Conference gathers international voices on the experience of lesbian and gay Christians

October 25, 2003

Events in the weeks prior to the start of the annual conference of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), this year called "Halfway to Lambeth," provided ample reason for its 250 attendees to feel pessimistic.

The special October 15-16 meeting of the Anglican Primates at Lambeth Palace, in response to the election and confirmation of Gene Robinson as an openly gay bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire, had "disappointed" Richard Kirker, LGCM's general secretary. Before that, Bishop Nigel McCulloch had withdrawn the invitation for the conference to use the Manchester Cathedral for its Eucharist. Then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams decided not to attend the conference, in response to what Kirker described as "pressure."

Yet it proved to be a sanguine weekend. The highlight of the October 24-26 conference was undoubtedly the appearance of Gene Robinson via live satellite link, who was greeted with rapturous applause. Bishop Michael Ingham of the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster, which has sanctioned the blessing of lesbian and gay relationships, was also warmly received, as were Dean Rowan Smith of Cape Town Cathedral in South Africa, the Rev. Mario Ribas from the Diocese of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and Christopher Senteza from Integrity Uganda.

A time to listen

The conference was attended by clergy and laypeople, gay and straight, from places as far afield as New Zealand and Switzerland, as well as a handful of bishops from the Church of England. Its published purpose was to begin preparations for Lambeth 2008, the meeting of Anglican bishops held every 10 years, but in the event addressed a more immediate opportunity--the renewal of the primates¹ commitment to listen to lesbian and gay Christians.

"Halfway to Lambeth" offered them a rich and international array of voices.

In an address entitled "Lesbian and Gay Identity in Uganda: a Christian vision for my country," Senteza told the story of the birth of Integrity Uganda from grassroots pastoral groups in the 1990s. Now modeled after the American organization, Senteza said it has a very practical agenda: helping gay people to be self-reliant in terms of their employment and home life, in order that they can withstand substantial persecution.

The message was similar to that delivered by Ribas of Brazil. He was introduced to the conference by his bishop with the words "Thank God for Mario," calling him a "fighter." Ribas reported that, while there is a degree of openness towards homosexuality in his church, homophobia is a real and present danger: About 100 people a year are killed as a result of homophobic crime in his diocese, he said. "A church which is in the closet is a church that conforms to the prevalent political reality rather than being counter-cultural," he told the conference.

Although Archbishop Williams was not present in person, he did send an observer: his social responsibility officer, John Clarke. He brought greetings, drew attention to the primates' re-commitment to listen, and said that the archbishop's prayer was that all might contribute to the process of discerning what God is asking of the church.

The Bishop of Manchester's assistant, Bishop Stephen Lowe of Hulme, also attended throughout, talking of the pain and distress of recent weeks and the "crucifying experience" of lesbians and gays. He concelebrated at the conference Eucharist.

Ingham addressed the conference and preached at the Eucharist. In a paper entitled "Reclaiming Orthodoxy," he argued that homosexuality should not be a schismatic issue for the church, since it is not a fundamental matter of belief nor of church order. "The existence of God is foundational, Christian social ethics is derivative," he said. Rather, he said, he believes that God is calling the church to end discrimination: "The repetition of inherited prejudices is a sin against the love of God. The tragic development is the intellectual theft of the word orthodoxy by conservative modernists."

Many faces of our communion

Rowan Smith, in his paper "Our humanity is God's Glory: the many faces of our communion," pointed out that the resolution on human sexuality passed at the 1988 Lambeth Conference was in many ways more enlightened than that which followed 10 years later. He talked movingly of his own journey as a black gay South African during the years of the apartheid regime, noting that the Bible was important in confronting apartheid. Anti-gay sentiments should be similarly confronted now, he said.

Smith explained that same-sex eroticism is indigenous to African culture, and that colonial influences are responsible for contemporary homophobia. He also pointed out that much of the growth of Islam in parts of Africa stems from the fact that the church originally refused to baptize slaves. It is doubly ironic, then, that a supposedly Western agenda of homosexuality is now being blamed by some for Christianity's troubles in cultures where Islam dominates, Smith said.

Time to move on

Gene Robinson's arrival by satellite came courtesy of the American TV network, ABC. Although the bishop-elect has received death threats and hate mail, he reported that he and his family are holding together very well. He said he is looking forward to November 3, the day after his consecration: "It is time to get over the pain and difficulty, and get on with the business of the gospel," he said. In the meantime, he reported finding the whole experience very exciting, with opportunities that money could not buy to talk about the gospel and God's love.

At the Eucharist which closed the conference, Ingham reflected on the Israelites' journey before they reached the Promised Land. "We are in the wilderness. Some of us are losing hope. Some of us are dying," he said. He drew attention to the fact that when God sent serpents amongst the Israelites, Moses was instructed to raise up a serpent of bronze, so that those who looked on it might be cured. There is a wisdom in that for those fighting homophobia, he preached: poison transformed into bronze. "We must turn to the tradition. We must rescue the Bible from the fundamentalists and make it a book of grace," he said.

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