June 10, 2010

Gene Robinson, Former Ugandan Bishop Hail Sexuality Without Boundaries

Decrying as “missionaries of hate” U.S. Christians who preach in Africa against homosexual practice, a former bishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda spoke June 8 at a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.

Christopher Senyonjo was hosted by Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop to be consecrated in the Anglican Communion. Robinson has served as Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP) since March. The two spoke about anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda, which they blamed upon U.S. evangelicals. They also called for a broader effort to decriminalize homosexual practices in Africa. Senyonjo’s appearance at CAP was part of a six-week speaking tour of the United States, sponsored by Integrity USA, an unofficial homosexual caucus in the Episcopal Church.

Robinson introduced Senyonjo as “one of my heroes, one of the people I look to.” Senyonjo returned the compliment, affirming that the Holy Spirit was behind greater acceptance of homosexuality in the church.“When you were consecrated, I celebrated,” Senyonjo said of Robinson. “Thank God for you.”

Bishop of the Ugandan diocese of West Buganda until his retirement in 1998, Senyonjo began a pro-homosexuality ministry in the East African country soon after and is now chaplain to Integrity Uganda, a chapter of Integrity USA. Senyonjo quickly fell out of favor with the doctrinally traditional 9-million-member Ugandan church and was inhibited from ministry in 2001. In January 2007 Senyonjo was deposed as a bishop in the Anglican Church of Uganda for violating his inhibition and presiding at the consecration of a priest. Senyonjo is now connected to a denomination known as the Charismatic Church of Uganda, although CAP identified him as an Anglican bishop.

Senyonjo spoke about legislation recently considered by the Ugandan parliament that would increase criminal penalties for homosexuality-related conduct, including the death penalty for those who knowingly transmit to a minor the virus that causes AIDS.

“The lines between pedophilia and homosexuality have been painfully blurred,” said Robinson, claiming that anti-pedophile fears had unfairly tarred homosexuals. “People should not mix prejudice and ignorance,” Senyonjo added.

Homosexuality is not new to Africa, according to Senyonjo. However, the Ugandan claimed that over the past 20 years, there has been a movement in the East African nation to portray the practice as a western export.

“Human sexuality has no boundaries,” Senyonjo said, relaying the story of a young man who came to him, praying and fasting, yet said he was unable to change his homosexual desires. Senyonjo said the young man was on the verge of suicide, and without counseling would probably be dead. After this counseling experience, the retired bishop changed his views on homosexuality and began a ministry to Ugandan homosexuals to accept their orientation and affirm that God loved them all the same.

“As Paul was called to the Gentiles, I believe this is what I am called to do,” said Senyonjo. “An inclusive God is what I believe.”

Senyonjo protested against what he described as the practice of “taking bits of Scripture” that fit an argument. The former Anglican bishop criticized the view that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of their practice of homosexuality. This view was what led U.S. religious conservatives to “export” their culture wars to Africa, Senyonjo alleged.

“You [U.S. Christians] are doing more harm than good,” Senyonjo charged. He described as “missionaries of hate” those American religious conservatives who taught that homosexual acts were against God’s law.

“It seems to me churches need to repent,” Robinson chimed in, claiming that Christian, Jewish, and Islamic communities were responsible for most anti-homosexual discrimination. The New Hampshire bishop accused U.S. Christians of sparking anti-homosexual violence in Africa in the same manner that careless hikers sometimes start wildfires in California.

Both speakers agreed that opposition to the proposed Ugandan legislation was the start of something larger. Senyonjo pointed out that even if the legislation is not adopted, homosexual acts are still a crime in Uganda. “[The] time is coming when we should not work on just one bill, but towards decriminalization,” Senyonjo said, adding that he was “very grateful for voices all over the world that work against oppression.”

“It is wrong to say, ‘Don’t interfere, it’s a domestic thing,’” the former Anglican bishop said. He compared foreigners working for decriminalization of homosexuality in Africa to aid workers providing earthquake relief in Haiti.

Following their discussion, Robinson and Senyonjo invited questions from the audience. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle asked if the bishops approved of Sweden’s threat to withhold aid money to Uganda if the anti-homosexuality legislation passed there. “My sense is we continue the aid and demand the conversation continue,” Robinson said. He added that in his view the Episcopal Church has been careful in the Anglican Communion not to use its money as political leverage over poorer provinces.

“Where I hope we are headed is to discover the enormous diversity in human sexuality,” Robinson said. Senyonjo responded with a firm “yes.”

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were as many sexualities as there are human beings?” Robinson asked. “Are we going to value every human being?”

“My litmus test is love,” Senyonjo added.

The New Hampshire bishop said that with the ever-expanding number of sexual orientations in the gay community, he looked forward to the day when heterosexuals also began to acknowledge the complexity of their sexuality. “There are nine times as many of them, nine times as many sexualities,” Robinson suggested.

The two bishops also fielded a question about the Catholic Church’s response to homosexuality in Africa. Senyonjo replied that African Catholic leaders would say to homosexuals: “Be who you are, but don’t be active.” He likened this approach to talking to a volcano ready to erupt. “I’m not going to touch that one [the volcano analogy],” Robinson said, prompting a burst of laughter from the audience.

Robinson concluded the event by telling Senyonjo: “We send you back as a missionary to the people of Uganda and the Church of Uganda.”

The conversation between the two bishops was preceded by brief remarks from Michael Posner, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Posner said he was there to “lend support of the U.S. government” to Robinson and Senyonjo. “LGBT rights are human rights; we work to promote them as we would any other,” Posner said.

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