual persons and to ‘work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation.” This conviction, they strongly profess arises from their response to the call to be good disciples of Jesus Christ.
We must applaud the courage and conviction of the Anglican primates in affirming the traditional definition of marriage. This decision came about because of the principled stand of the African bishops in rejecting any imposition of any social experimentation of the global church because of Western preferences and predilection. One must also commend them for their honesty and openness in acknowledging the pains and hurts which the churches have caused to homosexual persons and for making a commitment in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to walk together with these brothers and sisters through inclusive and supportive pastoral ministries. As a Catholic priest interested in an inclusive ministry, I find it quite significant that on the rejection of same-sex marriage and the commitment to a more inclusive pastoral ministry to same-sex persons the Anglican hierarchy is in full agreement with the Catholic Church. In his recent book, The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis clarified what he meant by ‘who am I to judge’ with regard to persons with same-sex attraction.
There is nothing sinful in being a homosexual person; every homosexual person is beautiful to God. However, the actions of a homosexual person like that of a heterosexual person, including his or her sexual relations, are open to moral judgment. This is the heart of the matter.
Pope Francis noted that the Catechism of the Catholic Church requires that such persons should be ‘treated with delicacy and not be marginalised.’ He goes on to affirm that they should be treated as persons because ‘before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies.” Pope Francis also noted the aspect of sin and healing within the context of people’s choices. This calls on homosexual persons to approach the confessional to seek mercy like every other Christian for sins committed against God’s commandment. The Anglican prelates, like the Pope, point to an important proposition among Christians who hold on to traditional definition of marriage, which is, a distinction between who a person is and what a person does.
There is nothing sinful in being a homosexual person; every homosexual person is beautiful to God. However, the actions of a homosexual person like that of a heterosexual person, including his or her sexual relations, are open to moral judgment. This is the heart of the matter. There are two important points which arise for me from all these in terms of creating an open and accepting Church in the light of the decision of the Anglican primates and the proposition of the Synod on the family in Rome last October.
Doing Good Differently
An open and accepting pastoral ministry, the kind that is recommended both by the Anglican and Catholic Churches does not mean celebrating same-sex marriage as a sacrament in the church. The idea that if someone is against same-sex marriage or certain versions of gay culture, the person should be tagged as homophobic or an opponent of gay-rights is not only illogical but an ideologically driven liberal myth. Marriage within the Judeo-Christian tradition is not a right. No one ever got punished in the Bible for not marrying. Actually in many instances people are often required as a result of religious vocation not to marry and live a celibate life. Marriage is a vocation and not a right. I am an advocate for open and accepting churches, and would recommend that every diocese should have an ongoing ministry and chaplaincy for same-sex persons which will find best practices in the art of accompaniment for our brothers and sisters in their journey of faith. However, I hold on to my Christian and African conviction that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
There are many aspects of gay culture, like every other humanly constructed cultural behaviours and lifestyle which I do not accept; that does not mean that I or any person who holds similar position is opposed to an inclusive church and an inclusive society. People are different and those who hold different positions on gay rights or gay culture deserve to be respected. Furthermore, what the government does to protect the rights of same-sex persons is also open to discussion and moral judgement in the light of the common good. We should not close any issue simply through judicial activism or legislative fiats. Whereas governments may change their interpretation of what constitutes the canons for living together between two adults in a stable union, the church cannot change those canons without violating divine positive law and putting itself in opposition to God. The church or the government cannot invent the definition of marriage; nature has given us a definition which our ancestors have embraced from the beginning of time! We should not reinvent the wheel!
…there is need for a broader understanding of the human person beyond sexuality, and a richer approach to inclusive ministry beyond the fight for marriage rights. Gay rights should not be narrowed to an ideologically driven advocacy for marriage rights which has not helped in many countries to put an end to prejudices against gays and questions about some aspects of gay culture and lifestyle which many people find unobjectionable.
We all can do good differently. The gay marriage right discourse tends often to paper over the needed dialogue within communities on reducing prejudice against people based on their sexual orientation. Changing cultural practices and beliefs is a long process. What an inclusive and accepting church can look like should not be narrowly interpreted through Western lenses or worldview. Other voices from Africa and the Global South have something to contribute to this conversation which may help to widen the vision of the world wide church. Furthermore, I must add that enforced rights do not often change entrenched attitudes or natural law. Rights are not tokens from one person to another but are claims which arise from who we are as equal persons before God. These rights also come with duties and obligations. Rights emerge from natural law discoverable through reason and from a community’s identity and appropriation of the ultimate good through the ordination of the acts of members to laws which promote, preserve and protect the common good. There should be a place in our society for those who do not think like we do, who do not act like we do and who do not look like us; this is the path to a better and more tolerant society.
