The Anglican Communion is splitting over homosexuality. In Kenya, where I was born and brought up, the Anglican Church (ACK) is aligned with Anglicans elsewhere in the world who hold that the recent ordination as bishop of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, and church blessings of same-sex unions, are un-Biblical, betrayals of Christianity. They are preparing to part company with Anglicans who disagree with them.
As one who completely accepts gay people within the church, I wanted to go to Kenya to keep discussion going on Homosexuality and Biblical Interpretation.
My original intention was to give seminars on Homosexuality and Biblical Interpretation to whoever in the ACK would come, but the Archbishop of Kenya, Benjamin Nzimbi, turned that down. So I decided to stay with Kenyans I already knew well, including Anglican bishops Johannes Angela, Joseph Wasonga, and Francis Mwayi Abieru, and discover through one to one conversations what Kenyan Anglicans thought on the subject. In order to brief me on the state of the ACK, my brother-in-law introduced me to John Chesworth, a missionary at St. Paul’s Theological College, Limuru, and that was where I began to meet the people whose names appear here.
Here are edited extracts from my journal about my trip. Mostly they record what happened; the personal reflections I added at the time are included in a different typeface. I have given some people pseudonyms which are in Italics.
In Kenya, February and March 2006
(I used the first week in Kenya for reading and reflection, before traveling to Limuru.)
Joseph Wasonga had sent me a letter commenting on my Homosexuality and Bible Interpretation project, saying: maybe it’s appropriate for discussions with the bishops or theological colleges, next year perhaps, but with ordinary people it would just cause confusion
This depressed me at first, but now I think I might be able to arrange a theological discussion next year, involving other British Christians sympathetic to Kenya and not just me – or not even me.
Anna Bahati, a graduate teacher and Christian leader, recently spent time in Europe where she has learnt a lot more about homosexuality. She said:-
‘I started by knowing that homosexuality was a disorder. Now I know it is far more complex than that.’
‘Don’t be afraid in what you are doing. Not everyone in the churches in Kenya thinks
like Archbishop Nzimbi’
‘People are wrong in saying that there is no such thing as African homosexuality. There have been men who lived with other men, especially in certain tribes such as the Kuria, Kamba and Kikuyu, even women who married other women, whose marriages were openly acknowledged in the community.’
Dr. Joseph Galgalo, Head of Divinity at St. Paul’s Limuru (1), sees the question of Biblical Authority as crucial. A Biblical Authority argument might go like this (not his own views, I think):- ‘If I believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, then I must follow what it says about homosexuality; that means that if my fellow Christian doesn’t follow that particular scriptural path then he has put himself outside the community of the faithful, and I must treat him as such – though that doesn’t stop me loving him in Christ.’
He appeared thoroughly in favour of open debate, where people would say, ‘I hear you, I respect your views, even thought I disagree with them’. Limuru’s teaching of theology is very open: he and most staff put across diverse views. They have students from a variety of denominations, and welcome a diversity of opinions. (Other Kenyan theological colleges are less open, and more strongly denominational).
‘Teaching Bible Interpretation can include interpreting the word of God in its cultural context: Leviticus for instance is not necessarily God’s word for all time.’ I asked him about Joseph Wasonga’s suggestion. Would such a discussion be possible at Limuru? He said the College management would have to agree it; I should ask Dr. Mombo (see below). For Anglican theological colleges, it would depend on the local bishop.
Against the common view that homosexual behaviour is a Western introduction, John Chesworth refers to the story of the Uganda Martyrs. The first Christian converts there included adolescent boys at the court of King Mutesa. They refused to be used as sexual objects by the king, and he had them put to death. This story makes it highly likely that homosexuality was known among the Baganda people before they knew about white culture.
Mutesas’s demands were unacceptable because it was an abuse of his power – far from consensual sex! Suppose the objects of Mutesa’s attention had been adolescent girls? Suppose he had told the young men to accept bribes or to poison his enemies? Would these not have been equally unacceptable from a Christian point of view?
(I then moved to Nyanza province where I spent most of the remaining time.)
