Contrasting church attitudes on human rights for all

Savi Hensman


Many faith communities are officially committed to human rights for all. Yet in practice, some of their leaders may be strongly opposed. Since 1948 Christians have played a significant role in extending personal and societal respect for human dignity. At the same time, church leaders have also questioned and denied rights-based precepts and practices in a number of instances. In this paper, Savitri Hensman traces these discontinuities while pointing to the substantial traditional theological and spiritual resources that can be deployed in producing and developing shared commitments to freedom and justice. The publication of this document coincides with the Primates of the Anglican Communion meeting in Egypt from 1-4 February 2009, the upcoming Church of England General Synod discussion on the Human Rights Act, the Convention on Modern Liberty in the UK, and recent comments on human rights from the Vatican, from Evangelicals and from the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad. In a church contexts, arguments about sexuality are significant because they highlight the extent to which protagonists are, or are not, willing to extend equal recognition and rights to those who are 'other', or with whose lifestyle they disagree.

1. Setting the scene

Many faith communities are officially committed to human rights for all. Yet in practice, some leaders may be strongly opposed.

For example since 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed, international Anglican gatherings have repeatedly urged Christians to champion its principles. The 1988 Lambeth Conference asked provinces throughout the world ‘to support all who are working for its implementation’, and also passed a resolution supporting ‘Human Rights for Those of Homosexual Orientation’.

In contrast, in 2008 Eria Paul Luzinda, Bishop of Mukono in Uganda, reportedly claimed, ‘I have been hearing that gays are demanding that the government should legalise their activities. This is absurd because God created a man and woman so that they can produce and fill this world.’ Nicodemus Okille, the outspoken Dean of the Province of Uganda who represented his Archbishop at a Global Anglican Futures Conference leadership meeting in 2008, had gone even further. In his Christmas sermon in 2007 as Bishop of Bukedi, he was reported as criticising the advocates of gay rights, saying they had no place in the Kingdom of God.

While probably few other senior Anglican leaders would go as far as to regard support for universal human rights as a mortal sin, a sizeable number in some parts of the world are against decriminalising gay relationships, and some are in favour of jailing even heterosexual sympathisers. Others (whether in favour of blessing same-sex partnerships or not) would regard these as human rights abuses, to be strongly opposed. How did this gulf in understanding and values come to pass?

It may be a long time before an answer emerges on which people might agree. However, in at least attempting to make sense of the divisions on this matter, there may be something to learn for other churches and faith communities, and for those striving to build alliances to promote human rights.

2. Freedom and justice for everyone

Anglicans and other Christians played an important part in drawing up the Universal Declaration and getting it agreed, in a theological climate where there was much discussion about the rights without which humans could not fully develop and flourish in body, mind and spirit. The horrors of Nazi Germany and the second world war, as well as revelations about the impact of colonial rule and Stalinist repression, had focused public attention on the dangers of misusing power, even for the purpose of supposedly improving society. The individual should be respected, Anglican theologian Alan Richardson declared, ‘because God cares for it… When every other reason for respecting the personalities of others has broken down, this will always endure; when every motive of self-interest, national interest, or class interest has disappeared, the Christian commandment of love will still remain.’

Freedoms might include the ability to make wrong choices and learn from mistakes: as leading Baptist TG Dunning put it (albeit in the non-inclusive language of the times), ‘God predestined man to be conformed to His likeness and so had to give to man some measure of His own responsibility and freedom. Spiritual ends must be freely chosen.’

The 1948 Lambeth Conference warned that ‘both the recognition of the responsibility of the individual to God and the development of his personality are gravely imperilled by any claim made either by the state or by any group within the state to control the whole of human life. Personality is developed in community, but the community must be one of free persons.’ What is more ‘the Church, at all times and in all places, should be a fearless witness against political, social, and economic injustice.’ In the different parts of the world where they lived, many Anglicans sought to put this into practice.

In Nazi Germany, gay men and lesbians had been sent to concentration camps. In much of the post-war West, persecution continued. While in the mid-twentieth century most Christians disapproved of same-sex relationships, many thought it unjust that people should lose their reputation, livelihood and – in the case of men – their liberty if their sexuality was revealed. Families suffered too. Attempts to ‘cure homosexuality’, in addition to prayer for those who were religious, included encouragement to get involved in heterosexual relationships and sometimes harsh therapies involving making patients vomit or giving them electric shocks. But these were largely ineffective, and left some people badly damaged.

The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, had a deep concern for the disadvantaged and oppressed, arising from his profound faith. Though he disapproved of same-sex relationships, he played a critical part in steering a bill through the UK parliament to decriminalise gay sex in some circumstances, and this was passed in 1967. There were other human rights issues too with which he was engaged.

3. Religious revival

In some other parts of the world, championing of human rights was widely emphasised in Anglican and ecumenical circles as a Christian duty. This included the USA, where the civil rights movement had a major impact, and South Africa, wracked by apartheid and repression of dissent. In some cases this was accompanied by an emphasis on spiritual renewal. Christians were urged to listen more deeply to God and neighbour, seek to pray honestly, acknowledging their own feelings both positive and negative, and strive to relate to everyone as a child of God.

Ambrose Reeves, the Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg deported in 1960 for his opposition to apartheid, wrote that ‘In every genuine human encounter with another person we may become aware of Jesus, and meet with him. This may sound fanciful, but there is much in the Scriptures and in Christian experience which suggests that Jesus is frequently met in the traffic of person with person, provided that there is a genuine encounter between them. Jesus himself showed that for this to happen demands courage and a willingness to move from a life that is centred in itself.’

American civil rights activist, lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow, according to a friend of his, went around with ‘a newspaper in one hand and his Bible in the other’ (as Karl Barth enjoined Christians to do). In his view prayer revealed ‘every connection with everyone and everything else in the whole of Creation throughout time.’ Speaking in 1963, he described racism as a form of ‘the power with which Jesus Christ was confronted and which, at great and sufficient cost, he overcame. In other words, the issue here is not equality among human beings. The issue is not some common spiritual values, nor natural law, nor middle axioms. The issue is baptism. The issue is the unity of all humankind wrought by God in the life and work of Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of that unity of all humanity in God.’ He was also acutely aware of the denial of economic and social rights to numerous people, and pointed out that ‘the affluence of the few is proximately related to, and supported by, the poverty of the many.’

Even the most entrenched human rights abuses could be overcome through God’s grace, South African Anglican leader Desmond Tutu believed: ‘I never doubted that ultimately we were going to be free, because ultimately, I knew there was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.’ Anglicans and other Christians risked being reviled as traitors, imprisoned, beaten or killed, believing that defence of the poor and marginalised was integral to their faith.

Elsewhere, other kinds of religious renewal movements were underway. The East African revival swept through Uganda from the 1930s. While some of the norms taught by Western missionaries were reinforced, there was an emphasis on public confession of sins, holiness of life, acceptance of Christ as personal saviour and speaking in tongues. ‘Mainstream’ churches were heavily influenced and new denominations founded. Archbishop Henry Orombi later commented, ‘In Uganda, a Christian is one who has a testimony—a story of what their life was like before a living relationship with Jesus Christ; how they heard the message of Jesus Christ and how their life has changed since surrendering their lives to him.’ In Nigeria and some other parts of Africa, too, revivalism had a major impact.

Some leaders of the revival in Uganda combined the emphasis on personal piety with concern for human rights. For instance Bishop Festo Kivengere, a gifted evangelist, boldly challenged dictator Idi Amin’s repressive ways, while continuing to preach the importance of forgiveness and love for all, and was forced to flee. He is once said to have explained that Christ’s compassion ‘sharpens our vision, sensitises our hearts, and compels us into action.’ Archbishop Janani Luwum was martyred in 1977 after protesting against violence by the security forces.

But later, senior clergy in Uganda placed more emphasis on what they regarded as personal morality, and achieved a more harmonious relationship with top politicians. It is perhaps understandable that, after successive tyrannical regimes, they might feel relief when a government came to power which at least showed signs of respecting democracy. And it is not surprising that many laypeople whose lives had been disrupted during years of turmoil should be attracted by a form of religion based on certainty.

