Synod of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba has reported on the Synod of Bishop of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, which met in the Diocese of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape last week.

The Synod opened with a peace walk echoing the route of the Bhisho march, which ended in massacre in 1992.

Premier Masualle who was on the march of 1992 and came close to being killed, joined the bishops in the march, together with the mayor and other dignitaries and many Anglican Church groups in uniform. The Archbishop spoke briefly, apologising where the Anglican Church may have failed to act adequately in the past, and he and the Premier laid a wreath at the memorial. …

At 14h00 the Eucharist began with some 1000 present including choirs from all 6 Eastern Cape dioceses. It was moving to be welcomed by the wife of the late Steve Biko, Mrs Ntsiki Biko and her family. The Archbishop preached and celebrated and the bishops were hosted by the Premier to a meal at the Steve Biko Centre. As one bishop commented, ‘It is important to remember the price paid by others during apartheid so that we can all be free’; the peace walk enabled us to look back with healing eyes to the tragedy of 1992, while the rally and Eucharist addressed needs for reconciliation in the present and the future.

Later in the week, the bishops discussed their positions on human sexuality and marriage.

The bishops again discussed and worked over their draft Pastoral Guidelines in response to Civil Unions within the wider contexts of Marriage and Human Sexuality in readiness for decision at Provincial Synod. These reaffirm our assurance that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ. However, they they do not change our current policy, which is that the Province ‘cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions‘ (Resolution 1:10 of the Lambeth Conference of 1998).

The Prayer Book affirms ‘that marriage by divine institution is a lifelong and exclusive union partnership between one man and one woman‘; therefore the draft guidelines affirm for now that ‘partnership between two persons of the same sex cannot be regarded as a marriage… accordingly our clergy are not permitted to bless such unions… nor are they permitted to enter into such unions while they remain in licensed ministry‘.

Archbishop Makgoba also published his own reflections on the Synod’s discussions.

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.

Makgoba noted that in many of the dioceses represented, the basic needs of food security, shelter, healthcare, and education take a more urgent priority in the work of the church. In some, the church’s position on polygamous marriage is a more pressing pastoral issue than those of marriage equality and LGBT inclusion.

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.

The Archbishop’s letter also includes a link to the official statement of the Synod. The Anglican Church of Southern Africa has “a diverse membership of approximately 3 – 4 million people, speaking many languages and representing many cultures and races” across 25 dioceses spread through Angola, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and the island of St Helena.

Photo: The Most Reverent Thabo Cecil Makgoba, via the Anglican Church of Southern Africa

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