Johannes Angela asked me where I stood on homosexuality, and I told him.His view:
- the Bible forbids homosexuality, so we have no choice but to treat it as sin;
- homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, not natural. (Romans 1. 26-27.)
I said Paul also uses ‘against nature’ to describe God’s actions in incorporating the Gentiles with his people (Romans 11.24). People who find they have no choice but to be gay, experience gayness as their ‘natural state’. I suspect whatever humans believe to be ‘natural’ doesn’t tie up with what is right in God’s eyes.
I have been listening this week to groups of people who are living with HIVAIDS. Physical problems abound; psychological ones centre on the stigma of HIVAIDS. Church groups, with minuscule resources, offer hope. I wonder if I can talk about the experience of people living with HIVAIDS as a way of encouraging Christians to face embarrassing and contentious issues. I think HIVAIDS has some genuine parallels with homosexuality: both require from Christians a re-thinking of traditional (including Biblical) attitudes. It seems to me that HIVAIDS, rather than homosexuality, is the big sexual problem facing the Anglican Church of Kenya. To give hope, Christians have to learn a new openness about sex and a way of looking at the Bible which emphasizes blessings on the outcast rather than curses on the disobedient.
I’ve begun to think Joseph’s suggestion is worth trying. A formal dialogue/discussion on homosexuality might take shape like this:
- a team of 3 from UK,
- one at least theologically qualified,
- one at least female.
- About 3 weeks in Kenya,
- engaging in formal pre-programmed discussions.
- Time for informal talks.
I have written to ask Archbishop Nzimbi if I can greet him in Nairobi. If so, I’ll raise it with him, after sounding out the staff at Limuru.
Bishop Francis Mwayi Abieru explained his views as he took me to Kokise Anglican Theological College:
- people committed to Jesus must be very clear about what is sin, and resist it.
- The stories of the Flood and Sodom (Genesis 6 and 19) show God’s attitude to human evil.
But he listened to me when I spoke about attitudes to sin in the Bible which contradicted one another (e.g. I John 1.8 and 3.9), and also listened to my experience of meeting, and eventually accepting, gay people in the church.
Start of a 5-day visit to Maseno School (boys’ secondary), where my father had been Principal……
In my sermon to the boys I included the theme of stigma, exemplified by the woman with the ‘issue of blood’ (Luke 8.42). I said:-
‘Most adolescent boys are fascinated to discover intimate things about women – but if you’re not fascinated by girls, don’t worry. God made us all different, and thank God for that.’
I hope some boy who feels he is gay would have picked up the signal and felt reassured.
Eating in a bar in Maseno, I was at a table with 2 retired professional men, Anglicans, from nearby Ematsi. Both remembered my father and were delighted to discover I was his son. One was about to settle in California, so I asked him about US Anglicans’ liberal theology, and this led us on to the ordination of Gene Robinson. Both men strongly expressed the traditional ACK arguments that homosexuality is:-
- Not what the missionaries taught.
The whole discussion was without rancour, and on parting their final words were about the pleasure of reviving memories of my father. What would my father have taught about homosexuality? Dad was a man of his time; few 1940s Englishmen talked about sex. But I think that on Biblical interpretation he was not a literalist. He recommended to me Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, a product of liberal theologians. He once wrote to me that he didn’t believe in the Devil. Why? Because schoolboys who had done something wrong would say ‘The Devil made me’ – a way of avoiding responsibility. I suspect he wouldn’t have demonized homosexuality.
Esther Mombo, Dean of Studies at St. Paul’s Limuru, and a compiler of the Anglican Communion’s Windsor Report on how to deal with the crisis over homosexuality (2), said:
- The ACK has no official position on homosexuality; it’s Archbishop Nzimbi’s personal position, it hasn’t been debated in synod.
- What worries her are heterosexual sins. ‘Let the church deal with rape, child abuse…’
- Missionaries preached against polygamy, demanding male converts put away all wives except their first; their original families didn’t accept them back, and some turned to prostitution to survive; then the church condemned them.
On debating homosexuality with Limuru students, she saw no problem.