Anglicans faced strong competition from other denominations which claimed the authority of the Bible for their own teachings. American evangelists preaching a distorted version of the Gospel which favoured the rich and respectable, and able to put on a good show on television or in huge stadiums, helped to whet people’s appetite for simplistic teaching presented in a dramatic manner. In Nigeria alone numerous churches sprang up, offering healing and the promise of prosperity. Certain Muslim leaders preaching a narrow form of Islam also sought converts and power. To Anglicans in this competitive ‘market’, being clear and forceful on doctrinal matters, and distancing themselves from those targeted by the state, could seem prudent.

4. Human rights for gay and lesbian people

In various ex-colonies the hopefulness which there was shortly after independence had dwindled, and huge international imbalances in wealth and power continued. Governments sometimes scapegoated minorities, or tried to prove that they were anti-imperialist by labelling certain cultural practices (such as skimpy clothing for women) as too westernised, while not challenging too vigorously the deeds of superpowers and multinational corporations. As local lesbians and gays became more visible especially where rapid urbanisation was taking place, laws against gay sex passed in colonial times were put to use.

International Anglican gatherings continued to affirm the importance of striving for human rights, including those of gays and lesbians, to whom church leaders were urged to listen and with whom dialogue was needed, though same-sex partnerships remained too controversial to be endorsed. The 1978 Lambeth Conference had stated that it ‘regards the matter of human rights and dignity as of capital and universal importance’. Also, while reaffirming ‘heterosexuality as the scriptural norm’, the Conference recognised ‘the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research. The Church, recognising the need for pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encourages dialogue with them.’ The Anglican Consultative Council had gone even further in 1979, urging member churches to ‘rigorously assess their own structures, attitudes and modes of working to ensure the promotion of human rights within them’.

The 1988 Lambeth Conference again asked provinces to support the work of those seeking to make sure the Universal Declaration was put into practice. It also passed a resolution on ‘Human Rights for Those of Homosexual Orientation’, reaffirming the previous statement on homosexuality and calling ‘each province to reassess, in the light of such study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation.’

The Universal Declaration was again endorsed at the next Lambeth Conference, a decade later, and the listening process again affirmed. But it had become increasingly clear that the most senior leaders in provinces such as South East Asia, Uganda and Nigeria had no intention of entering into dialogue with those gays and lesbians to whom they supposedly ministered or of upholding their human rights: quite the opposite. To them, legal sanctions were a proper attempt to defend public morality, and pastoral duty involved straightforward condemnation of same-sex intimacy.

It might be thought that the fact that other provinces by and large took a different view might have given pause for thought. But those in the USA with whom Ugandan and Nigerian leaders were most in touch were ‘conservatives’, some of whom went far beyond objecting to the increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships. To the most extreme, the mainstream Episcopal Church’s position on many issues showed how far it had fallen spiritually.

For instance Stephen Noll, a professor at Trinity (Episcopal) School for Ministry who was later appointed Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University, had attacked the emphasis on inclusive language which recognised that God was neither male nor female: ‘The first spiritual danger of inclusive language is that it seeks to buffer us from the hard truth of a holy God… I cannot avoid the conclusion that, when all is said and done, inclusive language proponents are more fearful to stand before the judgment seat of the cultural elite than before the future throne of Christ. They have identified the canons of late 20th century "politically correct speech" with the contents of the Lamb's book of life.’ Such opponents of the Episcopal Church leadership helped to convince their friends overseas that the social concerns of other US Anglicans reflected mere worldliness.

International power imbalances, including financial reliance on richer provinces and the patronising attitudes of some Western clergy, left an undercurrent of resentment on the part of those who felt dependent. It was flattering to be told that they were the true spiritual vanguard who could redeem the Anglican Communion from its failings.

