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Bishops in Southern Africa agree to prayers but not blessings for same-sex couples

06 March 2023

Neil Turner/Lambeth Conference

Dr Makgoba addresses the 2022 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury last July

Dr Makgoba addresses the 2022 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury last July

THE Synod of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACSA) has failed to agree on the blessing of same-sex unions.

After four sessions of “quietly impassioned, but respectful debate” — the Synod’s first in-person meeting since the Covid lockdowns — the Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba, announced that the Bishops were unable to reach consensus. They also ruled out marriages in churches for same-sex couples.

“At the end of the debate, we accepted that we are not of one mind on this matter. The divisions within the Synod of Bishops reflect the divisions in the Church as a whole, and we are not at peace with one another on this issue,” the Archbishop told the Synod last Friday.

Releasing statements by the Synod of Bishops, Dr Makgoba said that the Bishops had agreed at a meeting this week to prepare prayers suitable for providing pastoral care to couples in same-sex civil unions.

Speaking to the Church Times from Bishopscourt, the Archbishop’s home in Cape Town, on Monday morning, Dr Makgoba said: “I’m excited about the fact that we are no longer debating that the issues are there or are not there. It is an acknowledgment that we’ve got a pastoral responsibility as clerics and as bishops to care, which is very important, and an iota of movement that contributes into not only the Church in Southern Africa, but the broader Church.”

In their meeting, held from 27 February to 3 March, the Synod discussed a proposal by the Archbishops’ Commission on Human Sexuality that ACSA clergy should be permitted to bless couples in same-sex civil unions. The proposal was not put to the vote, and, after listening to the debate, the Archbishop adjourned the Synod overnight before reading out a statement.

He said that, despite the divisions, the Synod agreed on three issues: that opponents accepted each others’ integrity; that the canon on holy matrimony was not being debated; and “as we have previously declared, ‘We are of one mind that gay, lesbian, and transgendered members of our Church share in full membership as baptised members of the Body of Christ. . .’ All Anglicans, of whatever sexual orientation, are equally deserving of our pastoral care.”

He challenged the Synod, however, “to develop prayers of affirmation and acknowledgement for all faithful Anglicans with which all of us can agree, and to present such prayers to Provincial Standing Committee and Provincial Synod”.

He returned to the task that was given to the commission nine years ago, “namely, to spell out guidelines for providing pastoral ministry to those in same-sex relationships.” This guidance booklet is expected to be ready to be discussed in September, ahead of publication by the end of the year.

Dr Makgoba told the Church Times that same-sex unions were no longer only an urban phenomenon, but that even in rural areas, such as Queenstown, there are same-sex couples in civil unions who attend church regularly.

In his statement to the Bishops, Dr Makgoba said: “We are baptising the children of same-sex couples and confirming LGBTQI Anglicans.” He appealed for guidelines on the form of prayers to use when ministering to them, “for example, when we bless their houses or meals in their homes”.

He said this week: “The one positive thing is the very fact that the bishops, in their disagreement, agreed that there should be a subcommittee developing these specific prayers of affirmation and acknowledgement for all faithful Anglicans who are in civil unions. [That] is quite a good step in terms of acknowledgement.”

In 2016, the Synod voted against a motion that a bishop may “provide for prayers of blessing to be offered for those in same-sex civil unions”. The motion failed to achieve a simple majority in any House. The Bishops voted 16 to six against; the laity 41 to 25 against; and the clergy 42 to 34 against.

After the vote in 2016, the Archbishop wrote: “I was deeply pained by the outcome of the debate. I was glad I wear glasses or the Synod would have seen the tears. I wanted to be anywhere but in the Synod hall — I wished I was at home quietly in Makgoba’s Kloof.

“If one of you, my church members, is in pain, then I am in pain, too. The pain on both sides of the debate in Synod was palpable, and no one celebrated or applauded the outcome.”

The matter of blessing same-sex unions was first raised by Dr Makgoba’s predecessor, Dr Desmond Tutu, in the mid-1990s in South Africa, when he wrote: “If the Church, after the victory over apartheid, is looking for a worthy moral crusade, then this is it: the fight against homophobia and heterosexism.” In 2016, his daughter, Canon Mpho Tutu, confirmed that she had handed back her licence in the diocese of Cape Town after being warned that it would be revoked after she married a woman (News, 27 May 2016).

The new post-apartheid South African constitution, adopted in 1996, included a non-discriminatory clause that made South Africa the first country in the world to list sexual orientation as a human right. In 2006, it became the fifth country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage — eight years before the UK.

On Monday, Dr Makgoba said that he was much more positive than seven years ago. “We were, in 2016, not even wanting to acknowledge that this is the reality in the pews. So, now, this time around, we say we are no longer discussing whether is a reality or not. It is reality that we have faithful Anglicans on the pews.

“It is a reality that some dioceses and clergy have baptised people in civil unions, and have confirmed people that have openly said that they are LGBTQI, and now, we can no longer say, ‘No, theologically we don’t agree.’ So now we are saying, short of civil unions, which at the moment we don’t agree on our blessing them, what is our pastoral response to our reality?”

He also acknowledged, however, that, although same-sex unions were allowed in South Africa, homosexuality was still illegal in other countries in the Province, such as Swaziland and Namibia.

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