I admire Justin Welby. The committee to nominate the next Archbishop of Canterbury was obviously thinking outside the box when they went beyond the usual deep-thinking, theological wizards and academicians to nominate this thoroughly 21st-century Christian to lead the Church of England. Welby spent most of his adult life in the business world, getting ordained as a middle-aged man, and serving as the Bishop of Durham for just over a year before becoming Archbishop. He is a man of deep faith and brilliant intellect, with a healthy dose of modernity and realism. I think they made a great choice.
Which is why I was stunned to read an account of Archbishop Welby’s response to a call-in show questioner about the newly-implemented marriage equality law in England. In response to a question about why the Church of England does not allow its clergy to officiate at civil same-sex marriages, Archbishop Welby responded:
“I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact,” Welby said. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, “the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes ‘round the world.”
Welby was referring to violence against Christians in Africa that the perpetrators have justified in connection with supposedly gay-friendly activities by the Anglican churches in the United States and Canada. He said he had been warned during a visit to South Sudan that Christians could face violence from Muslim neighbors who believed that having Christians nearby would make them gay.
In response to subsequent questioning, the Archbishop has tried to walk back a bit from this statement, or at least adding some qualifiers, indicating that at the very least, such international concerns should be taken into account when discerning the church’s response to the issue of marriage equality. That’s all well and good, but I fear that the damage was already done by his original statements. After all, it was not the caller who brought up Africa, but Archbishop Welby himself, arguing that such considerations were relevant to the Church of England’s lack of support for marriage equality. It was the Archbishop himself who linked this caller’s question to the situation in Africa.
It is absurd to buy into a group of murderers’ rationalizations for their actions, unintentionally giving legitimacy to the perpetrators’ reasons for murder. The Archbishop certainly knows that the reasons behind such violence are complicated and numerous, including both religious and long-standing cultural conflicts. Surely, these Muslim extremists were looking for a “reason” to murder their Christian countrymen, and as is so often the case, they used “let’s blame the gays!”
The Archbishop should also know that you don’t resolve the anger and violence of bullies and hostage-takers by giving in to them. They will be emboldened in their tactics and will only demand more and more. I’m reminded of the abused wife who blames herself for her abuse and resolves to try not to do anything to provoke her husband because she is “responsible” for her own mistreatment. Her liberation is dependent on her rejecting the notion that her behavior is the cause of the violence against her. Similarly, Archbishop Welby would have done well to put the blame directly where it belongs—on the murderers themselves—instead of insinuating that indeed, Anglicans working for LGBT rights elsewhere “caused” this atrocity.
So how might the Archbishop have responded differently? Perhaps something like this: “Look, the church must consider many things in discerning whether a change is warranted in our consideration of blessing the marriages of same-sex couples: what scriptures says, how the church’s historical understanding has developed, and our own experience of gay couples’ relationships. We are in the midst of that discernment right now. In addition, we must always be aware that our decisions here in England are being watched by the world’s 80 million Anglicans and their enemies; sometimes being used as an irrational and unwarranted excuse by those enemies for violence against Christians. I have seen the graves of those who have suffered because of these unjust and irrational connections between LGBT people and murder, and it breaks my heart.
Even so, we cannot give in to the violent acts of bullies and must discern and then pursue God’s will for all of God’s children. Violence and murder of Christians is deplorable, but so is violence against and murder of LGBT people. And as the spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, permit me to point out, it is not helpful for some of our own Anglican archbishops, bishops and clergy to join in support of anti-gay legislation and rhetoric in their own countries, thereby fueling the hatred and violence against innocent LGBT people, who are being criminalized and murdered for who they are. These are complicated issues, and with God’s guidance, we will discern what is right to say and do.”
The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury is a complicated and delicate one. I pray for him every day, that he might find the wisdom both to facilitate the unity of the Anglican Communion and to lead us toward the greater truth of God’s love for all of God’s children. I do not envy him this ministry of reconciliation, which is fraught with complexity and nuance. But it is not helpful when he feeds the notion that one part of the church should say no to its discernment of God’s will for the Church’s witness because the context and understanding of God’s will are different in other parts of the Communion.
While the Archbishop is right to point out that LGBT activists in the Church should be aware that their words and actions can cause unintended harm to others around the world, he should take his own advice and realize that his words can likewise cause harm—to the millions of LGBT Anglicans and wider LGBT community around the world. While we deeply grieve the deaths of Christians anywhere, we should also grieve and oppose the oppression, violence and deaths perpetrated on LGBT people around the world. After all, they are victims too.
The Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson is the recently retired IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.