He tabernacled among us too

Petition of Christian Leaders on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

The Christian Think Tank Ekklesia has launched an online Petition against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. This follows the World Day of Prayer on 17th November to pray against the proposed Bill.

Please seriously consider adding your name to the Petition here.

Sadly, the Archbishop of York, Rev John Sentamu has made it clear he refuses to comment – or condemn – the Bill. There is silence from the Palace of Lambeth. Meanwhile, on the 15th November, the Executive Council of the Anglican Church of Canada unanimously condemned the Bill. The number of Christian voices raised against the Bill is growing. Evangelical Anglican group Fulcrum has voiced concern, regarding the proposed legislation as “fatally flawed from a Christian perspective” Given the place of the Anglican Church in Uganda, it is essential that Anglicans across the world make clear they do not support the proposed legislation. Rowan Williams can not afford to maintain silence against the proposed – and indeed, existing – discrimination and persecution of human rights in Uganda.


Uganda and the Anti-Homosexuality Bill


A storm is brewing in the African nation of Uganda. On the 14th of October 2009 a Bill was tabled in the Ugandan Parliament and seeks not only to strengthen current legislation against the LGBT Community in Uganda, but to extend it even further.

The British Empire era left Uganda with Penal Code 145 which criminalises “unnatural acts” between men of the same sex. This can lead to 7 years in prison etc. Such a Code is fairly common amongst ex-Colonies of the British Empire (see the repeal of such a Code in the State of Delhi by the Supreme Court). Of course, it was only 40 years ago that an equivalent law was repealed in Great Britain. However, this Bill proposes not only that LGBT people can be arrested and imprisoned, in some circumstances (particularly if they have HIV/AIDS) they can be executed for same sex acts. But the Bill targets not only those who are LGBT, it targets any who know or suspect someone is Gay!

A Coalition of NGOs who oppose the Bill released a Statement condemning the proposed legislation. They have sumarised the extent of the impact the Bill would make on many sections of society:

– any parent who does not denounce their lesbian daughter or gay son to the authorities: Failure to do so s/he will be fined Ush 5,000,000/= or put away for three years;

– any teacher who does not report a lesbian or gay pupil to the authorities within 24 hours: Failure to do so s/he will be fined Ush 5,000,000/= or put away for three years in prison;

– any landlord or landlady who happens to give housing to a suspected homosexual risks seven years of imprisonment;

– any Local Council I – V Chairperson or Executive member who does not denounce somebody accused of same-sex attraction or activity risks imprisonment or a heavy fine;

– any medical doctor who seeks to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS through working with what are known as most at risk populations, risks her or his career;

– all civil society leaders, whether in a Community Based Organisation, NGO, or academic institution; if their organisations seek to have a comprehensive position on sexual and reproductive health, they risk seeing their organisations closed down;

– any human rights activist who seeks to promote an understanding of the indivisibility and inalienability of human rights would be judged to be promoting homosexuals and homosexuality, and be punished accordingly;

– any religious leader who seeks to provide guidance and counselling to people who are unsure of their sexuality, would be regarded as promoting homosexuality and punished accordingly;

– any Member of Parliament or other public figure who is sent a pornographic article, picture or video will become vulnerable to blackmail and witch-hunts;

– any media house that publishes ‘pornographic’ materials risks losing its certificate of registration and the editor will be liable to seven years in jail;

– any internet café operator who fails to prevent a customer from accessing a pornographic website, or a dating site, could be accused of ‘participating in the production, procuring, marketing, broadcasting, disseminating and publishing of pornographic materials for purposes of promoting homosexuality’; their business licence could be revoked and they themselves could land in prison.

– any Person alleged to be a homosexual is at risk of LIFE IMPRISONMENT and, in some circumstances, the DEATH PENALTY.

The full text, including the list of organisations who have signed the Statement and a list of the Articles of the Ugandan Constitution they believe such legislation would violate can be read here.

What has caused this Bill to be proposed? The argument has been put forward that the liberalising of Ugandan culture and the growing LGBT community has meant the Bill is necessary to ‘protect’ Ugandan Christian, family and African values.
The Church of England traditionalist group, Fulcrum, has a very fair, balanced and informed posting on their website regarding the proposed Bill. I highly recommend you read it here

A coalition of NGOs in Uganda have published a statement against the

Homosexuality: A First Order Matter?!

