Moving to Zaïre in 1987, among many cultural shocks encountered was the fact that a visa to travel there was a one-way ticket. There was no automatic freedom of movement out of the country once you had entered. You had to apply for an exit/re-entry visa when in situ. For someone used to their passport facilitating transit across borders fairly simply, this was a sharp reminder of the fragility of that particular freedom.
In the run up to the meeting of the heads of the Commonwealth in London this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a meeting of parliamentarians and religious leaders from eleven countries for two days of conversations regarding the freedom of religion and belief. This is not a right enshrined in the constitutions of most Commonwealth countries, and even where it is, as in the case of Nigeria, the exercise of sharia law in northern provinces makes conversion from Islam illegal and punishable. Which is hardly freedom of religion and belief.
One unnamed participant said, after the meeting, that the Commonwealth nations’ tradition of tolerance and liberty is “a Common Wealth that needs to be cherished, celebrated and continuously cultivated”.
If only this were true. The Commonwealth of Nations represents one of the largest blocks of nations where LGBTI people are persecuted for the expression of their gender identity and sexuality. Of the thirty-six nations who have statutes still criminalising LGBTI people, these range from the right for employers to discriminate against employees for their sexuality (Botswana, Mauritius, the Cook Islands and Samoa) right through to the death penalty (Northern Nigeria and Brunei). The largest group are those nations that still have and use imprisonment for same-sex relations on their statute book. They are:
Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Southern Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Antigua & Barbuda, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & The Grenadines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
No matter that there is a direct link between the colonial heritage of the “buggery laws”, which imposed the penalties of sixteenth Century England on former colonies in the nineteenth century. If the Commonwealth is truly to live up to its claimed tradition of tolerance and liberty then this horrendous stain on freedom must be corrected. Many LGBTI and other campaign groups including Stonewall, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, the Kaleidoscope Trust, Amnesty International, ILGA and others have been calling for this for years. Many UK parliamentarians find this aspect of the life of the Commonwealth of Nations profoundly shaming. Our present government is, however, rather coy about pushing this agenda.
It would be good to hear those parliamentarians and religious leaders who met at Lambeth Palace this week speak up to defend the freedoms of their LGBTI co-citizens. For freedom cannot be divided. If freedom of religion and belief is important, including the freedom not to have a religion or hold particular beliefs, yet is something voluntarily undertaken, then how much more is the freedom to be oneself and to express that freely in the bodies we inhabit, a reality that is often not consciously chosen, but is discovered.
I presently work as a civil celebrant. With my clients I create ceremonies to help them express what they need around significant moments in their lives. Most of my work is to do with funerals, but I also take wedding celebrations and other ceremonies. What I create is shaped and determined by the wishes of my clients. For some they want no religious content, others do want prayers or readings. I give them what they want, so that the ceremony created respects their convictions and their freedom at a most important and significant moment in their lives.
I remain a priest of the Church of England, but, because I am married to my husband, I am not able to officiate in any way as I have no licence nor permission to officiate. Celebrancy is a way of using some of my gifts and of making a living.
For the third time in six months I was contacted last week by a clergyperson who wanted to talk about the work I do. It transpired in our conversation that they were thinking of leaving the ministry, and wondering whether celebrancy was something for them. For the third time in six months, the person I was talking to was planning to leave because of the homophobia they had encountered in the Church of England.
Seeking a change of ministry, they had applied to parishes and had been offered interviews. Open about their sexuality and that they were in a civil partnership, they experienced “the worst homophobia I have ever encountered in my whole life”. They were not offered either post. Enquiries with diocesan officials about three other posts led to it being made clear that they would be wasting their time putting in an application.
I could hear the frustration, anger, sadness and resignation in the voice of the person I was talking to. “What do we have to do? I have done everything the Church asks – I have a civil partnership not a marriage, and still I can’t get a job.” They were thinking that they would resign their orders.
As a result of the end of my own case against the then acting bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, we now know that the Church of England has the legal right to discriminate against LGBTI clergy even in jobs in that are not directly under the Church’s control, like NHS chaplaincies.
Put against calls in the Commonwealth for religious freedom and tolerance, the situation of LGBTI people around the Commonwealth is shockingly jarring, particularly as it is often the religious bodies in those countries that campaign against LGBTI rights and freedoms.
And here, in a particular way, in the case of one clergyperson, the homophobia of the Church of England was brought home to me again this week.
In Luke 4, Jesus reads the lesson in his home synagogue. He then speaks about what he has read. His sermon is so infuriating to his audience that we are told they try and kill him. Why? Because he tells them that until everyone is free, no one is free. You can’t have freedom when fellow humans remain bound. And you certainly cannot have it when whole categories of people are persecuted and discriminated against. You can’t have a homophobic Church, no matter how polite and English, which works for the freedom of religion and belief while it discriminates against its LGBTI faithful.