(ENI)The World Council of Churches must take a positive stand on homosexuality at its next assembly in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, if it wants to remain credible, according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Archbishop Tutu told ENI in an exclusive interview in Cape Town that since the WCC was not boycotting Harare following "reprehensible" anti-gay statements by the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, the organisation had to take a stand on the issue.
Archbishop Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the former leader of Southern Africa's Anglicans and now chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is also the former president of the All Africa Conference of Churches, the continent's principal ecumenical organisation.
Over the past four years President Mugabe has virulently denounced homosexuality, calling homosexuals "pigs" and "perverts", and describing homosexuality as a "Western perversion" unknown in African culture. He has made it clear that gay men and lesbians are not welcome in Zimbabwe.
The WCC's assembly, which takes place every seven years, will be held on the campus of the University of Zimbabwe in Harare from 3 to 14 December this year. The choice of venue has proved controversial because of President Mugabe's remarks, and one Dutch Protestant church has announced it will not attend because of this. However many of the WCC's African member churches, along with the WCC's governing bodies, believe that changing the venue would offend African Christians. The WCC has negotiated with the Mugabe government to ensure that it can conduct its assembly without interference from the government.
"Some of the churches in Zimbabwe sadly came out in support of President Robert Mugabe in the thoroughly reprehensible homophobic statements that he has made," Archbishop Tutu told ENI.
The archbishop expressed surprise at the choice of venue for the WCC assembly because of the risk to freedom of speech on the issue of homosexuality.
"For the WCC to retain credibility, I would be very disappointed if it does not come up front and state its position," Archbishop Tutu said.
Archbishop Tutu, who is one of the world's best-known churchmen, has in recent years spoken out strongly for homosexual rights.
Asked by ENI why he had adopted this stand, when most church leaders were reticent to speak or else branded homosexual behaviour as immoral, he replied: "The answer is straightforward. It is a matter of ordinary justice. We struggled against apartheid in South Africa because we were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about.
"It is the same with homosexuality. The orientation is a given, not a matter of choice. It would be crazy for someone to choose to be gay, given the homophobia that is present."
Archbishop Tutu said he could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination which homosexuals endure, even in the church, "which actually is still confused".
"Our church [Anglican] says that the orientation is okay, but gay sex activity is wrong. That is crazy. We say the expression of love in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship is more than just the physical but includes touching, embracing, kissing, maybe the genital act. The totality of this makes each of us grow to become giving, increasingly godlike and compassionate.
"If it is so for the heterosexual, what earthly reason have we to say that it is not the case with the homosexual, provided the relationship is exclusive, not promiscuous?" Archbishop Tutu asked.
Supposing there was actually something wrong with gays and lesbians, as some people said, he asked how Jesus would deal with them. "Not by exclusion, in the way we have tended to deal with them. And we say we are the Church of God?
"I hope that one day we will have the courage of our theology," Archbishop Tutu said.
Asked by ENI for a response to Archbishop Tutu's comments on the WCC's decision to hold its assembly in Harare, John Newbury, WCC spokesperson in Geneva, said: "The decision of the WCC to go to Harare for its Eighth Assembly is in response to an invitation from the churches of Zimbabwe and not the government, so going cannot be construed as endorsing any policies of the government or opinions of the president.
"In response to concerns expressed by some about the situation experienced by homosexuals in Zimbabwe, we initiated conversations about the terms for holding the assembly in Zimbabwe. These terms are standard ones which are required for WCC meetings anywhere in the world and are summarised in the Memorandum of Understanding which guarantees freedom of speech for those attending the assembly."
Newbury also referred to the fact that the WCC's 330-plus member churches hold widely differing views on homosexuality. "The WCC's central committee has made clear what is evident to anyone," he said, "that the WCC is not in a position to take a unified stand on what is a controversial and potentially divisive issue among and within member churches."
He added that as the WCC had not carried out any "programmatic work on the topic of human sexuality ... since the last assembly [in Canberra] in 1991", there was no formal requirement for the issue of homosexuality to appear on the Harare assembly's agenda.
But he added: "The assembly, in its role of setting guidelines for future work, could mandate a study of this subject. Also, the assembly will consider a statement on human rights within the context of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The statement is likely, among other things, to include a reference to the human rights of all, regardless of sexual orientation.
"As for the WCC taking the opportunity to 'state its position'," Newbury said, "there are clear procedures in the WCC rules for assemblies making statements which can be proposed by any delegate and passed through the appropriate committee. At this point we cannot predict what statements delegates might propose or how the assembly might react to them.
"As our general secretary [Konrad Raiser] has previously said, it is clear that the question of human sexuality is on the ecumenical agenda," John Newbury told ENI. "Currently, consultations are underway with churches in southern Africa about ways to respond to concerns that have been expressed about the topic."
He also said that "within the Padare - meeting place - element at the assembly there will be opportunities for matters of human sexuality to be explored".
(Member churches, organisations and others linked to the council will be given space at the Padare for displays and workshops of their own choice. The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have already announced they are planning to hold a workshop on "Homosexuality in Church and Society" at the Padare.)