Rev Dr. JI Packer is one of the most respected conservative evangelical theologians of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Personally I have been blessed, encouraged and uplifted reading his theological books and listening to lectures and sermons he has delivered and his book ‘Knowing God’ is a regular read for me still. He is a careful, gracious and level headed pastor. Resolutely on the Reformed side of the evangelical community he stands in the most conservative theological grouping of the Church of England/Anglican Communion.

In an interview in 2008 (http://www.stjohnsvancouver.org/worldwide-anglicans.php)  he declared that the issue of homosexual unions was of “first order” and that those in homosexual relationships “don’t qualify for Christ’s salvation in terms of the Gospel”! Previous to this Dr Albert Mohler (of the Southern Baptist Convention and their leading Reformed theologian) had said similar that the question of homosexuality is a primary issue. As a gay man who comes from a Reformed position and still holds to evangelical Christianity I find this statement shocking, disturbing and plain ridiculous. Far from defending evangelicalism it weakens her, blurring the essentials of what it means to be an evangelical.

Now, lets be clear on what is actually being said here. A matter of ‘first order’ or a ‘primary issue’ is one that, in the words of Dr Packer:

“A matter of prime importance in which it is vital that all Christians agree. There are secondary matters on which honest Bible students disagree and its possible that those things are secondary matters and disagreement on them is permissable”

So we are not confused, Dr Packer understands ‘first order’ issues in the historic sense – that they are theological fundamentals of the faith. All theological questions can be divided into 3 categories

1) Primary issues – fundamentals. These are matters of the essentials of the faith; matters are non negotiable for inclusion within Orthodox historic Christianity. Included within this is the existence of God, the Trinity, the uniquness of Christ, Redemption, Inspiration of Scripture etc.

2) Secondary issues – these are serious theological debates where there is genuine disagreement amongst those who accept the Primary issues. Matters are included amongst issues like baptism, eschatology (views of the Last Days), Church Government etc.

3) Tertiary issues – Lets just say this can encompass theological minutae that has little relevance to people’s faith or life. Matters like the medievil debates about how many angels can stand on the head of a pin etc.

From the brief survey of Dr. Packer’s statements of homosexuality it appears that he holds to the position that homosexuality is indeed a sexual orientation but that it is a besetting sin and the lot of the homosexual is to live in lifelong celibacy. This is usually the most compassionate position conservative evangelicals take – that there are gay people and that is fine, but they cannot act on their orientation.

Dr. Packer regards the Scriptural record on homosexuality as clear cut and obvious to the “honest Bible student”.  By raising the issue to a ‘first matter’ he is saying there can be no biblical debate on the matter. If someone takes the Scriptural account and views it in a different light, Packer regards this as invalid.  The current consensus of evangelical interpretation of the gay issue is the only valid interpretation to be taken.  Anyone raising a weakening of the view is suspect and outside of Christianity.  An alternative understanding is unthinkable.   Take an alternative reading of the text if you want, but a) you are unquestionably wrong b) you are not included within the bounds of historic Christianity.  (Within the context of the Anglican Communion this is even more serious.  Evangelicals want the Lambeth Agreement adhered to and yet the Windsor Report called on all sides to listen to each other.  This is ignored by Packer when he says there is nothing to listen to – there is no debate and you are wrong!)

That Dr. Packer takes the traditional interpretation of the text and regards homosexual relations as anathema is no surprise. That is to be expected; why should he have re-examined the issue? In fact, many of us who grew up in the ranks of Churches that held the traditional view (whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox) held or hold those same views. For myself, I accepted the traditional view without question even in the face of my own struggles with same sex attraction. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that embracing (coming to acknowledge) my sexuality would be valid or consistent with Christian faith. Instead these attractions were sinful, and to be resisted at all costs. Even through seminary I never thought to question the view. Sure, liberals accepted homosexuality but only because they discarded the Scriptural texts, not because they had reinterpreted them holding a conservative view of Scripture at the same time (more about the arrogance of that at another time!!) It was only when I came across the existence of serious conservative evangelicals (originally Rev Dr Roy Clements) who held the same views of Scripture as those who held the traditional view and yet took a different interpretation of the text that I started to delve into the whole mire. And there are a growing number of traditional evangelicals who have changed their interpretation on homosexuality – those that are gay themselves and straight as well. (Which I find remarkable. I confess if I had not suffered from struggling with my own sexuality; if I had been straight I would never have reassessed the issue to my shame.)

