On 17 July 2018, Rev. Bishop Christopher Senyonjo received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Leeds for his outstanding contribution as clergyman and LGBT rights defender in Uganda.
The University’s Centre for Religion and Public Life and the Leeds University Centre for African Studies hosted a symposium to celebrate this occasion on 18 July, where Senyonjo delivered the following address.
The future of Christianity and LGBT rights in Africa
First, let me take this opportunity to convey greetings from my wife who is also my best friend Mary, who was not able to be with us here today. Mary sent her appreciation to the University of Leeds for rewarding my work with the honorary doctorate. My wife said, she felt that the award was the epitome of the storm we have faced as a family.
Although not directly involved in my work, Mary has been the source of strength through prayer, encouragement and acceptance of me as a person regardless of personal shortcomings. May I also express my sincere gratitude to the organizers of this symposium especially Dr Adriaan and team who have been consistent in all preparations regarding my visit to ensure my visa was attained in time and to liaise with the University to support my accommodation and welfare.
It is a great honor to be part of this discussion on a theme not so common where I come from. The topic I have been invited to talk about is “the future of Christianity and LGBT rights in Africa”. When I think about the future I think of the thoughts of Dr Martin Luther King who in the 60’s dared express his thoughts in a society where institutions were tied to discrimination; I think of Nelson Mandela who in 1994 felt the way forward post-apartheid lay in forgiveness and reconciliation; I think of the lives of great LGBT people who have not been able to fulfil their dreams in Africa such as my friend David Kato who was brutally murdered; I think of great LGBT brains who have enabled the world to evolve in new technologies and innovation because they overcame prejudice and excelled in their areas of specialty such as Sir Elton John, Tim Cook, to mention but a few.
The context, past and present
To understand the future l will look at the past and present. Africa consists of 54 recognized states and 2 other states whose independence is disputed (Somaliland and Western Sahara). Africa is also the second largest continent in the world by both land and population.
Africa has gone from having most followers of indigenous (or traditional) religions, to being predominantly a continent of Christians and Muslims. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 80% of the population confesses to be Christians in different denominations. Uganda where I come from is a religiously diverse country with Christian and Muslim forming the majority of the population. The LGBT community was known but seen as culturally unacceptable and thus families are still wary of being found to have family members who are LGBT.
African culture is reserved on discussing sexuality and issues related to sex. The subject of LGBT has developed into a platform to discuss human sexuality in Africa, although from a negative perspective at this time. There is an expressed fear that LGBT has been imported from western communities to distort families and reduce African populations. Families are seen as the basis of African strength, while LGBT are not expected to have children and therefore are considered a threat to “the African family”.
With this background in mind and in a Christian context, let me talk about the four blessings of human sexuality namely;
- Creativity of an integrated personality
1.In the past emphasis was on procreation. This notion is of course supported by the bible: Be fruitful and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). This is a strong point to consider when looking at the four factors.
2.Creativity of an integrated personality has come to the fore as we examine human sexuality as an integration of the human soul that leads to creativity. The people who get stigmatized and marginalized because of their sexual orientation usually feel like outcasts. Such feelings have led to fear, anxiety, indecision and even depression.
Marginalized people have not been able to achieve their God given potential as they try to accept themselves within a community that chooses to exclude them from all activities of life regardless of their talents and love of God.
Some LGBT people I know have expressed their hate for God as they see hate and discrimination by religious leaders who are portrayed in society as the bearers of good counsel. On a good note, Africa is becoming more aware of Gender diversity.
In Genesis 2:28, the purpose of human sexuality is established as companionship. In real words of the Bible, “it was not good for man to be alone”. Although conservative Christians argue about suitable (i.e. heterosexual) companion, LGBT people should not be forced to be alone due to what others perceive to be unsuitable partnership. Indeed, God’s instruction of companionship goes beyond procreation. Christianity in my opinion needs to advocate for love and companionship of all people to enable peace and coexistence in the family, community and the world.
