Both the leaders of the Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have come together for a trip to South Sudan. But their presence is causing controversy over differing messages around LGBTQ+ rights.
It’s a complex topic for Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and Moderator of the General Assembly Iain Greenshields. All three leaders have spoken up for LGBTQ+ rights in recent years, although the Catholic Church and Church of England do not theologically endorse homosexuality.
It is illegal for men to have sex with men in South Sudan and can be punished by up to 14 years in prison and a fine. While the law is only targeted at men, trans people could also face prosecution. The law hasn’t been seen to be enforced since the last reported arrests in 2017, but there are also reports of discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people.
The lack of reports on the exact situation is likely due to an absence of LGBTQ+ society within South Sudan, reports The Human Dignity Trust, a global LGBTQ+ rights group.
Pope Francis spoke out against laws criminalising homosexuality, prior to the trip. “We are all children of God, and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each of us fights for our dignity,” he said.
But Francis’ position is not one that theologically permits homosexuality, only that the Catholic Church should work to eradicate anti-homosexual laws. Homosexual sex is still considered a sin by the Catholic Church, with Francis clarifying he wants to “distinguish between a sin and a crime.”
Similarly, Welby has spoken positively at the prospect of the Church of England moving to bless homosexual marriages. The Church of England’s legislative body is meeting next week to consider changing its position on homosexual marriage.
However, a recent leak of the bishops recommendation shows that the Church of England will likely only move to bless homosexual couples in non-Church marriages, instead of allowing the marriages within the church itself.
This is all despite England and Wales passing same-sex marriage legislation in 2013.
Welby has said he will likely not give these blessings himself so as not to alienate global regions that are part of the Anglican Church. He has even been quoted this week saying he’d rather let the Church of England lose its status as the established church in the country than deviate from this theological line.
The comments in favour of homosexual partnerships despite their theological inconsistencies has angered Archbishop Justin Badi Arama, the head of the Anglican church in South Sudan.
Badi has accused Welby of “failing to defend biblical truth”.
“What the English bishops are recommending constitutes unfaithfulness to God who has spoken through His written word,” Badi has explained.
Africa’s growing Christian population is a key motivation for the trip. European membership to the Anglican Church is notably dwindling, but has growing numbers in sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, the Catholic Church is growing fastest in Africa. In both cases, the most popular strands of the religions in Africa are ones that are strictest on homosexuality.