In September 1999, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni ordered the police to arrest all homosexuals for engaging in what he termed ‘abominable acts’, claiming that his upbringing and the Bible told him homosexuality was wrong. He claimed, falsely, that UN Conventions were made without involving African states, ‘and therefore they are not universal to Africa.’ At least five people were arrested and tortured, one of whom was also reportedly raped, and others went into hiding out of fear.

This did not go unchallenged by Ugandans concerned about human rights. For instance a columnist in The Monitor wrote that homosexuals ‘should enjoy the same rights and freedoms as their heterosexual counterparts, including the freedom from harassment by the state and individuals.’ In contrast Archbishop Livingstone Mpalanyi-Nkoyooyo declared his support for this repression, claiming ‘We cherish the biblical teaching of marriage between man and woman. We condemn this inhuman sex between man and man’. In 2006, after same-sex marriage was made a criminal offence (gay sex was already unlawful) and harassment of gays and lesbians intensified, the prime minister was invited to speak at the Provincial Assembly of the Church of the Province of Uganda, where he expressed appreciation for the churches’ stance.

In 2007, when a bill was proposed to the Nigerian parliament which would outlaw any positive portrayal of same-sex relationships (gay sex was already a crime, punishable in some parts of the country by death), UN officials condemned this as 'an absolutely unjustified intrusion of individuals' right to privacy' which went against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There was also opposition from some in Nigeria such as Abdul Oroh, deputy chairman of the House Committee on Human Rights. However, according to Archbishop Peter Akinola, the Primate (most senior Anglican bishop) of Nigeria, ‘The Church affirms our commitment to the total rejection of the evil of homosexuality which is a perversion of human dignity and encourages the National Assembly to ratify the Bill prohibiting the legality of homosexuality since it is incongruent with the teachings of the Bible, Quran and the basic African traditional values.’

To him, vigorous repression was justifiable, since homosexuality was a matter of choice, and posed a grave threat to society. He had previously written that ‘it is a blatant lie against Almighty God that homosexuality is their God-given urge and inclination. For us, it is better seen as an acquired aberration… As we are rightly concerned by the depletion of the ozone layer, so should we be concerned by the practice of homosexuality... Homosexuality or lesbianism or bestiality is to us a form of slavery, and redemption from it is readily available through repentance and faith in the saving grace of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.’

In addition to being profoundly hostile to gays and lesbians, some leading Ugandan and Nigerian church leaders found mainstream Anglican teaching on social justice and human rights alien to their understanding of Christianity, and so easy to ignore. ‘The question of debt, OK, we have to address it as a church, and we have to plead with people whom we owe money to help us, so that... our economies also may take off. But as a church leader, that does not bother me as much as a doctrinal issue,’ a Ugandan bishop told researcher Miranda Hassett, who wrote an illuminating study of the international Anglican crisis.

When asked why the Anglican church was spending so much time on the issue of homosexuality instead of war, AIDS and poverty – a question raised by South African church leaders – Nigerian Archbishop Akinola replied, ‘I didn’t create poverty. This church didn’t create poverty. Poverty is not an issue, human suffering is not an issue at all, they were there before the creation of mankind.’

In contrast, in a World AIDS Day talk in 2003, the South African primate at the time, Njongonkulu Ndungane, said, ‘We are compelled by the great imperative “to do unto others as we would have them do unto us”. This is fundamentally about the equal human dignity we all share and the common human rights that flow out of this… I find it almost impossible to read the Christian Gospel without hearing a powerful message speak through it into this pandemic. It is essentially a message which encourages us to live our lives in hope, to work unceasingly for a better world.’

5. Recognising differences, addressing issues

By the early twenty-first century, a sizeable gap had opened up between Anglicans passionately in favour of universal human rights and those strongly opposed. This was true to some extent of many other Christian denominations and faith communities. Yet these differences were largely ignored in international Anglican circles, in contrast to the attention paid to the issue of same-sex relationships: campaigning for gay couples to be jailed was far more acceptable than blessing them.

At a press conference of the Global Anglican Futures Conference in 2008, bringing together those seeking to ‘purify’ Anglicanism, Peter Akinola and Henry Orombi were invited to condemn the imprisonment, rape and torture of gays and lesbians, but refused to do so. It was left to their embarrassed ally, Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen, to condemn such violence. However moderate leaders on the whole continued to shy away from admitting that Anglicans were divided on human rights and that this was a serious concern.