That is the crux of the matter for me in what Dr Packer and others like him have said. I find Dr. Packer’s willingness to ascribe the issue to the status of ‘first order’ issue unbecoming someone of his theological ability and scaremongering.  Similarly his statement that those in homosexual relationships “don’t qualify for Christ’s salvation in terms of the Gospel” is surprising given his understanding of grace. Is Dr Packer really saying that the only thing we can do on this earth to exclude us from the possibility of the saving work Christ achieved on the cross is for two people of the same sex to be in a sexual relationship (never mind that this relationship may be loving and monogamous) or engaged in sexual acts with someone of the same sex?!   That kind of thinking needs a whole treatise on its own to refute it, so we’ll save that for another day. Suffice to say, such thinking is an aberation of the Good News of Jesus and totally betrays the position of the historic Church.

Packer finds himself in the heart of the Anglican Communion’s civil war regarding homosexuality. His own congregation has removed itself from the oversight of their Bishop (who agrees with same sex unions) and is realligning itself along with 3 others in the diocese. The Bishop of New Westminster recently sent a letter to Dr Packer threantening suspension if he continued with the realignment. This is not merely an abstract theological debate, it is affecting lives as Dr Packer is now experiencing. However, I would argue that for gay folks, the issue has seriously affected peoples lives for decades and continues to do so in 2009. I feel no pleasure for the pain that is caused to the folks there. I understand their pain and frustration, the sense of persecution and standing for the gospel.  However, I think their fight is on the wrong issue.

To make sense of this, I want to step back for a moment and try to understand this in a wider context. I wonder if there is an underlying element of the contemporary debate that really goes back to the 1960s when Dr John Stott and Dr Martin Lloyd Jones (the two leading British evangelicals of their day) came to blows about the future of British Evangelicalism. The issue at stake was should evangelicalism be seperate from other sections of the Church visible or whether it was valid for evangelicals to stay within the mainstream denominations amongst liberals. Dr Stott viewed the Church as a mixed body – with doctrinal disagreement over even fundamentals being acceptable and containing both the regenerate and unregenerate. Dr Lloyd Jones fundamentally disagreed – calling for evangelicals to come out of mixed denominations and be within purer bodies; that the Church should only contain the Saints. (This was seen also in the sense of the all encompassingly inclusive Parish system of the Anglicans, as opposed to the gathered community of the Independents) . The result of the public disagreement in 1966 at the National Assembly of Evangelicals was that the Evangelical movement didn’t diverge from the old denominations (and the movement fragmented somewhat). Instead the Evangelicals within the Church of England committed themselves to the Church of England as continuing to show the marks of the true Church (Thirty Nine Articles) and that secession could not be contemplated until that changed in the Keele Declaraltion.

I would argue that raising the homosexual issue to a matter of ‘first order’ must be seen within this light. The issue of homosexuality is being seen by the Evangelical group within the Anglican Communion as a ‘last stand issue’. Perhaps they see it as ‘we’ve tolerated a lot, we have to draw the line somewhere so lets do it here’. They have ignored theological liberalism and accepted that they are in a wide enough camp that includes the regenerate and unregenerate, liberal, evangelical, high church low church. Evangelicals have disagreed and condemned liberal positions, but ultimately ignored and tolerated them. Bishops have declared that the Resurrection was not literal, denied the Virgin Birth, the Inspiration of Scripture is denied or questioned by some, Universalism taught, queries over the Uniqueness of Christ or even the divinity of Jesus or the existence of God Himself. All these Packer and the Evangelicals have tolerated within the Anglican Communion.

Dr Packer is a great theologian. I am further confused therefore that he is so accepting of those who deny the existence of hell (for example) – especially fellow Evangelicals within the Anglican Communion.  There are several – John Stott of All Souls Langham Place, London being the main such proponent. (Now I am not disagreeing with Packer’s outworking here. Nor am I attacking Stott who is another great evangelical theologian. What I am attacking is the inconsistency of handling theological debate and the gay issue).  Of course, Packer makes it clear that he disagrees with Stott and co. but he does at least give them credit that it is an exegetical argument and deals with it on that level. Presumably this is a Secondary issue rather than a matter of first order. Why?! On a subject that Jesus preached more than any other person in Scripture, yet it is OK for believers to deny the reality of hell and for it to remain a Secondary issue; whereas though Jesus does not mention homosexuality (and there are fewer verses in the whole of Scripture on the subject directly) it is a Primary issue where it is not permissable for Christians to disagree over! Of course, for many evangelicals the question of hell is a Primary issue.  After all the Apostles Creed and the Athanasian Creed both mention hell and from the Western Church’s point of view these are historic documents that discuss what is necessary to believe – they describe the fundamentals (along with the Nicene). No mention of homosexuality in the Creeds (which Packer elevates to a Primary issue) but mention hell (which Packer reduces to a Secondary issue).

