A pending bill in Nigeria that would introduce stiff criminal penalties for same sex marriages and public displays of affection among homosexuals is drawing strong criticism from human rights groups. Introduction of the legislation comes on the heels of a meeting last month in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania of the Anglican Communion, the world’s third largest Christian denomination. That church has been sharply split between traditional Church leaders representing Africa and the developing world and some Anglican clergy from the United States over same sex unions and the consecration of gay bishops. The Reverend Canon Kendall Harmon is Chief Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. He explains how difficult it has been for Anglicans to find common ground on an issue that deals with protecting the civil liberties of minorities, including the rights of homosexuals.
“The focus of the controversy is on non-celibate lesbian and gay bishops and the blessing of non-celibate lesbian and gay couples. The (American) Episcopal Church (TEC) was asked in 2004 to apologize to the rest of the Communion for what we did and how we did it in 2003. Namely, we approved the election of a bishop in a non-celibate, same-sex relationship, and we passed a resolution that gave more dioceses the desire to encourage same-sex blessings and the encouragement to go ahead and allow for that at the local level,” he said.
Canon Harmon says that primates at the Tanzania meeting decided that the American branch of the Church needs to demonstrate a greater commitment to end its acceptance of homosexual clergy. He says the Episcopal Church was given a six-month ultimatum to make clear it will no longer bless same-sex relationships “until and unless a new consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges and that we’re no longer going to approve the election of bishops in non-celibate, same-sex relationships.”
As for this week’s indications that Nigerian legislators plan to criminalize same sex relationships and all promotion of a homosexual lifestyle, Canon Harmon says he hopes the Nigerian diocese and its leaders will strike a balance that respects the region’s cultural history and the personal rights and freedoms of Nigerian citizens.
“Nigeria is closely divided between Islam and Christianity. So you have Sharia law in the minds of a lot of legislatures. From an American perspective, it looks very, very punitive relative to American legislation. So I think the hard part is the degree to which the Church can push back in a compassionate way and still try to uphold the teaching of the Church in a society where Islam and Christianity are competing strongly,” he said.
Canon Harmon says traditional clergy from the global South have become increasingly tenacious about protecting their beliefs in the face of liberalizing trends supported by Anglicans from the U.S., Britain, and other Northern Hemisphere nations. He outlines some of the pressures that he thinks African Church leaders believe they’re up against.
"There is a strong feeling that they’re being burdened with Western churches that are somehow abandoning the teaching of the Bible. And there’s a real feeling of betrayal that’s underneath that, because, as one of the bishops said a number of years ago, ‘You brought us the Scriptures. Now that we’re quoting it to you, why are you getting upset?’ They want to do missionary work and base it on the authority of Scripture. And they feel like they’re dealing with a Church that’s like an albatross around their neck, taking them away from the teaching of the Bible,” he said.