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Lambeth struggles over homosexuality in emotional plenary session

Posted on: August 7, 1998 12:30 PM
Related Categories: Lambeth Conference 1998, sexuality

By David Skidmore
Lambeth Conference Communications

Division in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality widened Wednesday when the Lambeth Conference adopted a resolution that includes a strong condemnation of homosexual relationships.

After a nearly three-hour debate that was often tense and passionate, conservative bishops emerged victorious with a resolution that upheld the biblical understanding of marriage while rejecting sexual activity by gays and lesbians as "incompatible with scripture."

The resolution, adopted on a vote of 526 to 70 with 45 abstentions, also opposes the recognition or blessing of same-sex unions, and the ordination of non-celibate gay men and lesbians. Though not binding on the Communion's 37 provinces, the resolution carries moral weight as a statement of Lambeth Conference.

Most of the session's debate dealt with proposed amendments to the resolution proposed by the Conference subsection that had been considering sexuality.

Archbishop of Canterbury intervenes

Archbishop George Carey, speaking just before the vote, endorsed the final version of the resolution to applause from some bishops. He warned the bishops, however, not to make sexuality the defining issue of the conference. "If this conference is known by what we have said about homosexuality," he said, "then we will have failed."

Acknowledging the "painful and difficult" course of debate, Archbishop Carey said that nevertheless he stood "wholeheartedly with the traditional Anglican orthodoxy. I see no room in Holy Scripture or the entire Christian tradition for any sexual activity outside matrimony."

He cautioned the bishops not to "impugn the motives of one another, whatever side we may have taken," and urged the bishops to continue to listen to each other. "The dialogue," he stressed "goes on."

But some criticized Archbishop Carey's endorsement of the resolution just before the vote. At a press conference following the plenary, Primus Richard Holloway of Scotland said he "personally was offended by it." The best response given what had happened, he suggested, "would have been a courteous silence for those of us who were hurting."

African and Asian voices heard

The strongest support for the resolution came from African and Asian conservatives who insisted on a strict biblical understanding of sexual morality. With support of European and North American conservatives, they pushed through several amendments that strengthened language condemning sexual expression by gays and lesbians, and declaring abstinence as the only acceptable alternative to marriage.

Bishop Wilson Mutebi of the Diocese of Mitiyana (Uganda) said that in his diocese, and throughout eastern Africa, the Bible is the foundation for faith. Anglicans in his region, he said, are aware of what science and philosophy have to say on homosexuality, but for them the final truth resides in Scripture. "For us, the Bible and the apostolic tradition have authority through all our church," said Bishop Mutebi.

"In the Sudan we know nothing of homosexuality," said Bishop Michael Lugor of the Diocese of Rejaf. "We only know the Gospel and we proclaim it."

Bishop Eustace Kamanyire of the Diocese of Ruwenzori (Uganda), argued that homosexual activity is condemned as immoral in both the Old and New Testaments. Pastoral care towards homosexuals, he said, should emphasize repentence.

He also criticized liberal bishops for continuing to ordain non-celibate gay men and lesbians and bless same-sex unions, which "is causing serious damage and scandal to Christ and his church."

The Christian faith, he noted, "is not only under attack by nonbelievers but is actually being undermined by some of the same people who are supposed to be its defenders."

Subsection work eroded

As amendments from conservatives tilted the resolution to a harder stance on homosexuality, several members of the sexuality subsection urged the bishops not to undermine their two-week effort at reaching a compromise. The subsection's work was being steadily eroded by amendments, said Archbishop David Crawley of British Columbia and Yukon (Canada). What had been a document that presented "a face of love and compassion," he said, "is gradually, bit by bit, step by step, turning into a judgement and condemnation."

The subsection's "painful but deeply privileged" process, said Bishop David Russell of Grahamstown (Southern Africa) "was an amazing coming together. Please, please, brothers and sisters, don't crush that achievement."

But these pleas were largely unsuccessful. While able to retain a commitment "to listen to the experience of homosexual people," the bishops failed to sway others from adding the clause on "rejecting homosexual practice."

Bishop Robert Ihloff of Maryland (USA) and Bishop Catherine Roskam, suffragan bishop of New York (USA), spoke against the amendment that put the conference on record "rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture." The amendment, sponsored by Archbishop Donald Mtetemela of Ruaha (Tanzania), was approved 389 to 190.

As a bishop who has had a change of heart on this issue through his ministry with homosexuals in his diocese-both lay and ordained-Bishop Ihloff said he was committed to continuing the dialogue. Bishop Mtetemela's amendment "would ruin dialogue," and alienate a number of bishops, he said.

Bishop Roskam acknowledged that conservatives had the votes to adopt the amendment, but said they would not necessarily win the hearts and minds of the Communion as a whole. "It will be a Pyrrhic victory, and we will have a divided church," she said.

While a previous speaker, Bishop Peter Adebiyi of Owo (Nigeria), had called any condoning of homosexuality "evangelical suicide," Bishop Roskam asserted that "to condemn it, in the form it has been condemned, is evangelistic suicide in my region."

Division was on the mind of Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis as well. "We have the potential to work either for unity or for divisiveness," she said. Crusading for correct answers, as the church has painfully learned, can prove fruitless, she noted. Often times the church has prescribed a teaching, only to repent of it later.

"I want to suggest that our call is not to correctness," she said. "It is to love." As bishops, she continued, "we are to feed the flock, and more importantly, to love them and to help them learn to love each other."

