The slow change in church attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is set to continue and to spread beyond western liberal regimes into Africa and other continents where social taboos and conservative Christian and Moslem attitudes are entrenched. The conservative coalitions in the Anglican Communion will not be able to stem the growth in the numbers of church members who identify as gay or lesbian and reject what is now called the orthodox, traditional teaching about homosexuality.
How can we be so sure? Changing Attitude is developing a network of relationships with lesbian and gay Christians in many countries in Africa, including Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe as well as countries in the Caribbean – Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad among them. Through this growing network, Changing Attitude is meeting more and more black lesbian and gay African and Caribbean Christians and hearing their testimonies.
They are mostly in their 20s and early 30s. Many share stories of poverty and the struggle to survive without work or family support. Being gay is but one of the many challenges which they face daily. They live in secrecy, hiding their sexual identity. They live with the emotional turmoil, stress and depression that living in extreme poverty brings. If they have encounters with other lesbians or gay men, the encounters are usually furtive and unsatisfying. They may occasionally beg or borrow money to spend 30 minutes online in a local cybercafé. This brief time is often a lifeline where they can make safe contact with other lesbian and gay people in their own country as well as in other African and western countries.
Others are more fortunate, having parents who can afford university fees. These young people have greater access to information online and to networks of LGBT people. They are more confident in their identity and in the possibility of forming healthy relationships. They can begin to imagine change, and a future for themselves as gay men or lesbians in their own country.
These lesbian and gay people are as confident in the God-given nature of their sexuality as those born in western cultures. They come to self-understanding in the same way, aware that pre or post-puberty, their desire for intimacy is with someone of the same gender. Their confidence in their identity is remarkable given the high levels of social taboo and opprobrium attached to homosexuality across Africa. To this can be added the vociferous attacks made against homosexuality by Anglican bishops in particular. These young gay and lesbian men and women worship week by week with a deep faith tested by experience. Tentatively or confidently, they ignore the words of those who preach against them.
In many liberal democracies, the legal status of LGBT people is now virtually equivalent to that for heterosexuals (with the tragic exception of the church). Despite the occasional set back, this development will continue. Conservative Christian churches will become more and more isolated in their attitude towards homosexuality. For many conservatives, this will prove the rightness of their position.
Changing Attitude also observes the online narratives of liberal and conservative bloggers and commentators. Comments are often bitter and vindictive towards those perceived as opponents of the liberal or conservative position. In the USA in particular some commentators repeatedly attack the integrity of The Episcopal Church and of Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop. There are personal attacks on gay and lesbian leaders, including Susan Russell, President of Integrity and Colin Coward and Davis Mac-Iyalla, Directors of Changing Attitude in England and Nigeria.
Conservatives have set out to create an Anglican church which will be free from what they consider to be liberal heresies, of which the chief is the full inclusion given to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in The Episcopal Church in particular, but increasingly in Canada, England, New Zealand and other Provinces.
The solution to the ‘problem’ of LGBT people as perceived by conservative Christians is reparative therapy, repentance, the denial of gay sexual activity, conversion to heterosexuality and the creation of a new Anglican Communion free from the corrupting influence of LGBT people. This strategy is doomed to fail, in every culture and country in the world.
LGBT people will continue to follow Jesus Christ, become active members of a church and worship God in response to our certain knowledge of God’s deep love for us. Our experience of God’s love and the awareness of our sexual identity are both convictions held with deep passion and integrity. In conservative churches and Provinces, LGBT Christians will remain in the closet. Where churches are more openly welcoming, they will become more visible. Whether present visibly or invisibly, we will change church attitudes.
Our friends and families will come to know us for who we are, and their attitudes will change. They in turn will question and challenge the attitudes of their extended family and friends towards their sons and daughters. The change in attitude will slowly spread across family networks and friends and within congregations.
We are the invisible force, the subversive presence in every church, which conservatives are unable to eradicate and will never be able to eradicate. Slowly but surely, our presence will undermine social taboos and conservative Christian teaching about homosexuality.
At the beginning of 2009, the situation in the Anglican Communion may look desperately unhappy for the unity of the church and for the welcome given to LGBT people. The situation may not have changed much by the end of 2009. If there is a split, those remaining in the historic church will have greater freedom to acknowledge honestly the presence of lesbian and gay sons and daughters, friends and colleagues, priests and bishops.
The conservative churches may think they have achieved their goal, a church committed to orthodox teaching, in the formation of the Anglican Church of North America. Their apparent victory will be short-lived. In 50 or 100 years, a transformation will have taken place in social and political attitudes towards LGBT people. The churches of the Anglican Church of North America and the Global South will begin to change, losing confidence in their absolute prohibition on homosexuality.
In the short term, life will be painful and in some cases tragic for many LGBT Africans. But change is coming and Anglican conservatives will be unable to stop it.
The Reverend Colin Coward
Director of Changing Attitude England