Today, I am reflecting on the 35th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. The Feast of St. Peter and Paul (June 29) ends the second week of my tour with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda.
Last night, following the showing of the film “Call Me Kuchu” (“queer” in Ugandan slang) that closed the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, the bishop spoke about his work in Uganda and why he is in the USA.
He was asked several religious questions from a largely secular audience who were intrigued by two issues: Why the church is such a negative influence on the political and social consequences of LGBT people worldwide, and what motivates him as an 80-year-old religious leader to do this work?
His reply affirmed his belief that God has called him to this work and he is carrying out the 2,000-year-old principle that in the new humanity envisioned by Jesus and articulated by Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are one.”
The film ends with him reiterating his principle message. He adds, if Paul was alive today, he would add “There is neither straight nor LGBT.” The film is AMAZING and I am sure will be nominated for an Oscar.
God is higher than the Bible
When asked about the exportation of religious homophobia from the United States to Africa, he talked about the growing influence of fundamentalism within Christianity. He noted that that God is higher than the Bible and fundamentalist have turned the Bible into a God. This is idolatry.
The core principle, he said, is to proclaim that God is love. If Christians are calling for violence or imprisonment for LGBT people in 76 countries, then their actions are neither Christian nor true to the spirit of ancient Scriptures.
The role of the church in the persecution and in the pastoral care of LGBT people is well documented in this extraordinary film about the life and legacy of slain Ugandan activist David Kato. We have received standing ovations from the opening of the Los Angeles Film Festival a week ago, to a 10-minute standing ovation by 1,400 people in the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
There was not a dry eye in the house when the documentary recorded the moment when an Anglican pastor conducting Kato’s funeral used the occasion to condemn the LGBT community. It looked as if a riot would break out, but in the midst of that chaos, Bishop Christopher, the man who was inhibited and condemned by his own church; then slowly moves to the graveside and continues with a eulogy celebrating the good work Kato had done and commends his soul to a loving Creator.
The gospel (good news) was proclaimed in the midst of hate and rejection. The bishop brought comfort to David’s mother and friends. His calling as a bishop redeems the homophobic institution that has ironically called for his demise. This is both the irony of ordination and its power. Sometimes we are called by God and the church does not affirm it. Sometimes we are affirmed by the community, as Christopher has been by the kuchus of Uganda as their spiritual leader, but not by the institutional church. Sometimes we are called and affirmed by the secular community who intrinsically can recognize authentic Christianity over imperial Christianity.
Called by God and blessed by community
This was the moment I will remember at the Castro Theater last week. Lots of church-damaged LGBT people can differentiate between what is fake and what is real. Since we left San Diego over a week ago, an example of imperial Christianity has hit the headlines when the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity arrested 18 people who were conducting a human rights workshop in Uganda. He is threatening to close down 38 organizations in violation of his own Constitution.
Simon Lukodo, the ethics minister, is an ordained Roman Catholic priest and is a perfect example of what happens when the church uses secular political power to advance a narrow agenda. Not only is this a throwback to the tactics of the Spanish Inquisition, but Lukodo has demonstrated that his priestly office has been compromised. He is neither a minister, not ethical and possesses no integrity. He should resign. He is an embarrassment to the Vatican’s explicit teaching that violence and persecution of LGBT people has not place in this world. If he is allowed to continue to function as a priest, then the Vatican is clearly condoning it.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Uganda (who had initially condemned the Bahati Bill, aka “Kill The Gays” bill, as morally wrong) has now joined with Anglican and Orthodox leaders in calling for its passing. This is a disturbing new development that is being watched by other parts of Africa and if it is not clearly condemned by other parts of the universal church, we will return to the dark days of church- sanctioned persecution in places like Germany and Rwanda.
Sixty years later, we all know the consequences of former misguided religious leaders and their co-option by the state to bring about “the final solution” to the “Jewish question.” We now have a similar scenario playing out in Africa to the “human sexuality issue” where the churches deny LGBT people share in the same human rights enjoyed by everyone else. There should be no tolerance or compromise with the issue of religious-based persecution of any minority.
On the edge of the abyss
We are on the edge of an abyss and if the dominant anti-gay narrative within global Christianity is not challenged by other narratives, then a global genocide will be sanctioned by people who claim to know the mind and will of God.
When Ugandan MP David Bahati quotes “the wages of sin is death,” we know exactly what he means. Withhold information and health services from LGBT people so they will die of AIDS or pass laws like mine so we can hang them. This narrative has no place in any religious movement.
Where U.S. mainstream Christianity goes from here
Next week, Bishop Christopher and I will be attending the General Convention of the 3 million member Episcopal Church in Indianapolis and hope to show this film, “Call Me Kuchu.”
