Friday 29 January 2010

Four wasted decades - the Anglican inability to engage with homosexuality

There is a thread running through the Anglican Communion’s engagement with homosexuality that I find curious - the inability to grasp the nettle despite tentative initiatives over 4 decades. I’m interested in the history of the Anglican Communion’s failure to grasp the nettle and wonder if there are lessons to be learnt.

In 2005 The Episcopal Church produced a response to the request made in the Windsor Report 2004 that the church explains how a person living in a same gender union may be eligible to lead the flock of Christ. TEC presented ‘To Set Our Hope on Christ’ (TSOHOC) to the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Nottingham in 2005. I attended the presentation. Since then the report seems largely to have been forgotten but I recently re-read it.

A long appendix outlines the historical development of beliefs and policies regarding sexuality in the Episcopal Church, USA. It was at the General Convention in 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots of 1969 (the key event that led to the modern gay rights movement), that a resolution was passed instructing the Executive Council to 1) Initiate studies to express Christian attitudes with respect to ... homosexuality; and 2) Develop an educational program designed to communicate such attitudes to the Church at large.

What struck me re-reading the report is that nothing happened as a result of the resolution. The report, says TSOHOC, was probably referred to staff, since there is no mention of a follow-up study, a bare mention of homosexuality in the 1970 General Convention Journal, and a cryptic entry in the minutes of a House of Bishops meeting in 1972. Integrity was founded in 1974 and General Convention dealt substantively with homosexuality for the first time in 1976, nine years after the 1967 resolution.

The Windsor Report Appendix Three reprints resolution 10 from the Lambeth Conference 1978 and Resolution 64 from 1988. Resolution 10 ‘recognised the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality ...’ Unlike TSOHOC, the Windsor Report doesn’t say what happened in the decade following Lambeth 1978 nor Lambeth 1988. Does the silence mean that nothing at all happened? As far as I’m aware, no action was initiated in relation to homosexuality. Resolution 10 also addressed marriage and family life, broken marriages, abortion and genetic engineering. Were they deaslt with? Who was responsible for the failure to initiate action on Resolutions 10 and 64 recommendations about homosexuality – the Anglican Communion Office?

In the 1950s Church of England bishops were among those who advocated for reform of the law in relation to homosexuality which resulted in the 1967 Act. There was a confidence in arguing for decriminalisation, at the same time upholding ‘traditional church teaching’. The confidence exhibited then has evaporated over the following five decades. Why – what happened?

Post Stonewall 1969 LGBT people became more articulate and visible and more confident in arguing and campaigning for change. We were pretty much invisible in the 1950s and yet the Church of England was well-aware that homosexuality was an internal as much as an external issue.

Why did General Convention take 9 years to respond and the Anglican Communion 20 years - by which time forces of opposition had time to organise, with Tony Higton’s 1987 General Synod motion and the 1997 Kuala Lumpur Statement.

Was it simply that those who were responsible for initiating action were incompetent, or was it a failure of nerve, a fear of engaging with homosexuality, prejudice, lack of confidence? I would love to hear from someone who was at Lambeth 1987 or 1988 or working for the Anglican Communion Office then. Even more curious, how did those resolutions get onto the agenda in the first place? If there was enough confidence to table the resolutions, why the inability to take action after Lambeth? Now, we can only speculate how different the landscape might be today if the Communion had started deep and dispassionate study in 1978.

What is the Communion avoiding now? The most strident voices in the Communion are either demonising homosexuality or trying to marginalize the pro-gay Christian experience by presenting ex-gay ministries as the solution. The majority in the Communion would like to be persuaded that there is no such reality as homosexuality, no gay gene to prove that I exist in my gay identity. What a contrast with Church of England bishops in the 1950s. At least they were under no illusion as to the reality of homosexuality and the effect on a minority group of criminalizing sexual activity.

It has been left to the secular realm and to a minority of courageous Provinces and Christians to maintain the campaign not just for equality but at the moment for the very survival of LGBT lives in Africa. Christians who dare to make the case for LGBT people and exemplify mature, adult gay experience and ideals are vilified.

So what lesson can we draw from five decades of Anglican history? Never, never let the Communion forget that the Body of Christ includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Never, never allow the church off the hook, never let the church escape judgment for its prejudice towards LGBT people. Never lose faith in Christ, whose unconditional love embraces all of us.


  1. Thank You Fr. Coward,

    I´ve used much of your new posting in a new posting of my very own...hope it´s ok? If not let me know and I´ll take it out immediately.


  2. I believe your final paragraph with its three lesson statements presents a positive challenge to the worldwide Anglican Communion and, indeed, to all Christians everywhere who strive for justice and the present and coming Reign of God. As parish deacon in a Canadian Anglican community where full inclusion and participation of all persons regardless of sexual orientation is now well established,I believe we must move forward with the patience and Godly attitude which underlie your statement.

  3. Bravo, Colin! This deserves WIDE distribution as we remember that thing about those who are ignorant about their past being doomed to repeat it!