OPINION: The Anglican Communion must act against the Church of Nigeria’s homophobia

by Jeremy Pemberton | Blogger
Thursday, 6 June 2019 08:11 GMT

Christian gay rights campaigners protest in the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, southern Britain, January 15, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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The Church of Nigeria is reportedly seeking special legal protections to enable it to be homophobic

Jeremy Pemberton is a former canon in the Church of England who, in 2014, became the first priest to marry his same-sex partner

Same-sex sexual activity is still criminal in 70 countries around the world. The majority of these are in Africa. Of course, the elimination of criminalisation is not a real measure of tolerance: homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt or Russia, but both countries harass gay people relentlessly.

But Africa is the epicentre of intolerance. And African churches are among the most extreme supporters of anti-LGBT+ actions.

In May, the BBC reported on the expulsion of four clergy from the diocese of Isiala Ngwa of the Anglican Communion within the Church of Nigeria. Bishop Temple Nwaogu said that one canon and three other clergy had been dismissed and their licences revoked after a diocesan board found them guilty of unspecified homosexual practices.

More worryingly still, the report said that the Church of Nigeria would be seeking “special status” in its witch-hunt against LGBT+ people. In fact, Nigeria has some of the most far-reaching and punitive laws in the world against gay and transgender people already.

On January 7, 2014, Nigeria’s former president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill (SSMPA) into law. The notional purpose of the law is to prohibit marriage between persons of the same sex.

In reality, its scope is much wider.

The law forbids any cohabitation between same-sex sexual partners and bans any “public show of same-sex amorous relationship”. The SSMPA imposes a 10-year prison sentence on anyone who “registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation” or “supports” the activities of such organisations.

Punishments are severe, ranging from 10 to 14 years in prison.

Such provisions build on existing legislation in Nigeria but go much further: while the colonial-era criminal and penal codes outlawed sexual acts between members of the same sex, the SSMPA effectively criminalises lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender LGBT persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

How the law is implemented is also a matter of concern. The executive director of a non-government organisation based in the capital Abuja told Human Rights Watch: “Basically, because of [the SSMPA] the police treat people in any way that they please. They torture, force people to confess, and when they hear about a gathering of men, they just head over to make arrests.”

What more could any Christian church do against this very vulnerable community? Why would they need “special status” to harass LGBT+ clergy and lay people any more than they already are?

The actions of the Bishop of Isiala Ngwa and the plans for the church as a whole to seek “special status” are flatly against everything that the Anglican Communion has said about how LGBT+ people should be treated.

At the Primates meeting of 2016 (the meeting of the leaders of national churches), Anglican leaders condemned “homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation”, adding that "this conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ”.

Shortly after the meeting of the Anglican primates, Archbishop Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, held a press conference in which he apologised “to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for the hurt and pain they have experienced by the Anglican Communion over the years”.

“It is for me a constant source of deep sadness that people are persecuted for their sexuality,” Welby said. “I want to take this opportunity personally to say how sorry I am for the hurt and pain in the past and present that the church has caused."

Now there is more evidence that the homophobia in Nigeria continues unabated in religious contexts, and indeed, that one large member of the Anglican Communion wants special legal protections to enable it to pursue its vendetta against LGBT+ people even more viciously.

If the words of the leadership of the Anglican Communion are to be taken seriously then the Archbishop of Canterbury will have to do a lot more than hand-wringing to make the pious declarations of his leaders’ meetings anything more than hypocritical face-saving.