So why the issue of homosexuality? What makes it ‘special’ that it is the rallying point of Evangelicalism and the litmus test of orthodoxy? There are no doubt numerous reasons but for now lets look at 4:

1) The gay rights movement has made an impact within the political realm; this has co-incided with an increasingly secular and aggressively anti Christian society. There does seem to be a correlation between legalising homosexual acts with the collapse of Christian values. (However this could equally be said of women’s liberation and civil rights for racial minorities.) 2) The liberal wing has accepted the gay rights argument hook, line and sinker – its an obvious seismic fault line. What gets a rise out of the Evangelicals more is that, often, the reason they have accepted the arguments are inspite of Scripture rather than because of it. Different methods of hermeneutics, exegesis and interpretation. Liberal views of Inspiration and Infallibility lead evangelicals to dismiss Liberal interpretations and arguments on Scripture and what it means for today.    3) It is an issue within global evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is a global phenomena and in many senses has reasserted itself as a growing force on the religious and political spectrum globally. There is a sense of homogeneity but at the same time a growing sense of frustration with the confusion and a sense of blurring as to what it means to be an evangelical. 4) The realignment of the power base within the Anglican Communion and associated issues i.e. The Global South has been overlooked and oppressed by the Global North for the last 200years; the majority of growth within Anglicanism is in the Global South; the GS is far more sociologically conservative than the GN – and is flexing its muscles.

So, when it comes down to it, is this a matter of control? Notwithstanding the brilliance of Dr Packer, I think it is. I do not doubt his integrity or sincerity. Personally I believe as we’ve already noted that he is caught up in the politics of the Anglican Communion and the wider Evangelical Leadership’s hysteria around the topic. I don’t believe that Dr Packer would have said it was a ‘first matter’ 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t think Dr Packer really believes it is. Nor that being in a relationship with someone of the same sex actually disquallifies someone from the efficacy of the Cross. I am not saying he is making it up or lying. I merely mean that if he was pressed to come to the final logical outcome of what he was saying he would back away from such statements. Or at least I hope he – and all level headed theologians and pastors – would. If the Evangelical leadership can close down the possibility of debate on the issue (i.e saying it is a Primary matter and therefore there is no room for debate) they think they can stop the ‘rot’ of a broadening understanding within Evangelicalism on the gay issue as well as others.

The issue is a crucial one.  Not for the reason that Packer has stated, but because it is damaging the witness of the Church.  It is terribly damaging to those sitting in the pews of conservative Evangelical Churches who know themselves to be gay or struggling with their sexuality.  It can destroy the lives of the families sitting in those pews who have loved ones who are gay or struggling. Instead of bringing life; those words bring death.  They cause pain, suffering, confusion and darkness to those who are already struggling. 

Let’s debate the issues surrounding homosexuality and the Biblical text.  But lets first of all dispense with this ultra-modern and nonsense idea that the question is of the first order of the faith.  It is not a fundamental theological question like the Trinity, Person of Christ or the Atonement.  Like slavery, inter-racial marriage, women’s rights etc. there is legitimate room for the Church to reassess the Biblical evidence and come to a different interpretation without undermining the Scriptures themselves.   Like all Secondary issues there is room for people of sincere and honest faith to disagree over the interpretations but remain in fellowship together.

The question of homosexuality is not a first order matter.  It is a secondary matter.  There is legitimate debate amongst Christians as to whether God created people gay, straight, bi or transgender.  There is room for Christians to disagree over the biblical interpretation as to the validity of same sex relationships.  There is a broadness to the grace of God.  The Good News of Jesus Christ is that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us”!  The ‘whosoever’ of John 3:16 doesn’t exclude folks whose sexual orientation isn’t straight.