The United Methodist Church voted recently to continue its long-standing church bans on ordaining openly LGBTQ clergy and on performing same-sex marriages. Methodist delegates from around the world approved what was called the “Traditional Plan” and rejected an alternative proposal, backed by Methodist bishops, that would have allowed individual churches to decide for themselves on both issues. Many American Methodists — 60 percent of whom say homosexuality should be accepted — were dismayed by the decision and began talking of secession from the global church.
However, my research suggests that Protestant opinion on LGBTQ issues in the “Global South” — particularly in Africa — may be more malleable than it seems.
What happened at the Methodists’ conference?
The vote took place at the end of a special worldwide UMC general conference held Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis, specifically to examine issues related to human sexuality. Of the conference’s 864 voting delegates, 41 percent represented constituents outside the United States. Of all delegates, 30 were from Africa. The vote wasn’t overwhelming; 438 delegates voted in favor of the bans and 384 against, or 53 percent to 47 percent.
After the vote, media analysts noted an alliance among conservative delegates from the United States, Africa and the Global South to uphold the church policy that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Such cross-national alliances over LGBTQ politics are hardly new. Conservative Christians from the United States and Africa allied to oppose similar LGBTQ-rights movements within other Christian denominations.
Anglicans and Lutherans faced similar schisms
In the 2000s, Anglican and Lutheran churches in North America and Europe began ordaining same-sex partnered clergy and bishops. Church leaders in Africa led efforts to reject these LGBTQ policies and critiqued "unilateral actions” taken by the “materially most advantaged” churches in the Global North. For instance, the Anglican Church of Nigeria released a statement saying, “Many of us from the two-third[s] world feel that the global north still seeks to retain its disproportionate power and influence in our Church just as in the world.” Several of Africa’s largest or most powerful Lutheran and Anglican bodies severed all ties with their U.S. counterparts.
Africans weren’t alone in rejecting LGBTQ church members. African religious leaders formed alliances with conservative American Christians to oppose LGBTQ inclusion. Some American Anglican churches defected from the LGBT-inclusive Episcopal Church and instead sheltered under the authority of Nigerian and Ugandan Archbishops. Meanwhile, leaders from Ethiopia’s Mekane Yesus Church allied with the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod after splitting with the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over the latter’s decision to allow churches to welcome LGBTQ pastors.
African church leaders’ anti-LGBTQ positions largely align with broad continental public-opinion trends, which suggest generally negative attitudes toward homosexuality. Almost 80 percent of Africans surveyed across 33 countries in 2016 reported that they would not tolerate homosexuality. These mirror U.S. public opinion as recently as 30 years ago.
But some African church leaders are more open-minded on sexuality than these schisms suggest
However, my research suggests that broad public-opinion trends, public anti-LGBTQ church statements and strong cross-national conservative church alliances can be misleading. I conducted roughly 50 interviews with national and regional Christian leaders and faith-based development professionals from Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. Here’s what I found.
African churches generally oppose same-sex intimacy on religious grounds. A notable exception is the Anglican Church of South Africa, whose bishops resolved in 2016 to welcome gay church members. (The broader Southern African province later overruled that resolution.)
And yet the leaders I interviewed had very different levels of tolerance toward sexual minorities. Several reported working to protect LGBTQ church members and to build longer-term acceptance of sexual minorities. One regional human-rights practitioner told me that local Christian pastors routinely request help working with their LGBTQ congregants — understanding them, protecting them from physical harm and providing them with emotional support. For instance, Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo has received international accolades for his efforts to console LGBTQ Ugandans and to encourage greater acceptance among Uganda’s religious leaders.
Other interviewed leaders neither completely accept nor reject sexual minorities. One reported: “I am engaged with LGBTI people. … I think it’s a complete distortion that people should be defin[ed] by [their sexual orientations.] We are human. … You can’t define identity. No. That is selfish dehumanization.”
So what explains this difference between churches’ public anti-LGBTQ positions and some national leaders’ more nuanced perspectives? Church leaders try to maintain autonomy and independence from foreign partners. When LGBTQ rights movements gained traction throughout Eastern Europe, religious leaders often opposed those movements as foreign forces that threaten national values.
Accordingly, one leader I interviewed was wary of foreign organizations’ influence in his country:
We’ve been living together. They [sexual minorities] are in our compound. They’re in our house. They’re our brothers. They’re our sisters. Nobody talked about it until there was open funding and promotion and people said, `Why is this coming? Is there a foreign interest?’
This reaction may be a response to “homonationalism,” when Western societies use their LGBTQ attitudes to portray themselves as superior to “backward” societies. African church leaders resist Western liberal Christians whose actions imply they believe their ways are best, with attitudes reminiscent of early imperialism and colonization.
Several LGBTQ-sympathetic religious leaders based in Nairobi told me that Global North churches were not giving their African counterparts enough time to develop their own approaches to understanding LGBTQ identities.
One said, “What I desperately need, personally, is for the West ... to step on the brakes on pushing this [LGBTQ issue]. … Because you’re not giving [us] time to understand it.”
In other words, broader transnational politics shape — and often stifle — African church responses to campaigns for LGBTQ rights. Pressures to accede to foreign policies may prevent church leaders from arriving at, or publicly modeling, nuanced positions. Church resolutions such as the Methodist’s LGBTQ vote force African leaders to adopt or solidify positions that might otherwise still be in flux. And when leaders who are as trusted and politically influential as Africa’s religious leaders take publicly salient anti-LGBTQ stands, their constituents are likely to follow suit.
Sarah K. Dreier is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Washington, where she researches politics, religion and human rights for marginalized communities in East Africa and throughout the world.