Mural outside the St Margaret’s parish hall in Parow
The Anglican Diocese of Saldanha Bay has taken the historic step of agreeing to bless same-sex couples, but what does it mean in practice?
It’s been widely reported that earlier this month members of the diocese’s synod overwhelmingly voted 104 to 4 to pray for and bless same-sex couples in civil unions.
The Saldanha Bay Diocese represents Anglicans in a large region ranging from the northern suburbs of Cape Town to the Namibian border, and is the first diocese in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to take this step.
The Anglican Church in Southern Africa does not currently permit its clergy to perform same-sex union ceremonies, preventing even Archbishop Desmond Tutu from saying a prayer at his daughter, Mpho Tutu’s recent marriage to her partner Dr Marceline van Furth.
As part of its vote, the Saldanha Bay Diocese also issued a formal apology to the LGBTQ+ community and their families for the “hurtful and unnecessary discrimination to which members of this community have been subjected over the years.”
MambaOnline spoke to the Rev Canon Chris Ahrends, rector of the parish of St Margaret’s in Parow, about the decision. He confirmed that while the move was an important step towards the recognition of same-sex couples by the Anglican Church in South Africa, little in practice would change for now.
Notably, in its “motion on guidelines for pastoral care for members of the LGBTIQA+ community in the Diocese of Saldanha Bay” the diocese said that implementation of the vote on same-sex unions is “subject to approval by Provincial Synod.”
This means the diocese will not officially start blessing same-sex couples until (and if) this is approved by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, which also includes countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Swaziland.
“Sadly, that’s right,” Ahrends said. “We have to be honest. Our diocese is saying this and making a declaration of our intent, but at the same time we are bound up as a Southern African province.”
A gospel of inclusion
The Anglican Church of Southern Africa will hold its next Provincial Synod in September 2019, at which the issue is expected to once again be voted on by the region’s 28 dioceses. Ahrends said recognition of same-sex unions could well be approved at the synod as there is growing support in the Southern African church to allow clergy to choose to bless same-sex couples.
“We want to create an environment in which those (Anglicans) who want to go ahead (with blessing same-sex unions) can go ahead and have got guidelines to do so,” he said.
“We are going to to wait till next year and see if these guidelines become uniform. But what our diocese, and I think increasingly you will see various dioceses in Southern Africa taking this decision, is saying is, ‘We are willing to do this… This is our intent. We want to make it clear that we are not excluding people on the basis of sexuality,'” explained Ahrends.
He admitted, however, that acceptance of same-sex marriages (as opposed to same-sex unions) is still some way off for the church. “We are probably not ready to look at the canon law on marriage. We’re not going to tamper with that at this stage as we are going to get too much resistance, particularly from countries where even same-sex behaviour is outlawed.”
Ahrends acknowledged that there are already some Anglican clergy in South Africa who are unofficially blessing same-sex unions on the basis of their “conscience”.
“At the heart of it all is a gospel of inclusion. For me, what the LGBTQ community represents is the excluded. So how do we really begin to practice a gospel of inclusion, which is the core message of the gospel?” he asked.
Thabo Makgoba, the Archbishop of Cape Town, is a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and has spoken of the “palpable pain” over the church’s refusal to accept same-sex unions at the 2016 Provincial Synod.
Internationally, the Anglican Church is facing serious divisions over the matter. Some African provinces in particular have threatened to break away from the global body, the Anglican Communion, if it approves of same-sex unions. In 2016, the Anglican Communion suspended the USA’s Episcopal Church for “unilaterally” accepting same-sex unions.