The Intimate Convictions conference has been an extraordinary event. Probably for the first time in Jamaica lesbian, gay and bisexual people spoke publicly in a forum as equals about the effect of anti-sodomy laws in the thirty-six countries of the commonwealth where sodomy is criminalised and the sixteen countries that also criminalise lesbians. Over the two days twenty presentations were made with people describing the relationship between their church’s teaching and the lived experience of LGBTI people. The universal conviction of the presentations was that homosexuality had to be decriminalised.
The Archbishop of the West Indies the Rev Dr John Holder’s keynote address on the first morning, set an uncompromising and confident tone rooted in biblical and historical research. The Jamaica Gleaner identified these passages from his address as being newsworthy:
He said that there is no biblical basis for the support of the sodomy law by those who use religion as a platform to deny others their individual rights. The Archbishop said that the use of Sodom and Gomorrah, the main scriptural reference for people opposed to the gay lifestyle, is fraught with the danger of imposing personal convictions and understanding, prejudices, biases, and bigotry about this story when it is not there. "My argument is that using the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to support the sodomy law has no basis, none whatsoever," he said. He added that the Bible has been used as a tool to condemn people of differing sexual orientations and as a tool to retain the laws against same-sex unions 50 years after said law was repealed in England and Wales.
He was followed by Lord Anthony Gifford, Queen's Council and human rights lawyer. His address was also reported by the paper. He said a breeze of change was present in the Jamaican environment.
Many speakers highlighted the importance of separating Christian teaching about sin from the imposition of legal sanctions by the State to control human behaviour. What some churches identify as sinful – buggery – states are increasingly determining should not be subject to legal sanctions. I think this argument is not made with clarity, even at home in England. If churches want to name homosexuality as a sin that gives them no right to impose legal sanctions of any kind on LGBTI people. Sin belongs in church, legal sanctions to the state.
The second day of the conference
In the morning, the second day addressed Global North and Global South Anglican perspectives n decriminalisation. One outcome from the many good addresses and witness to personal experience was the recognition that the labels Global South and Global North are pretty meaningless, both from the perspective of geography and from the perspective of race and colour. Support for and opposition to criminalisation occurs north and south.
Cynthia Ci examined patriarchy and misogyny in the Bible and the disparity in the way in which women are treated. She described how the story of Ruth to reinforces the notion that a woman must have a man to survive, and how churches taught her to be submissive, trying to tame the fire in her. Angeline Jackson from Jamaica said that although Jamaican law doesn’t directly criminalise lesbians, the phobia against lesbianism manifest in the church was used to justify corrective rape to make women heterosexual. She wasn’t alone in witnessing personally to the abuse experienced in the church.
Damian Williams from Grenada gave a powerful personal testimony to his conviction that we exist to transform the lives of people into empowered human beings, beneficiaries of unconditional love. He had attended a Jamaican theological seminary where he had been labelled as ‘that battyman from Grenada’ and people had walked out when he led services. He gave an alternative liberation theology exegesis of the parable of the Prodigal Son
An issue on the first day had been interruptions from the floor by Jamaican Christian leaders opposed to homosexuality. Both Sean Major-Campbell and Maurice Tomlinson, key organisers of the conference, said they had made a great effort in advance to contact Conservative Christian leaders, inviting them to contribute to the panel discussions. Not one of them responded to emails, phone calls, or personal encounters in the street. Instead, a number came on both days and on Wednesday persistently disrupted the day with interventions from the floor, which the conference team handled with some skill. The interruptions were abusive, and that comes as no surprise to those of us who experience the church as having a systemic culture of abuse justified by a literalist reading of the Bible.
Jamaica’s leading papers both covered the conference with positive headlines and reports. They also reported the reaction of the President of the Jamaica Evangelical Alliance Bishop Alvin Bailey, who described speakers at the conference as “intellectual apostates - persons who are allowed to own their own views on matters but who do not speak for their denominations. They cannot speak for Christianity. They are inauthentic as it relates to biblical references." He questioned the context of the archbishop's understanding of the Sodom and Gomorrah story.
The Jamaican Guardian published a letter today by Shirley Richards, a Jamaican fundamentalist lawyer. She realises, she writes, “that the Anglicans and other groups were not acting on their own; instead, they were swayed by the agenda of the homosexual groups.” No big surprise there, darlings. She draws attention to the use of the term 'gay sex' in the second sentence of Alan Wilson’s letter earlier in the week. It means, she says, that the Anglican Church in Britain, which initially held the biblical view that buggery is sinful, has shifted and now regards buggery as 'sex', an example of how familiar words have been twisted and misused by LGBT activists. “While it is a form of sexual activity, it is not 'sex', for how can the insertion of the penis in the vagina be equivalent to the insertion of the penis into the anus?” Yes friends, it’s the same old same old. Thought you’d like an opportunity to be outraged.
The Primates commitment
At their meeting in January 2016 the Primates of the Anglican Communion issued a statement condemning homophobic prejudice and violence. They resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation and reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people. Archbishop John Holder is the first Primate to come in person to a conference to articulate the commitment made by the Primates and identify himself publicly with the movement to achieve decriminalisation.
The Primates silence
The silence of other Primates who have failed to commit themselves publicly to decriminalisation was noted at the Conference. Homophobic teaching and attitudes are still widespread in the Anglican Communion, including England, my own Province. The question was raised at the Conference as to why sanctions should be imposed on the Episcopal Church in the USA, the Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of Scotland when other Provinces fail to conform to the teaching of the Primates in relation to decriminalisation and the statement issued also agreed by the Primates that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt, expressing their profound sorrow, affirming that God's love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression. Those present in Jamaica this week are very clear that the actions of the church continue to give the contrary impression – that LGBTI people are abused and treated as inferior members of the Kingdom of God.