Monday 22 February 2016

To the Laos - To the People of God - Lent 2016

Dear People of God

I am writing to you just as we complete the February meeting of the Synod of Bishops, where we continued to travel together as we wrestled with our episcopal leadership of the Church. When we meet, we do so conscious that our vocation is not simply to serve you, the people of our Church, but to serve God through you -- a tiny distinction perhaps, but an important one.

We met in a spirit and rhythm of prayer, beginning with Eucharist each day, followed by midday prayers and Evening Prayer together, on the edge of the Wild Coast, north of East London, where we were surrounded by the rhythm of God seen in the beauty of nature. The matters we discussed were firmly rooted in mission, issues that affect how we serve God through and with his people. So we heard reports on the COP21 climate talks and on the encouraging development of our educational initiatives, which involve establishing new schools and strengthening existing ones. We also reflected on theological education and on work to ensure that clergy and full-time lay workers are adequately taken care of in retirement. In our most vivid act of solidarity and identification with a God who knows pain and marginalisation, we undertook a walk of witness to the site of the 1992 Bhisho Massacre and then worshipped with the people of the dioceses of the Eastern Cape at Bhisho Stadium.

We have issued a joint statement from the Synod, but I want to report to you in more detail to give you the full context of one of the more challenging matters we discussed. One of the key tasks before us was to fulfil the mandate given to us by Provincial Standing Committee and to finalise pastoral guidelines for couples in South Africa who are in same-sex civil unions. Against the backdrop of the international debate on this issue in the worldwide Anglican Communion, our discussions were frank, open and robust. We sensitively considered our role as the Anglican Church in Southern Africa within the broader family of the Communion, cognisant of the divergent strands of theological thinking within the Province of Southern Africa and of the different pastoral challenges that the different dioceses and the different countries of our Province are facing.

The document we have agreed upon will go to Provincial Synod for adoption in September, and will be published a few months ahead of Synod in the First Agenda Book. I believe that its adoption by Provincial Synod would be an important first step in signalling to the LGBT community that we in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, through our top deliberative and legislative body, see them as welcome members of our body as sisters and brothers in Christ. In the words of the guidelines:

"We reaffirm our assurance to them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ. Many of these are baptised and confirmed members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships."

In another section, the bishops declared that: "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..."

This has important implications in parishes where, for example, same-sex couples who are living in civil unions under South African law bring their children for baptism and confirmation. No child brought for baptism should be refused merely because of the sexual orientation of the parents, and particular care should be taken against stigmatising not only parents but their children too.

We also tried at the Synod of Bishops to draw up guidelines for clergy wanting to bless couples in same-sex unions, or who want to enter same-sex unions themselves. We constituted a group of bishops reflecting a cross-section of our views to discuss such guidelines. On this issue, I had to report back to the Synod, the only agreement we reached is that we were not of one mind.

Our differences do not only revolve around the theology of marriage, but are also a result of different pastoral realities in different dioceses. For example, most of our dioceses across Southern Africa are predominantly rural, and for many the urgent priorities of food security, shelter, healthcare and education crowd out debate on the  issue of human sexuality. In some rural dioceses, responding to challenges to the Church's restrictions on polygamous marriages is a much higher pastoral priority.

As a consequence, the Synod of Bishops has agreed that we will continue to regard ourselves bound by the broad consensus in the Anglican Communion, expressed by the Lambeth Conference in 1998, which is that we "cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions". Having said that, we did address the questions of whether that decision is immutable, whether it has replaced scripture, and when a Province of the Communion, or a diocese within a Province may deviate from it.

Of one thing I am absolutely determined, and that is that the Church in Southern Africa should build on our history of refusing to allow our differences to separate us, and that we should continue to work patiently through them together. We overcame deep differences over the imposition of sanctions against apartheid and over the ordination of women, and we can do the same over human sexuality. As the bishops say in the pastoral guidelines:

"Given that we share such broad and deep foundations of faith, when, as Bishops in Synod, we consider questions of human sexuality, we feel sharp pain and great distress at our own differences and at the breaches and divisions within the wider Anglican Communion. Yet we strongly affirm that we are united in this: that none of us feels called to turn to another and say ‘I no longer consider you a Christian, a brother in Christ, a member of the body of Christ’. None of us says ‘I am no longer in communion with you.’ We find that our differing views on human sexuality take second place alongside the strength of our overpowering conviction of Christ among us. As long as we, the Bishops of this Province, know unity in Christ in this way, human sexuality is not, and cannot be allowed to be, for us a church-dividing issue."

So on a personal level I came home from the Synod tired but full of hope. I am encouraging our Province in dealing not only with the issue of human sexuality, but also on those such as climate justice and inequality, never to abandon the hope that comes from knowing the grace with which we are held in the palm of God's hand.

God bless you,

†Thabo Cape Town


  1. Nothing new here. Status quo reaffirmed.

  2. Your Grace

    We are grateful for the trouble you have taken to expand on the Statement of the Synod of Bishops, and for the sense of hopefulness conveyed in your Lenten Ad Laos. This cannot be dismissed with a curt ‘status quo reaffirmed’.

    We would nonetheless want to raise a question concerning the argument that rural dioceses cannot prioritise LGBTI concerns, because of more pressing issues. The cited example of polygamy is of a different order: the church has been trying to restrict this custom for well over a century now (and in 1988 finally endorsed the maverick opinion of Bishop Colenso!), while sexual orientation is a very new item on many religious agendas. It often elicits loud and unconsidered reactions, though the intense discussion around it – and the entrenching of gay rights in some countries in recent years - has tended to mute that somewhat.

    To hold that, in rural life, food, shelter, health and education – urgent as they obviously are – somehow trump or displace the pastoral care of homosexual individuals or same-sex couples is to leave untouched yet another burden on the shoulders of these people. Surely compassion would seek every means to alleviate the unasked-for pains of secrecy and stigma?

    The church should also acknowledge that the South African state, through its constitution, has given clearer recognition of, and more hope to, its LGBTI citizens than the church has offered to those of them who continue to seek its direction as members of Christ’s Body.

    The alienation of numerous people from the church on account of their sexual orientation is a deeply problematic challenge to the Gospel, a situation for which the church must bear a significant share of responsibility.

    Choosing to recognise and incorporate LGBTI people in the day-to-day life of the church will require courage on their part and a major change in the general awareness of parishes. We look forward to the Pastoral Guidelines as an important step in that process.

    Yours in Christ

    Jan Alcock, Pat Cobbledick and David Smith (Parish of St John the Divine, Durban)


Thanks for your feedback! Note that we do not normally publish your Anonymous comments here. Rather comment on our Facebook page: