This morning I met with Archbishop Henry Orombi of Uganda. I want to be clear about my posture in going in to meet with the Bishop. My concern was to come humbly, from a pastoral perspective, with a missional heart and the voice of an advocate for sexual minorities. I did not come into the meeting as an activist. The reason that I adopted this posture is multi-faceted. I do not suppose that in a brief meeting with this individual that I will be a change agent. I don’t suppose that anything I can say in a few moments would be anything he has not heard. But if I adopt this humble posture, I can perhaps be in a place to hear his heart, to discern his sensitivity to the issues beyond his country and his church. If I adopt this posture, perhaps I can communicate, without words, that someone from the west is willing to listen and not just charge in with a confrontational and aggressive tone. If I adopt this posture, perhaps a connection can be made that might possibly lead to further conversation rather than a tense polarized talking past one another that will terminate any further reflection or shared dialogue.
To my surprise, I had nearly an hour of conversation with the Bishop. I will admit that he did most of the talking – but none-the-less, I found some opportunities to interject some questions, observations and a sharing of my context and the perceptions of those I serve.
The primary questions I wanted to ask the Bishop were: 1. How have you considered the impact of your words and actions in Africa on the witness of followers of Christ in gay-positive contexts? 2. How have you considered the impact of your words and actions in Africa on the witness of followers of Christ to sexual minorities? 3. How is the African church demonstrating the ministry of Jesus in honouring the humanity, dignity, worth and value of sexual minorities both in your context and in our globalized community?
As the conversation meandered, as conversations with those from other cultural contexts are prone to do, a number of things began to emerge.
The Bishop was quick to point out that those in the west presume those in the African context to be ignorant and uneducated about matters of sexuality. He stated that this was not accurate – but that cultural differences were behind the differing ways church leaders in Africa spoke about and responded to the issue of homosexuality.
When I suggested that the perception of someone like me, having spent the last week in Africa and speaking with many African leaders and hearing many Africans’ comments, was that the church in Africa was seeking to stamp out homosexuality – to eradicate it, he quickly replied that this was not the case. He said that same-sex sexual relationships have been present in Africa for many, many years and that they acknowledged that there would always be people with these ‘tendencies’ (his words). He added however, that socially it is simply unacceptable in the African context, those with these ‘tendencies’ would not be viewed as normal.
When I observed that many Africans seem to talk about homosexuality as a distant issue that lacked a human connection, I asked him how a same-sex attracted person who was not involved in a sexual relationship would be treated by the African church. His first comment was to say that in his context they would not understand attraction the way that I would – and he went on to describe deep and intimate male friendships in his context. But then he described how a person with same-sex attraction would continue to be embraced by the family and larger community – but would be pitied and not be viewed as normal.
When I asked him how they might engage a person who continued to experience same-sex attraction who made a commitment to live celibately. He replied that in his context, almost no one chooses to be single. In his life, he has only known one man and one woman who remained single in his community in Uganda.
It seemed he had a somewhat linear trajectory for the transformation that he would expect for a person who has faith in Christ – which seemed in part to arise from both his Scriptural and cultural convictions. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to really press him on this issue. But this raised concern for me – for he seemed to insinuate that because his culture viewed things differently, same-sex attracted Christians would experience transformation because the social constructs were different. He seemed to insinuate that this was a given – that moving on to heterosexual marriage was a given.
The Bishop did, however, say some surprising things. When I asked him about the impact of his words on our missional and relational endeavours in the west he made several comments. First, he talked about the secular media and the lack of control he had over which soundbites they chose to capture. But then he also said that if he was in the Canadian context he would speak differently about the topic than he does in Africa. When he described how he would speak in Canada, he mentioned that he wouldn’t say much about same-sex unions but speak more generally about God’s intentions for sexuality. He sounded reasonable as he described how he would engage in the western context. He continued to refer to the place his people were at culturally – and indeed, we are a much more individualistic people than the family and community oriented Africans. But when I asked him about bringing greater awareness and education into the African context, it seemed that he was not open to that because in his words he feels that Africans feel that the west is slowly eroding their culture. Indeed, at the Lausanne conference where I am meeting with him, there is a very profound sense by the global south that those from the west project a dominance and hold the power positions. Here at the conference there have been a disproportionate number of Americans on the platform. So, it is understandable that Africans have this fear of another wave of cultural colonialism.
Perhaps it was when he spoke of his own family that I was able to hear some of his heart. He has a son and a daughter who both live in the U.S. He said that if his son or if his daughter were ‘this way’ (his words) that he would accept them even though he would not accept their behaviour if they were part of a same-sex relationship. He said that of course he would love them unconditionally. When I asked him about helping his people to understand that kind of acceptance, he again seemed to retreat behind African culture and said that his people were not ready and would not understand that.
What I found in the Bishop was a man who spoke with personableness and warmth. What I encountered was a man who deeply loved Jesus. I encountered an educated man. I encountered someone fiercely proud of his African culture. I also encountered a man seeking to be wise in his context – but that wisdom seemed to me to be at times shadowed by the expectations of and his deference to his culture. While on one hand he seemed to understand the need to humanize what is so easily an angry issue in his context, on the other hand, I could not understand his seeming reluctance to be an agent of change. Perhaps that is my western filter. Perhaps I cannot understand the priority of protecting a cultural system despite ways that it dehumanizes people because in my country we barely know what our culture is. But I am left with the challenge that the call of Jesus to the church supersedes culture. And the call of Jesus unequivocally extends dignity to every single human being as an image-bearer of God and of inestimable value. The call of Jesus is invitational and therefore extending dignity to those whose beliefs and/or values differ from ours is non-negotiable.
I spoke with him about the ministry of Jesus who went to the margins of his society and broke social alienation. And I tried to challenge him that this is what the African church is called to do for same-sex attracted neighbours in their context. This breaking down of social stigma is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.
I would imagine that some of my friends and contacts will feel quite disappointed or possibly angry that I did not discuss in detail the anti-homosexuality bill with the Bishop, that I did not more assertively confront him. But my sense was that God wanted more than a five minute meeting …. And indeed, I got an hour. Not only that, but the sense that God will bring me back to Africa. That the Bishop and I will have further conversations. While I have a holy impatience, I also pray for a holy patience. I pray that I will be able to assume the kind of humble posture that God can really use in the long haul.
I don’t know what the Bishop will take away from his time with me. It isn’t about me. But I pray that God will continue to challenge the Bishop to step out from behind his culture to lead the African people to live out the truly invitational and loving embrace of Jesus Christ.