Archbishop Nzimbi gave me an hour of conversation, always friendly, with some laughter. He said the ACK was always willing to listen to other views on homosexuality (American pro-gay bishops and theologians had talked with him), but sticks firmly to scripture in opposing it. So would other Kenya church leaders, and Muslims. I raised Joseph’s suggestion, and we talked round the idea of me and one or more other people meeting the ACK Bishops within the next 12 months. We agreed it should be discussion not debate, listening not trying to score points. When he gave me his arguments about homosexuality, I would respond, ‘Yes, this is the sort of theme we need to discuss at the meeting.’ – not attempting to respond with my own views. He showed me with pride today’s paper, featuring his public apology on behalf of the churches in Kenya for stigmatizing HIVAIDS. If I wanted to be adversarial, I would love to quote that back on some future occasion word for word, except that I would replace ‘HIVAIDS’ with ‘homosexuality’. But we would need a much more subtle and gentle approach to keep dialogue going and achieve mutual understanding.
In Nyanza, I saw Francis again, to get his reactions to my proposal to the Archbishop. To my surprise, he was enthusiastic, advising me to publicise it so as to ensure that the bishops came:-
‘Call it, not just a conference, but ‘A conference on the theological implications of homosexuality’’.
I was to draft a letter to Archbishop Nzimbi as a record of our conversation and to suggest how the idea might develop, show it to Francis before sending it, and send a copy to Joseph and Johannes.
Johannes called at Kokise Theological College, with me; so I alerted David Kodia, the Principal, to my proposal. He was happy for us to come there on our next tour, but said, ‘Don’t expect to change anybody’s mind!’
We also met Bishop James Ochiel of South Nyanza, so I told him about my proposal.
In Nairobi, sorting myself out for my return, I again greeted Archbishop Nzimbi, who had come for a bishops’ meeting. I was introduced to the Bishop of Taita-Taveta, and his young driver, an ordinand. At breakfast the young man asked me about the C of E and homosexuality. We discussed Biblical texts, the life of gay Christians, the idea the homosexuality is inborn, like left – handedness (That’s an analogy worth developing!) and why St. Paul remained celibate. Here was a listener who was attentive, informed and willing to learn. I asked him if he could suggest a discussion at his college, the next time he saw his Principal, and also tell his bishop what I was up to.
I also told Simon Oketch, Bishop of Maseno North, about my proposal. I was just about to post my letter to Joseph Wasonga when he himself walked in! He read it quickly and said he was happy with it. He also suggested some financial contribution towards the Bishops’ conference would be welcome: outlying bishops would think twice before paying the fare to Nairobi.
No one had told me beforehand about James Ochiel being at Kokise, or about the Bishops’ meeting in Nairobi. These coincidences bear the mark of a divine plan for me to meet the bishops, so they not only know what I want to do, but have heard it from my own mouth.
(1) Dr. Galgalo has been for 5 years a member of the Anglican Communion’s Doctrine Commission, working on what it means to be ‘in communion’. The Commission has no mandate to discuss homosexuality, a fact which several of its members on both sides of the debate have objected to. He is also on the Anglican Communion’s new Panel of Reference, set up to adjudicate cases referred to them where parties in Anglican churches have fallen out over the homosexuality issue. The aim, he said, is to mediate reconciliation for those willing to take it, but already some parties are beyond reconciliation.
(2) The Windsor Report was compiled by an international gathering of Anglican bishops and theologians in 2004-5. Dr. Mombo said her worst experience while working on the Windsor Report, was the contrast between 2 groups in USA – one a mixture of pro- and anti-gay, still willing to talk with each other; the other anti-gay, expressing hatred, anger and bitterness. She added: the Report asked for an apology from both sides, USA for consecrating Gene Robinson and the anti-gay groups for their hate. It didn’t say the former was wrong; it did say it was wrong for African bishops to be operating in conservative US parishes.
Henry Mayor, a retired Anglican priest, is seeking support for his proposed visit and discussion – through prayer, funding and participation. Anyone interested in supporting him
in any of these ways should contact him:
Rev. Henry W. Mayor, 57 Hill Street, Manchester M20 3FY. Tel. 0(+44)161 434 2955.