As Christian communities, especially in the West, discern the different approaches to an inclusive ministry, there is need for a broader understanding of the human person beyond sexuality, and a richer approach to inclusive ministry beyond the fight for marriage rights. Gay rights should not be narrowed to an ideologically driven advocacy for marriage rights which has not helped in many countries to put an end to prejudices against gays and questions about some aspects of gay culture and lifestyle which many people find unobjectionable. The North American and European churches, who are dancing to this tune, are a minority in their claims that conferring the sacrament of marriage on same-sex unions is the only way churches can show that they are inclusive. There are other paths which are being adopted in many churches outside North America which respect people’s cultural and spiritual values.
An End to the Obsession with Sex
There was an unwritten principle in the early church that if one wishes to determine the state of the spiritual health of any Christian community one should find out the most pressing issue which is creating division among them. In the early church, the early Christians were driven by a deep conviction about love, caring for one another and eliminating poverty, suffering and injustice in their community. The earliest evidence of this is the account in Acts 4: 32-35 which states that ‘the believers were united, heart, and soul’, ‘no one held on to anything’, ‘none of their members were ever in want’, they gave freely ‘to any members who might be in need.’ This was the community of the beloved which challenged the Roman imperium with the force of their credible life style and faithful witnessing to the truth of the Gospel of love. The early Christians also held a very high sexual ideal for all Christians.
The discussion on gay rights is often limited to rights of the individual rather than the greater good of the community and the ultimate purpose of the moral demand. We have abandoned the greater questions of our times and the temptations of the modern times: superstitious practices, crippling fear about the future and fear of one another, abuse of the name of God in the name of religion, poverty, worship of all kinds of idols… Unfortunately, divisiveness over same-sex unions has dominated the life of the worldwide Christianity because it is the main issue for Western Christians.
We might dismiss the sexual and social ethics of the early Christians but it is important to understand why they embraced such high moral ethos. Morality for the early Christians was not simply limited to chastity; rather chastity was a part of a comprehensive vision of morality and human conduct which was oriented to making people well-adjusted and in tune with their true self, the community of faith, and the wider society with a view to realising their vocation in life through right conduct. As the great biblical scholar, William Barclay noted, the Christian ethics of the first 500 years was designed because the first Christians wanted to live a good and different way of life in order to ‘escape the moral infection which pervaded society.’ Among the Romans, for instance, relationship before marriage and outside marriage was normal; having mistresses and male prostitutes was common. Homosexuality was acceptable. Almost all great Greek thinkers practiced homosexuality—Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Socrates etc. Barclay points out that the ordinary love of women was regarded by the ancients in many settings as low and dishonourable and for a man of culture only the love of a boy was considered worthy. Indeed, among the Roman nobility, having slave boys as objects for satisfying random sexual libidinous upsurge or as ‘pets’ was normal. The first 14 of the 15 Roman emperors were known to have had homosexual partners.
The point being made here is that what we are facing today is also a challenge which the early Christians faced. They rejected the Roman/Greek sexual cults and sexual ethos—nudity, indecency, temple cult prostitutions, sexual license, homosexual acts, sexual orgies etc. In its place, the early Christians embraced the ideals of a faithful and stable marriage of a man and woman as a covenant of love. When we fast-forward to our times, we see that our churches have become obsessed with matters about sex and sexuality as if this is the central message of the Gospel. The discussion on gay rights is often limited to rights of the individual rather than the greater good of the community and the ultimate purpose of the moral demand. We have abandoned the greater questions of our times and the temptations of the modern times: superstitious practices, crippling fear about the future and fear of one another, abuse of the name of God in the name of religion, poverty, worship of all kinds of idols, lack of commitment to truth and integrity of life, collapse of compassion, selfishness, violence, war, terrorism, injustice, loss of the sense of sin, practical atheism, religious intolerance, racism, and bigotry among others. Unfortunately, divisiveness over same-sex unions has dominated the life of the worldwide Christianity because it is the main issue for Western Christians. We must reset our ecclesial clock because humanity is facing many other spiritual, moral and existential questions which demands Christian witnessing beyond the issues of sexuality crippling the churches in the West.
Fr Stan Chu Ilo, a Public Voices Fellow, is a research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, Chicago, USA and the President of Canadian Samaritans for Africa.