Tutu’s dream of a church where all belong made real

The late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s reputation as a global human rights icon is legendary. He fused his struggle credentials with his theological convictions alongside other faith leaders in the fight against apartheid. This included long commitments to inclusion and diversity in churches in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. 

Tutu made it clear that any exclusion of some of God’s creation was part of the same logic of discrimination used about other traits such as race. In Aliens in the Household of God (1997), Tutu declared that “the church has joined the world in committing what I consider to be the ultimate blasphemy – making the children of God doubt they are children of God”

At the start of the postapartheid dispensation, he insisted that South African Christians had a responsibility to address social injustices faced by people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, saying, “If the church, after victory over apartheid, is looking for a worthy moral cause, then this is it: the fight against homophobia and hetero-sexism. I pray that we will engage in it with the same dedication and fervour which we showed against the injustice of racism.” 

South Africa’s church history included both harmful theological scripts that legitimated social injustices, and theological resistance to those same scripts. Many of its faith leaders, inspired by black and liberation theologies, challenged apartheid and then, like Tutu, drew on their experiences of racial discrimination and exclusion within churches to apply a similar critique to other patterns of social injustice. They called for new ways of becoming inclusive faith communities in relation to gender and sexuality as logical extensions of a liberating faith.  

This offered an alternative to media tendencies to simplistically present the whole African continent as religiously homophobic contrasted against an accepting, more secular West. South African queer theologies help reshape engagement on LGBTIQ+ issues towards a bottom-up intersectional approach to social justice by drinking from the wells of contextual and prophetic theology.

Writing in 2016 for the Mail & Guardian, author Carl Collison suggests that in recent years “a queer thing is going on in Southern African churches” with a vocal minority disrupting religious narratives that refuse full acceptance to LGBTIQ+ persons. While further legal advances were made in Gaum vs DRC in 2019 to reduce sexuality discrimination in churches, a gap still exists between the legal framework provided, and a largely religiously conservative society. Pockets of safety and diversity do exist, but there has been a spike in hate crimes especially against black lesbians and gender-nonconforming persons. 

The ongoing lack of safe, inclusive spaces for LGBTIQ+ people in local churches remains a concern. A conservative backlash by some at senior church levels has led to hiding, exclusion and trauma for many LGBTIQ+ Christians who want to worship at so-called mainstream churches. In a 2016 report Canaries in the Coal Mines, Mark Gevisser identifies a painful narrative of social exclusion where LGBTIQ+ persons are told they don’t belong in their families, communities and churches, and excluded from religious rituals such as weddings and funerals. He highlights the urgent need to nurture faith spaces that centre the full belonging of LGBTIQ+ persons in Southern Africa. 

A believer sits on the floor during a service at the church of “Eglise de Dieu en Afrique au Rwanda” (God’s church in Africa), the inclusive church for the LGBT community, in Kigali, Rwanda, on November 14, 2021, the first re-opened day after the closure since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. – Although homosexuality is not banned in the East African country, many LGBT Rwandans experience discrimination at every turn: fired from jobs, disowned by relatives, denied medical treatment and even beaten up by bigots. That makes the evangelical Eglise De Dieu en Afrique au Rwanda (EDAR) church a courageous outlier, willing to risk condemnation by religious conservatives over its open acceptance of LGBT worshippers. (Photo by Simon WOHLFAHRT / AFP)

In 2013, Tutu announced, “I cannot worship a homophobic God,” again equating the LGBTIQ+ cause in the church directly with the struggle against apartheid. He stressed the potential of religious leaders and the need to equip them to think differently about interpretations of the Bible. In a 2017 report Silent No More, Zimbabwean scholar Masiiwa Ragies Gunda suggests that “the greatest obstacle to the full acceptance of LGBTI [sic] people in Southern Africa is religiously sanctioned homophobia” which maintains a perception of “us and them”. 

However, he also highlights inclusive churches and religious leaders who offer a different path, driven by a theology of welcome. These voices and practices need to be heard if churches in South Africa are not to remain divided. Gunda also sounds a note of hope here that “LGBTI Christians in Southern Africa have not given up hope of being acknowledged and accepted. Despite messages of rejection and dehumanisation which have driven many away, most still want to be a part of their churches.”

