Anglican church speaks with two tongues on same-sex unions

The Anglican church of Southern Africa believes same-sex unions are “very unnatural” and that the issue is not up for democratic debate.

That, at least, is according to the second-most powerful person in the church, Sitembele Mzamane, the Bishop of Mthatha, who gave voice to the majority from the church’s provincial synod, which last week voted against blessing same-sex civil marriages.

His comments fly in the face of those made earlier this week by the head of the church in Southern Africa, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba who, in announcing the church’s decision, said: “There are no winners or losers in the kingdom of God, and we recognised that, whichever way the vote went, there was going to be pain.”

The Anglican church of Southern Africa represents Anglicans in South Africa, Swaziland, Angola, Namibia, Lesotho, Mozambique and the island of Saint Helena.

Makgoba and Mzamane’s comments are reflective of conflicting views and tensions in the church over blessing same-sex civil unions. The strongest opposition to the motion came from bishops, 16 of whom voted against and six in favour.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on behalf of the church, Mzamane said: “If they want to marry, that’s fine. But they should not come to the church and make us try and change our approach. Because this kind of life is very unnatural.”

The initial motion brought before the synod also proposed that bishops could provide for clergy who identify as LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex) and are in legal same-sex civil unions to be licenced to minister in parishes. The proposers, however, withdrew this motion before the debate began.

Judith Kotzê, the director of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, an organisation that lobbies and educates religious communities about the need for greater inclusion, spoke about the disillusionment many same-sex couples feel as a result of the church’s long-held stance.

Kotzê said: “Frustration, anger and disappointment – as well as viewing the church as irrelevant and dishonest – can all be found as responses to the church’s view on same-sex unions. The sad part is that not only will many LGBTI people of faith be justified to leave the institutional church behind, but their parents, families and friends will too.”

Kotzê said the opposing views voiced by the Anglican church’s two most senior members – Makgoba and Mzamane – were a reality and “a fact that will not go away”.

“The church would therefore be more credible and relevant once it acknowledges diversity and treats it with an emphasis on the human dignity of all, especially the marginalised and vulnerable,” she said.

Kotzê added, however: “I do believe we have come some way – especially with the relatively narrow margin seen in the clergy and laity’s respective vote counts. It is just incredibly painful that other really strong convictions against it are still held.”

Michael Weeder, the dean of the Anglican church’s St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, said: “In coming to this decision, the church has failed its gospel obligation. Those who voted ‘no’ have brought greater pain on to those who were praying for a strong ‘yes’.”

Two of Weeder’s parishioners are 81-year-old Gerald Dagnin, and his partner of close on 60 years, 80-year-old Walter Sassman.

Dagnin, who entered into a civil union with Sassman in 2010 said: “It would mean the world to us to have a beautiful ceremony where we’d be blessed within the church itself.”

Anglican priest Brian Smith has been in a relationship with his partner Chris Adams for the past 12 years. These names are pseudonyms because, were the pair to enter into a civil union, Smith would not be allowed to minister.

Reacting to the church’s decision, Smith said: “I am horrified. It’s a very difficult thing to talk about.”

Ordained into the priesthood in 2013, Smith refused to end his then close on 10-year relationship with Adams. His decision has resulted in a situation he calls “a horrible burden to bear”.

“Before I became a priest the church knew that, on the one hand, I had this serious intention to become a priest, but on the other hand, I needed to be in a relationship – this relationship.”

Adams adds: “It is really very frustrating, because you see your friends, whether they are in same-sex relationships or not, having the freedom to get married if they choose. In this country we can legally get married but, because he’s a priest in this church, we can’t. It’s as though freedom is only given to certain people.”

The situation has led to Adams effectively leaving the church. “I made the decision not to live a double life. I couldn’t do it any more, especially in a place where integrity, honesty, love and openness are meant to be so important.”

Weeder says there is a sense that the issue of homosexuality and same-sex unions is an “urban reality and not really of importance in those parts of the country that are more tradition-based”.

“Tradition is always being positioned as a stagnant pool, as opposed to something that leads us from the past into the lived reality of the present.”

When asked whether he believed the church would soon change its stance on same-sex unions, Weeder said: “We are really prisoners of hope.”

Equally hopeful that the church will alter its position on unions such as the one he shares with Adams, Smith said: “I believe that the spirit of the Anglican church is rooted in its openness. And that is beautiful.”

He added: “But for now, what this decision boils down to is human lives that are being put on hold.”

During his address on Saturday, Makgoba said the matter could be brought before the next provincial synod in 2019. Mzamane says the church is not going to change soon. “[It] will take a lot of time. It is not going to be an easy thing.” He added: “No priest can simply do what he or she pleases. You must realise that what holds us together is our tradition and the Bible.”

This, says Kotzê, is why as much as change is needed in the church, it can only be spurred on by “pressure from the outside”.

The lives of Dagnin and Sassman have been affected by laws and church rules for many decades. Unsurprising then that Dagnin says: “This has been up for discussion for so long that I’m not sure any more. We would like it to happen in our lifetime, yes. But, you know, we’ll leave that decision in God’s hands.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

The Other Foundation

Carl Collison

Carl Collison

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. He has contributed to a range of local and international publications, covering social justice issues as well as art and is committed to defending and advancing the human rights of the LGBTI community in Southern Africa. Read more from Carl Collison

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