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The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act -- let's have a proper conversation

The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act -- let's have a proper conversation

By Martin Davie
27 June 2023

The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023, has added to the existing divisions within the Anglican Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury strongly criticising the act and the Church of Uganda's support for it and GAFCON equally strongly rejecting his criticism and his right to make it.
What I want to suggest in this article is that both the response from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the reply from GAFCON fail to engage with the real issues that need to be discussed. What is needed is a dialling back of the rhetoric and the beginning of a genuine Christian conversation about the moral issues raised by the Ugandan legislation.

The purpose and content of the Ugandan Act

The purpose of the Ugandan act, which became law at the end of May this year is explained as follows in the act's preamble:

The object of the Bill is to establish a comprehensive and enhanced legislation to protect the traditional family by--
(a) prohibiting any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex and the promotion or recognition of sexual relations between persons of the same sex.
(b) strengthening the nation's capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional, heterosexual family. This legislation further recognizes the fact that same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic.
(c) protecting the cherished culture of the people of Uganda, legal, religious, and traditional family values of Ugandans against the acts of sexual rights activists seeking to impose their values of sexual promiscuity on the people of Uganda.
(d) protecting children and youth who are made vulnerable to sexual abuse through homosexuality and related acts.

The key clause is (c). The reason the law has been passed is that people in Uganda feel that there is an international campaign to change the traditional sexual ethics of the country to bring them into line with those of the liberal Western world and the act is designed to stop this happening.

The act has seventeen sections and the key points are that it makes homosexual activity a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and that it makes a series of acts of 'aggravated homosexuality' subject to a maximum punishment of death.

The responses of the Archbishop of Canterbury and GAFCON

In his comments on the act on 9 June the Archbishop of Canterbury criticised the Church of Uganda's support for the act on the basis that it was contrary to the agreed position of the Anglican Communion. He declared:

'The Church of Uganda, like many Anglican provinces, holds to the traditional Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage set out in Resolution i.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. That resolution also expressed a commitment to minister pastorally and sensitively to all -- regardless of sexual orientation -- and to condemn homophobia. I have said to Archbishop Kaziimba that I am unable to see how the Church of Uganda's support for the Anti-Homosexuality Act is consistent with its many statements in support of Resolution i.10.

'More recently, at the 2016 Primates Meeting in Canterbury, the Primates of the Anglican Communion 'condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation.' We affirmed that this conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. We also 'reaffirmed our rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people' -- and stated that 'God's love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.'

'These statements and commitments are the common mind of the Anglican Communion on the essential dignity and value of every person. I therefore urge Archbishop Kaziimba and the Church of Uganda -- a country and church I love dearly, and to which I owe so much -- to reconsider their support for this legislation and reject the criminalisation of LGBTQ people. I also call on my brothers in Christ, the leadership of GAFCON and the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), to make explicitly and publicly clear that the criminalisation of LGBTQ people is something that no Anglican province can support: that must be stated unequivocally.'

The problem with what the Archbishop of Canterbury says here is that it assumes that support for the Ugandan legislation is motivated by homophobia, is incompatible with a commitment 'to minister pastorally and sensitively to all -- regardless of sexual orientation' and is about 'criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.' The Ugandans would dispute all these points.

They would say that the act is not motivated by homophobia but by a desire to defend Uganda against an attack on its traditional sexual ethics, they would say they are committed to ministering to all regardless of sexual orientation and that the act does not prevent this and they would say that the act does not impose criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people but against forms of sexual activity (some of which, such as homosexual rape and sexual activity with children is also illegal under current British law).

The GAFCON response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments, issued by the Archbishop of Rwanda, was to declare that he had no right to talk to Uganda and GAFCON about observing Lambeth 1.10:

'We hereby question the rights and legitimacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury to call the leadership of Gafcon to honour commitment to Lambeth Resolution I.10, when he has led his church to undermine the teaching of the church as expressly stated in the same resolution. It is contradictory and self-serving for the Archbishop of Canterbury to cite Resolution I.10 to defend practising homosexuals whereas the following very vital parts of the Resolution have been flagrantly and repeatedly violated by Canterbury and allied western revisionist churches....

'Rather than becoming a spokesperson and advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights, Archbishop Justin Welby, the Church of England and other revisionist Anglican Provinces in the West which have chosen the path of rebellion against God in matters of biblical authority should instead, show sorrow for sin and failure to follow the word of God, the primary source for Anglican theology and divine revelation. The Archbishop and co-travellers should first protect Lambeth I.10 by repenting of their open disregard for the Word of God and harbouring sin.'

The problem with this response is that it does not engage with the points that the Archbishop of Canterbury is making. Saying that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Western revisionist churches have not observed Lambeth 1.10 may be true, but this does not mean that criticisms that they make about the support of the Church of Uganda for the new Ugandan legislation can therefore simply be dismissed. If criticisms of that support are valid then they are valid whoever makes them.

The issues that need to be discussed in a proper Christian conversation

What is needed is a proper Christian conversation about the Ugandan law. This would start by acknowledging that the Ugandan government, like all governments (see Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17) has a God-given responsibility to promote the well-being of its country by taking action to punish acts of wrongdoing that have taken place and to prevent acts of wrongdoing from occurring in the future.

This being the case, the questions that need to be asked about the new Ugandan legislation are:

• Are all, or some, of the acts penalised by this legislation acts of wrongdoing?
• If they are, are they acts of wrongdoing that are sufficiently serious as to be regarded as crimes?
• If they should be regarded as crimes, are the penalties for them proportionate or too severe? In particular, is it ever right to impose the death penalty, or does this go against the Christian belief in the sanctity of human life (as the Archbishop of Uganda himself has argued)?

In addition, there is an issue about whether the legislation will have unintended consequences. Will it, for instance, worsen the public health situation in Uganda by making people reluctant to come forward for treatment for medical conditions, such as HIV, contracted as a result of homosexual activity when to do so would potentially lead to arrest and prosecution?

Likewise, how will the Church be able to minister effectively to people engaged in homosexual activity if confessing to such activity would mean confessing to a crime? This issue of unintended consequences was one that weighted heavily in the Church of England's decision to support the de-criminalisation of homosexual activity in this country in the 1960s and it is one that the Church of Uganda will also need to take seriously.

So, please can the two sides of the debate about the Ugandan Act stop questioning the other's good faith and engage in a proper conversation about the points just outlined. Only in this way can we hope to reach a consensus about the matter based on a proper Christian assessment of the issues involved.

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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