Although the battle within the Episcopal Church has been costly and has largely focused on the question of who owns church property (disaffected Episcopalians attempted to cede from their diocese and align with places like Uganda and Nigeria and failed), the war is not over yet. The abuse of church authority and funds, particularly from many disaffected Episcopalians who financially supported the Ugandan churches, is still largely under reported.
Thankfully, donations from well-meaning parishioners in wealthy suburbs like Truro, Va., and Newport Beach, Calif., are given tax exemption by the U.S. government for charitable purposes. If it can be proved that millions of dollars have been inappropriately channeled to fund the Ugandan church’s anti-gay agenda, then we will have more evidence of a direct connection between mainstream churches in this country and an anti-gay independent foreign policy that does not have the support of the American people and government.
These activities are clearly illegal and need to be stopped. An independent audit would uncover the money trail and if their leadership is culpable, they must be brought to justice. I am sure if decent people in these congregations could hear how their donations are being used beyond the care of AIDS orphans or building schools to influencing government policy to sanction the persecution of LGBT people in places like Uganda, they would be horrified and it would stop. Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Convocation of North American Anglicans (CANA) has yet to make a statement on the Bahati Bill and his financial and moral support of the Church of Uganda. It is time for Archbishop Duncan to take a stand with Bishop Christopher or with Father Lukodo.
Are we on the right side of justice?
A second awkward question for the Episcopal Church’s gathering next week (and indeed all mainstream denominations in the USA with historic ties to African churches) is about our continued funding of African churches that are publically advocating for abuse of human rights and the imprisonment and persecution of LGBT people.
Half of the 76 countries where it is illegal to be LGBT are in sub-Sahara Africa, in the British Commonwealth and are largely Anglican (Episcopal) or Roman Catholic. Ironically, wealthy congregations like Trinity Wall Street in New York are forbidden to fund programs like Bishop Christopher’s because he is not supported by his Archbishop. We have had three meetings with the grants program staff who told us their current policy does not allow them to fund our lifesaving programs. Yet, Trinity Wall Street remains one of the largest funders to churches in Africa who also support LGBT persecution.
Even though I volunteered to raise millions of dollars for Episcopal Relief and Development in Los Angeles, current policy within the Episcopal Church also works within the” top down” provincial structures in Africa. All grants need to be sanctioned by the local Archbishop. If he sanctions LGBT criminalization (as most of them do) they would never allow more inclusive ministries like Bishop Christopher’s to flourish within their jurisdictions. If we had 76 Bishop Christopher’s asking for money from Trinity Wall Street or Episcopal Relief and Development, under current policy, they would not get a dime from the Episcopal Church. Thanks to bishops, congregations and individuals, we can find ways to channel funds to him through the St. Paul’s Foundation, but there is something intrinsically flawed about the way we institutionally support sexual apartheid in Africa while claiming to be open and affirming of LGBT people in the USA. While we condemn people like Scott Lively and Lou Engle for preaching hatred in Uganda, we, as mainstream American Christian denominations, need to stop bank-rolling the Christian Right’s hate machine.
Bishop Christopher and I wore hats at the San Francisco Pride Parade last week where he was honored as a Grand Marshal. The message was simple: “LEGALIZE LOVE.” I suggest our policies and practices need to refocus our efforts and money on that simple request. We will have enough programs and work to do for the rest of our lives if we can fund programs locally and domestically that legalize love for everyone.
Reflections on the Feast of Peter and Paul
Where Paul was the itinerant inclusive gatherer of cultures and sexualities under one new and expansive tent (the church means the gathered people), Peter stayed close to home in Jerusalem keeping the more orthodox members of this new movement engaged and thinking about who “was in and who was out.”
The early Jesus movement has as much dissension within it as the modern church does and the issues of inclusion and exclusion are as present in the biblical accounts as they are on the Internet today. This should not surprise us as we do the difficult and wonderful work of God who wants us to be one family. We now have the technology to make this more real than ever before. Today is the feast day of Peter and Paul -- two very different characters and narratives within one movement. They were both killed for their “spiritual terrorism” in the imperial capital of Rome. They proclaimed a new community that challenged the state and boundaries of class and nationalism.
The state had them executed. Their remains lie together as a symbol of ecclesiastical compromise not only for the different positions and roles they played within the early Jesus movement, but the church’s increasing power within the state itself. It was only after 400 years, their legends and myths were sewn together to attempt to create one story from two. Bishop Christopher and I identify more with the itinerant Paul as we travel from one community to another proclaiming an inclusive good news and challenging the dominant anti gay cultures and exclusive politics of our day. If Paul was around today, he would be doing the same thing.
What a wonderful moment in the middle of a hectic tour to celebrate my ordination and give thanks for the support and encouragement of the community. Priesthood is dynamic and ever-changing but with the same constant and radical message that despite our differences, we are one.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.