Similar pleas were made by other bishops. Bishop Michael Bourke of Wolverhampton (England) warned the bishops against using the Bible "to oppress people, especially people who are different." He also implored the bishops, particularly bishops who see homosexuality as sinful, to listen to the experience of gays and lesbians "and confront our own prejudices."

Conservatives meet setbacks

Conservatives, while achieving their overall aims, also encountered setbacks. A resolution introduced by Bishop Eustace Kamanyire of Ruwenzi (Uganda) as substitute language was resoundingly defeated. Originally proposed by the Central and East Africa Region, it declared all sexual promiscuity, including committed homosexual relationships, to be sinful, and called gays and lesbians living in such relationships, as well as bishops who ordain them, to repentance.

Also defeated by overwhelming margins were an amendment from the West Africa Region condemning homosexuality as sin, and an amendment from Archbishop Moses Tay, primate of Southeast Asia, that called for the primates to study human sexuality in their own provinces, rather than engage in a Communion-wide process jointly organized by the primates and the Anglican Consultative Council.

Several conservatives also sought a more explicit condemnation of homosexuality, among them Bishop Alexander Malik of the Diocese of Lahore (Pakistan). He criticized the resolution adopted by the conference as "ambiguous, unclear, and impotent." He also took issue with the resolution's condemnation of homophobia-later amended to "irrational fear of homosexuals." Instead of unequivocally condemning homosexuality, he said, it seems to be condemning those who oppose homosexuality. "If we speak against the homosexuals, it is certainly not gay bashing but a matter of doctrine, faith and dogma," he said.

In perhaps the afternoon's most provocative statement, Bishop Malik asked whether bishops who ordain non-celibate homosexuals would consider bringing a resolution supporting bestiality.

Section report on sexuality accepted

The only clear consensus emerging from the plenary concerned the Section One report, "Called to Full Humanity," which was received unanimously by the bishops. The report, echoing the section's submitted resolution, stakes out a middle ground position, affirming past Lambeth Conference statements on the sanctity of marriage but also opposing homophobia and "any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

While affirming marriage as the only acceptable means for sexual expression, the report recognizes that gays and lesbians are loved by God, and that all baptized members of the church, regardless of their sexual orientation, "are full members of the Body of Christ." The report also acknowledges "that we are not of one mind about homosexuality."

At the beginning of Wednesday morning's session, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town (Southern Africa), chair of the section that dealt with both international debt and human sexuality, told the conference in his introductory comments: "Our work was intensive . . . arduous . . . hammered out on an anvil of pain."

"It is an under-statement to say that the sub-section on sexuality has been far from straightforward," he said. "Here our different cultures, theologies and understandings and interpretations of Biblical texts nearly broke any chance of coming to some sort of agreement on the question of homosexuality."

Even so, through "much careful listening," the sub-section was able to agree unanimously on the report as a way to "represent where the Communion is," he said. "This part of our report is not only about homosexuality. There is much of great value in what it says about all sexual relationships."

Bishops stunned by decision

Though stunned by the vote, supporters of gays and lesbians pledged to continue to work for their full inclusion in the life of the church. At a press conference organized by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement immediately following the plenary session, several bishops shared their disappointment and their resolve to stay in dialogue, but questioned whether their conservative colleagues were equally committed.

Primus Richard Holloway of Scotland said he "never felt this depressed and so close to tears in my life," but said he would continue his efforts as an advocate for gay and lesbian Anglicans. "I feel gutted, I feel betrayed, but the struggle will go on," he said.

As a heterosexual man, Bishop Holloway said he has been aware of the homophobia experienced by gay and lesbian members of his church, "but sitting in there this afternoon I felt it."

Bishop Waynick of Indianapolis said she was "saddened" by the result of the debate. "I think we have chosen foolishly today, but I believe God is still reigning."

In a written statement handed out after the press conference, Bishop John Spong of Newark (USA) said the vote would not stand indefinitely. "Be assured that today's minority will inevitably be tomorrow's majority," he said.

Bishop Richard Randerson of Canberra & Goulburn (Australia) said the decision brought division to the church. Gay and lesbian members in committed relationships believe they are living according to Christian values, but by labeling these relationships as unscriptural, the conference is excluding them from the church, he said. "I think it is totally inappropriate for a conference of this sort to 'un-church' people who conscientiously believe themselves to be members of the church," he said.

Chances for further dialogue

Leaders of the Wednesday plenary session were not as willing to paint the outcome as a debacle for progressives. At a press conference, Archbishop Robin Eames of Armagh (Ireland), who chaired the plenary session, said he was not surprised by the decision, based on conversations he had with bishops during the conference. He also pointed out that the resolution would be referred to the Primates for implementation. "Looking ahead, what the Lambeth Conference said today is to the Primates, 'Monitor this, watch this,'" he said. "Certain trends will develop. It's not the end of the story by any means."

Bishop Duncan Buchanan, chair of the sexuality sub-section, insisted that "nobody's existing ministry will be invalidated by this development." In some respects, he said, the vote is a step forward. "Ten years ago an attempt to consider homosexuality was howled off the stage. At least now the word is part of the history of Lambeth."

Nan Cobbey, E.T. Malone Jr., Allan Reeder, Katie Sherrod, Lisa Barrow-Clough and James Thrall contributed to this article.