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Article No. 184

What does the proposed bill against homosexuality in Uganda tells us about the Ugandan Church?

First, the facts - as far as I know them!  There is a proposed bill in Uganda that would provide prison and possibly the death penalty for any people participating in gay sex. More widely, it would also criminalize anyone who knew a person was gay but who failed to report that to the authorities.

Clearly, if the bill goes through and is made into law, then it will have a drastic effect on gay people in Uganda. At least as importantly, it will bring under possible prosecution the family, friends, colleagues and others who know a person is gay. The law would be a charter for spying on people and it would promote discord and fear. It is a bill that is deeply obnoxious to the majority of justice loving people outside Uganda.

On the broader front, it would encourage other states to consider draconian measures against gay people - and this in turn would encourage what is already apparent even in Britain: a very small group of people who hate homosexuals and seek to kill or injure them whenever possible. Obviously such twisted people in Uganda would receive great encouragement to pursue their vendetta against gay people.

The bill may come before the Ugandan legislature in the New Year - or it may be withdrawn, amended or blocked in some way.

Now to turn to the response in  this country. Clearly, gay organisations were alerted to the danger early on and they have responded by a condemnation  of the proposal. Many other organisations - especially those guarding human rights - have made comments against the proposed bill. Some Christians have objected either individually or in the name of their churches. As yet the Church of England has not made any formal criticism of the proposed legislation, although I believe the Press Office has made it known that efforts have been going on ‘behind the scenes’

The matter is slightly complicated because, of course, we are all aware that Africans in general and Ugandans in particular object to what they see as interference in their affairs from outside the country. That is an understandable position and it is right that due consideration be given to avoiding such objections from them.

On the other hand, the terms of the proposed bill are so draconian that it is hard to see any justification for hesitancy over possible diplomatic objections from Uganda regarding interference from outside. In the name of common humanity, whatever one’s views on homosexuality, there need to be objections made as widely as possible and from as many people as possible.

There are some aspects of this matter that call for further consideration.  I am thinking of the position of Ugandan Christians generally and the Anglican Church in Uganda in particular. What has been their response so far to what is afoot in their country?

As far as I am aware - and there may be things going on behind the scenes of which we are unaware - there have been no comments or official line taken by the Uganda Church. What does this tell us about the Ugandan Church?  Clearly their silence is significant. Such silence, apart from hidden negotiations - could have several reasons.

One reason might be that the leaders of the Church - or the majority of the senior people in the church - think the legislation would be a good thing. That could be a follow-on from the position taken by the Ugandan Church on the dispute in the Anglican Communion concerning acceptance of gay clergy and bishops. They have been vociferous in their objections to the pro-gay actions of the American Church - this legislation would certainly reflect a similar refusal to accept homosexuality.  

Another reason for their silence might be that although the leaders of the church see the shockingly unchristian nature of the legislation and are therefore against it, the majority of the members are in  favour of the proposed bill. The leaders in that case would be acquiescing for fear of upsetting their church members - and perhaps losing their own jobs in the ensuing discord?

Another reason for their silence might be that they do not wish to go against the mood of the legislators and the mood of the majority of the populace. If the general public support such a bill then maybe the Church leaders do not wish to go against the popular support. That would be a clear case of cowardice.

Another reason may be division in the Ugandan Church. Maybe the leadership is split. Maybe there are some who support the legislation and at the same time some who disagree with it. Given even numbers on each side that could produce a paralysis in the leadership.

And there are a number of other possibilities that could explain why the Ugandan Church has remained silent in  the face of this legislation that is so clearly against human rights and against Christian principles.  

It is interesting that the whole of the present dispute in the Anglican Communion rests on a resolution numbered 1.10 agreed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Those who have threatened to split the church because they could not go along with homosexuality have always held that Resolution 1.10 should be followed by everyone. Yet that resolution also calls for due respect and tolerance towards homosexual people - and this proposed legislation goes directly against Resolution 1.10. The African Churches seem to be oblivious of this fact.

If the attitude of the African Churches was truly behind the 1998 Lambeth Conference united decision, then they could not sit idly by while this proposed repressive legislation starts its way through the legislature.

One is therefore forced to make a deeper evaluation of the reasons for the present situation in Uganda.

Maybe what was suggested at the outset of the present dispute in the Anglican Communion - and what has been suggested again at various times subsequently - is correct. Maybe these people are deeply infected with homophobia. They appear to have a visceral and an unreasoning hatred of homosexuals and homosexuality. This would certainly fit the situation we are now seeing in  Uganda.  

I remember how early on, when the J John affair was in full swing, great play was made by some churchmen from Oxford of the claim that the objections to homosexuality both here and abroad did not stem from  homophobia but from an entirely reasoned and biblical basis. I thought at the time that while there are, of course, people who are capable of such reasoned attitudes (to which attitudes they are, of course, entirely entitled) yet the reality was that the basis for a lot of the objections then being voiced was simply homophobia.

I have to say that, over the years since those early days, I have been drawn more and more to the opinion that a large proportion of the objections to homosexuality are rooted in homophobia. And that applies to Oxford churchmen as well as the rest of us in Britain and abroad. But perhaps especially to African churches where the prevailing teaching by evangelical nineteenth century missionaries was that homosexuality was unspeakably wrong and evil. Clearly those attitudes have been passed down as ’gospel’ from  father to son  for generations - and we are seeing the results in the present day attitude towards homosexuality that wants to victimize gay people and send them to prison or even kill them for being just who they are.  So persuasive is the legacy of those missionaries that it can even float a proposed bill of this nature.

I am not sure that I can accept that British churches should keep quiet to avoid possible accusations from Uganda (or any other countries - African or otherwise) that we are interfering. I am not sure that we should be pussyfooting around on a matter of such gravity. If this African state legislates in the manner proposed then other countries around the world may well follow suit. Maybe only one or two. But it will encourage people to think that there is justification for treating gay people as less than human. And that is very serious indeed. The end of that path we saw in the ovens of Auschwitz.   

Furthermore, if such legislation is passed - even in only one country - it will give encouragement to those violent and unreasoning elements that exist in every population to think that there is some justification in persecuting gay people. We shall see more attacks and even murders - and in those countries that have long records civilisation as well as those countries more recently civilised.

So maybe the time for holding back from comment is coming to an end. Perhaps the time is coming - has already come - for us all to speak out with one voice that legislation such as is proposed is uncivilised and utterly contrary to the most basic human rights.

Indeed, cannot we go further and make a positive out of a negative?  Can we not enlist everyone in supporting a humane and accepting agenda for gay rights? That would be an  advance - and an African disaster would then be turned into a victory for all humanity.

Tony Cross

December, 2009

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