There were a number of possible reasons. Some white Christians clearly felt guilty about colonialism, and did not want to appear racist by challenging black leaders who claimed to be speaking on behalf of their own societies (though the norms they were defending were in fact held by many white people too, and had in some cases been introduced by European colonisers). There was also perhaps a tendency to assume that, while Europeans and North Americans might be expected to disagree among themselves, others lacked that independence of thought. Some African, Asian and Latin American church leaders might, because of a sense of solidarity, been reluctant to be too critical in public of those claiming to speak for the ‘Global South’. Theological ‘conservatives’ may have not wanted to focus on issues that might split them; and, overall, preserving church unity was a high priority for most Anglicans.

There had also been a shift in emphasis away from human rights among thinkers and politicians. Some argued that there should instead be a focus on people’s responsibilities or that any universal set of principles was oppressive, and freedom for individuals was sometimes downplayed while reconciliation between communities was promoted. And where campaigners, musicians and others – including Nigerians and Ugandans – hade highlighted the importance of justice for all, religious leaders had sometimes failed to listen and reflect on whether this might involve some measure of divinely-inspired wisdom. Meanwhile, those in religious and secular circles where support for human rights was taken for granted sometimes found it hard to communicate clearly and respectfully with those who did not share their assumptions.

Yet failing to uphold the principles in the Universal Declaration tends to restrict human potential and damage the most vulnerable. And lasting unity cannot be based on outward friendliness among top leaders, avoiding challenge to those most certain of their own correctness, while the concerns of people with less power go unheard.

More positively, Anglican leaders and theologians such as Rowan Williams have in recent years addressed the issue of human rights, and how this ties in with their religious beliefs, in some depth. In December 2008, a Ugandan judge ruled in favour of two lesbian and gay rights activists whose human rights had been violated by the police, and over sixty countries supported a declaration at the United Nations General Assembly condemning human rights violations based on homophobia.

If faith communities can grapple with such matters, acknowledging that there are deep differences over rights for all and being willing to debate them, and truly listening to those on the receiving end of human rights abuses and their advocates, there is greater hope of achieving justice and defending human dignity.



© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008). She has also contributed a series of essays on human rights and Christian thought and action (linked below).

Savi will be part of a panel on
'Faiths and Freedoms'
convened by Ekklesia as part of the Convention on Modern Liberty taking place on 28 February 2009 at the Institute of Education, London, sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, OpenDemocracy, The Guardian, and the civil rights organisation Liberty.


More articles by Savi Hensman on human rights-related themes:

* Being on the side of the crucified
* Developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
* Human rights are not just for individuals
* The Christ child, the vulnerable and human rights
* Tradition, change and the new Anglicanism
* Prayerfully seeking justice and mercy

From Ekklesia’s online bookshop:

Christopher Marshall, Crowned with Glory and Honour: Human rights in the biblical tradition (Cascadia, 2001) – http://tinyurl.com/c6qsws
“The book I have been waiting for since I made the commitment to be a Christian who stands for peace and justice. Marshall builds the bridge between the secular language of human rights and biblical perspectives on shalom that has been sorely lacking. Christian activists who have been hesitant to bring their faith into the picture should read this book, as should human rights advocates wondering how to persuade Christians to get on board. It may not be the longest book you read this year, but it could be the most important.” — Mary H. Schertz, Professor of New Testament, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, USA.

David Hollenbach, Justice, Peace and Human Rights: Catholic social ethics in pluralistic context (Crossroad, 1998) – http://tinyurl.com/ck59f7
In this substantial book, the author explores how the American Catholic church has developed since Vatican II and how it has faced the cultural challenge of American pluralism. He suggests ways in which social-ethical concerns might become fully integrated into church life.

Further titles on human rights: ethical, legal, social, religious and political texts: http://shop.ekklesia.co.uk/search.php?keyword=human+rights