This insight resonates with findings from a theological consultation on churches and homophobia in South Africa in 2016, which notes that “Christian churches should be promoting acceptance and reshaping social attitudes, journeying towards making the church welcoming to all children of God”.  The 2019 report From Exclusion to Embrace formed the basis for the need for these workshops and shows that for local churches to move from communities that merely tolerate diversity to communities who claim, celebrate and insist on diversity, they urgently need to create safe spaces for embodied encounters between queer and straight congregants to develop a vision of social justice that can reconcile sexuality, human rights and faith. In such spaces, cycles of LGBTIQ+ shame and hiding can be broken and webs of relationality can help create a bonded “we”.

Human sexuality workshops

In 2019, we designed and delivered new human sexuality workshops targeting members from local churches who were already journeying towards inclusion. We wanted to create safe spaces of encounter where healing, storytelling and celebration could take place between straight and queer people of faith. We used proven methods which drew on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) around speaking and witnessing truth-telling as a prerequisite for moving forwards. The three-day immersive workshops were informed by trauma psychologist and TRC commissioner Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s insistence on the need to address societal trauma by “making public spaces intimate”. 

Participants came from a range of ethnic groups,  socioeconomic locations and ages and were invited to give feedback. They appreciated the creation of a safe place for honest and open conversations about topics historically taboo within faith communities. Many participants highlighted recognition of similarities between their struggles and, as a result, the possibility of personal and communal healing and of building solidarity. A queer participant involved in church leadership said, “The workshop was a wonderful reminder that ‘communion’ can truly happen at the deepest level with relative strangers if facilitated with gentle and carefully considered paths of conversations…” 

One trans participant remarked: “It was a safe enough space in which I could explore my embodiment/physicality/sexuality in light of the complexity of my whole being and story. The vulnerability shared encouraged rapid bridge-building.”

The workshops also offered straight participants opportunities to engage with their sexuality in new ways and opened their eyes to the different experiences of queer others and how they have often been wounded by their treatment in churches. One older participant explained that she was only now “awakening to the reality that there are different sexual genders and how they are treated by churches and communities. I knew about this [but] had never voiced my opinion to support.”

Another said, “As a straight person a lot of the bigger themes about body/sacredness, sin, pleasure, shame, anger, hurt and so on all apply to my story and it was really helpful to reflect on those things… As a straight white woman in South Africa, my story has always mattered, often at the expense of others’ stories… I needed to make much more room for the stories of those around me.” 

More than 60 people have attended workshops so far, including a recent and developing partnership with the South African Council of Churches. 

Returning to Tutu’s unrealised dream, many voices who support LGBTIQ+ inclusion and belonging do exist within South African faith contexts, who have often been shaped by an intersectional history around social justice. This offers opportunities on which to build. However, congregations must begin with a confession of the current disunity of their church on this issue if a genuine reunification is to take place based on trust, freedom and diversity and not on conforming uniformity, shame and hiding. We need safe and healing spaces that do not negate fear, pain and lament by LGBTIQ+ Christians, but enable difficult stories to be held, heard and told within churches. 

The human sexuality workshops will be rolled out to more people within South Africa in 2022 with the support of The Other Foundation. They assist faith communities to let go of a cheap welcome or patterns of “we love you, but…” double talk, to help churches undergo the hard process of seeing, hearing and building diversity of belonging and help realise Tutu’s dream of a church where all can fully belong.

If your church is interested in participating in a human sexuality workshop, please contact Laurie Gaum on [email protected]

Dr Selina Palm is a gender and sexuality researcher, activist and theologian based at the unit for religion and development research at Stellenbosch University. Laurie Gaum is a queer activist and minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. This article is based, in part, on their 2021 paper in Theologia in Loco

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Selina Palm
Dr Selina Palm is a gender and sexuality researcher, activist and theologian based at the unit for religion and development research at Stellenbosch University.
Laurie Gaum
Laurie Gaum is a queer activist and minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. This article is based, in part, on their 2021 paper in Theologia in Loco

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