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African Anglicans and homosexuality

13 October 2007

I’ve been watching from the sidelines as the Anglican Communion is tearing itself apart over homosexuality.  The debate seems to generate more heat than light, and both sides seem to be talking past each other.

It seems to be a war of polemical slogans. The African “intrasigence” has provoked a storm of racist bigotry in the Western homosexual lobby, with some bloggers being quite free with racist insults. The West is accused of immorality and decadence, but very few have looked at the deeper issues.

An exception to this is a piece by Rod Dreher, St Charles Langa and African homosexuality, which looks at some of the missiological underpinnings of the African attitudes at least. Rod Dreher in turn quotes an article by Philip Jenkins, in which he says

The Muslim context helps explain the sensitivity of gay issues in one other key respect. In the region later known as Uganda, Christianity first arrived in the 1870s, when the area was already under Muslim influence and a hunting ground for Arab slave-raiders. The king of Buganda had adopted Arab customs of pederasty, and he expected the young men of his court to submit to his demands. But a growing number of Christian courtiers and pages refused to participate, despite his threats, and an enraged king launched a persecution that resulted in hundreds of martyrdoms: On a single day, some 30 Bugandans were burned alive. Yet the area’s churches flourished, and, eventually, the British expelled the Arab slavers. That foundation story remains well-known in the region, and it intertwines Christianity with resistance to tyranny and Muslim imperialism–both symbolized by sexual deviance. Reinforcing such memories are more recent experiences with Muslim tyrants, such as Idi Amin, whose victims included the head of his country’s Anglican Church. For many Africans, then, sexual unorthodoxy has implications that are at once un-Christian, anti-national, and oppressive.

In the 1970s the Anglican Church in South Africa adopted a revised calendar, which included the commemoration of the Martyrs of Uganda on 3 June, and in the “Ministers Book” for the revised liturgy, this is what it said about them

The Martyrs of Uganda, 1886

When towards the end of the 19th century missionaries, both Roman Catholic and Anglican, came to Uganda to preach the gospel, they were coldly received by the Kabaka, the ruler of that country, who could not be persuaded otherwise than that they were the vanguard of white invaders who would ‘eat his land’. Despite obstacles placed in their way, many people received baptism, including members of the royal family. This enraged the king, and, with his suspicions increased by Moslem advisers, he ordered that three Anglican boys, who had recently been received into the Church, be put to death. This was the signal for a three years’ persecution, in which many Christians died, including James Hannington, their newly-appointed bishop. Finally, the nation became so sickened by the senseless butchery that the people rose up and drove the Kabaka out. The martyrs’ blood was not spilt in vain, and today the great majority of the people of Uganda have accepted Christ.

South African Anglicans seem to have been fairly neutral in the battles being waged elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, and the account above gives a lot less information than that of Philip Jenkins. The protagonists in the Anglican battle, on the African side, seem to be Uganda and Nigeria, both countries on the border of Muslim and Christian Africa. South Africa is far removed from the tensions in those countries.

What is actually being seen in the Anglican battles is an instance of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of civilizations”, where Western and African civilisations meet, with Islamic civilisation as the third force, affecting both in different ways.

Another point, not mentioned by Rod Dreher (I don’t know whether it was mentioned by Philip Jenkins because I could not read his article) was that 1886, the year of the martys of Uganda, was when the Scramble for Africa was just getting going. The Anglican missionaries were evangelical Anglicans from the British Church Missionary Society, and the Roman Catholic missionaries were French, and the French and British were imperial rivals. The Kabaka’s fears that the missionaries might be the forerunners of invaders who would “eat his land” were not without foundation.

I have more than a passing interest in the topic, not least because my wife’s great-grand uncle, Charles William Pearson, was one of the pioneer CMS missionaries in Uganda, and led a party of four missionaries up the Nile to Uganda, taking nine months to get there (they left London on 8 May 1878 and arrived at Rutabaga, Uganda, on 14 February 1879). That was before the persecution, and CW Pearson spent only two years in Uganda, and returned to England because of ill-health.

One of the effects of the New Imperialism (which led to the Scramble for Africa) was that British missionaries after that period were affected by it, and were imbued with a sense of racial superiority that was not nearly as pronounced in earlier missionaries. The Anglican Church in Nigeria had a black bishop, Samuel Crowther, in the mid-19th century, but in the era of the New Imperialism British missionaries were denouncing that as an error, and racism flourished.

And now, with the culture wars of the 21st century, it seems that that racist imperialism is rearing its ugly head again.

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