South African report urges church not to avoid same-sex blessing issue

April 16, 2003

A report prepared for the Church of the Province of South Africa (CPSA), released this month, cites examples of same-sex unions in traditional indigenous African societies and the South African constitution's sexual orientation non-discrimination clause in arguing for a new approach by the church to the blessing of same-sex relationships.

The Archbishop's Committee on Same-Sex Unions, chaired by Professor Joan Church of the Diocese of Pretoria and consisting of senior lay and clerical members of the church, produced the report in response to a Provincial Synod resolution requiring the CPSA to clarify its position with regard to same sex unions. The committee directed its findings to the South African Anglican Theological Commission.

'The issue of same sex unions strikes at the heart of the Anglican church, which has fought long and hard for justice and inclusivity, but a definitive stand is likely to lead to polarization rather than unity unless all debaters are treated with respect and dignity,' said Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, in summarizing the report for a press release.

'Besides commissioning the committee, I have also widely distributed a discussion document within the Anglican Church and I am calling on Southern Africa's 10 million baptized Anglicans at all levels to urgently address homosexuality and to do so in a manner that will generate mutual understanding and bring people out of their 'corners of conviction,'' Ndungane said. He cited a statement in the report that the unity of the church must be upheld but must not be used as 'a delaying tactic or as an excuse to avoid the issue.'

Centrality of love

The report briefly outlines an approach to developing a theology of marriage that takes into account varying understandings of sexuality (as genitality or as 'all-pervasive energy force') and spirituality (as religiosity or as 'touching all of life'). The centrality of love in Jesus' portrait of God as the 'Divine Lover,' resulting in the effect that 'sexuality seems to have something of the numinous about it,' and the shift in the focus of marriage from procreation to manifesting the love of God, are recommended as topics for 'reexamination' by an ongoing CPSA dialogue.

A model of biblical interpretation that moves beyond the 'largely fundamentalist' mode of 'absolutist, ahistorical' prooftexting is needed, the report said, to engage the issue of sexuality seriously. 'The model adopted affects the meaning extracted,' the committee said, recommending a 'conversational model' which 'accepts that the Bible is God's Word, but argues that it operates dynamically, in interaction with everyday life.' Such a conversational model would be 'Christocentric, dialogical, canonical, and narrative.'

Imported--or indigenous?

Many African Anglican leaders view homosexuality as a Western cultural import. 'The Anglican Church in Africa is deeply shocked by the very idea of blessing the gay relationship and having a liturgy for such a service in Church,' retired Kenyan archbishop David Gitari told Anglican Media Sydney shortly after a decision by the Canadian diocese of New Westminster in 2002 to permit parishes to bless same-sex relationships. 'We are shocked because when missionaries from the West came to the darkest continent we were told that homosexuality was a sin. Now people from the West are telling us it is not a sin despite Paul's words in Romans 1:24-27.' The Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, called the Canadian decision 'an act of new imperialism' by churches in the global North.

But according to the South African report, same-sex relationships are not unknown in traditional African culture, although in different forms than is common in the United States and other Western countries. Traditional woman-to-woman marriages 'occur all over Africa,' the report stated. In South Africa such marriages have been recorded among the Venda, Lovedu, Pedi, Zulu and Narene peoples, among others. The report cites 'two main motivations' for such unions: because of the powerful position of one of the women, as in the traditional tribal institution of the Rain Queen, or because one of the women is childless. In the latter case, a male relative of the 'female husband' may be enlisted to impregnate the 'bride,' though he is considered to have no legal or biological rights to the child.

'While these marriages are infrequent they are considered far from abnormal,' the report stated. Such unions may be protected under South Africa's Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, which came into effect in 2000, as well as under Act 108 of the 1996 South African constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That presents a pastoral dilemma for churches, said the committee.

Another dilemma is presented by a 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution on human sexuality rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture and declaring that the bishops of the Anglican Communion 'cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.' A separate discussion document on human sexuality, sent by Ndungane in January to the bishops, clergy and lay leadership of the CPSA, acknowledged that 'the Lambeth Conference is a significant and solemn part of this process. At the same time however it is also not possible to assert that the matter was closed for all time in 1998 by the views of the majority of Bishops at Lambeth at that time. In the past the Lambeth Conference has 'moved' on a decision taken at a previous gathering, for example on the use of contraception.'

'A theological nightmare'?

Reviewing the legal history and cultural differences regarding same-sex unions in South Africa and in other countries, the report noted that although same-sex marriage has not yet been legally recognized, 'it is clear that in less than a decade there have been major policy changes in South Africa regarding homosexuals and homosexual conduct...recognizing certain marriage-like rights of partners in same-sex unions.'

Nevertheless, 'We are in danger of creating a theological nightmare,' wrote one of the committee's gay members, in a separate section entitled 'A Gay Perspective.' Arguing that opposing a service of 'blessing' to a service of marriage creates confusion, he asked, 'What exactly is the difference between seeking a public recognition by the church of a permanent relationship through marriage and seeking the blessing of a permanent relationship?'

The committee recommended that the CPSA 'set in motion a pastoral process to help the church engage, at all levels, with homosexuality,' including consultation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), ecumenical partners and other stakeholders in the issue in what is called an 'indaba,' a Zulu concept meaning a council or meeting to discuss an important matter. The committee recommends that the process should result in a report for the next Provincial Synod.

Members of the committee included Professor Church; Judge Thollie Madala; the Very Rev. Peter Lenkoe; Canon Godfrey Henwood; the Revs. Michelle Pilet, Tim Long, Douglas Torr and Lynda Wyngaard; and Sr. Maureen (OHP).