4.The fourth purpose of human sexuality is the thrill and pleasure accrued from the union of two lovers. Two consenting adults should not be limited on what they do for sexual pleasure. The same is true among heterosexual relationships. Like all aspects of life sex should be for enjoying just like is food, work, exercise to mention but a few.
I envisage a future of Christianity in Africa that takes truth more seriously: with a faith that seeks understanding (John: 8:32). A Christianity open to new revelation of the Holy Spirit (John 16:12). Christianity needs to internalize the scriptural reality that God is a creator and he continues to create to this moment (John 5:17).
The Anglican Church in Southern Africa has already opened doors to allow LGBT parishioners. Churches with links to the Episcopal Church of America and a few Anglican communities have also encouraged LGBT parishioners to worship with them. The future of LGBT Christianity in my opinion does not lie in separation but dialogue, engagement and inclusion in existing churches.
As people in Africa realize that LGBT people are not alien but part of their own people and are not crazy people but people different to them, the family support for persons of different sexual orientation will eventually lead to the same family units strongly involved in the church to support their children in faith.
At St Paul Reconciliation and Equality Centre (an organization I established to broaden service to all people), we support families through counselling for all people including LGBT with confidentiality as a core principle in our counselling services given the sensitivity of the subject of LGBT in Uganda. Here one should not forget the scare of the “Kill the Gays Bill” in Uganda in recent years. The LGBT community grew to distrust most churches and counselling services due to the government policy of reporting all gay people by all service delivery centers.
Upon this background I submit that the future of Christianity and LGBT rights in Africa is in writing down all events and experiences today. The coming generations will judge us right or wrong through our writings. In Africa one of our weaknesses lies in poor record keeping and thus no trace of evidence is left to build on. I have written a small book to explain some of these concepts and explained my journey in my book entitled “In Defense of All God’s Children”. I continue to write and hope to publish more of my work God willing.
Also, I see the future of Christianity and LGBT in Africa in teaching our children to support people of all orientation. If people believe in killing all people of different sexual orientation, Africa faces painful hate within its people that is facilitated by ignorance and lack of understanding. As noted in Hosea 4:6, “God’s people perish because of lack of knowledge”.
Furthermore, I see the future of Christianity and LGBT rights in Africa in preaching the Gospel of love (AGAPE). This unfailing, nondiscriminatory love should continuously be preached in churches alongside the message of LGBT rights. On my part, along with a team of young people we have put our heads together to support families and willing institutions to achieve dialogue among individuals with LGBT family members and congregations willing to accept LGBT parishioners. First, I established St Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Centre which was later registered as Senyonjo Christian Foundation, with broad objectives to represent my personal calling to support all God’s people into worshipping God in their own churches be it Anglican, Catholic, Pentecostal or in Muslim communities, without prejudice and fear of judgement.
I have set up a plan to build a centre to support both heterosexual and LGBT people to attain support without prejudice. The challenges are in fear to access services and logistical support, but this has not stopped me and the young people to work towards building a friendly network without establishing a separatist church. Our services at this point include signposting the LGBT community to friendly health services which is a current and future challenge for enabling a practical gospel in countries where physicians are encouraged to report on their patients against their professional oath.
I would like to end by emphasizing that the future of Christianity and the LGBT rights in Africa is unfortunately not a one-day thriller. Just like the American civil rights movement, the journey is of faith, strong conviction, tears at times and determination. It is for all, not just for the isolated LGBT community. It will need interdependence, advocacy, and family support. Unfortunately, if not handled well it will continue to divide the church and many families especially as most people of LGBT orientation live in fear of being found out. As the Bible says in John 8:32, “Know the truth and the truth will set you free”. I know that even here in developed economies the church still faces challenges but as is the case here some will choose to understand with more education, yet we are not naïve on thinking that everyone will open their ears to understand others who are not like them.
Thank you for being such a wonderful audience.
The Right Reverend Dr Christopher Senyonjo.
Image Credit: Leeds University