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NEWS ANALYSIS: Bishop Christopher’s tour opens new dialogue on global LGBT rights

(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two-part series about the three-month goodwill tour of retired Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda. The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego was the bishop’s guide while he was in the United States. These are his recollections and observations about the Compass to Compassion tour.)

SAN DIEGO -- The Compass to Compassion tour with Bishop Christopher and Mary Senyonjo, which concluded this week when the couple returned to their home in Kampala, Uganda, proves that the bishop’s message is relevant and contemporary.

The influence of the 76 million strong Anglican Church remains profoundly powerful. Of the more than 500 African bishops who serve as spiritual leaders who largely support criminalization of LGBT people, why is it that Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, at 80 years old, is the ONLY significant voice of reason right now coming out of Africa?

Yet this week brings great hope.

As the British Commonwealth heads of state gathered this week in Perth, Australia, the Secretary General Kamelesh Sharma raised the issue of LGBT rights to the highest level ever. What big news!

Speaking to an audience of several hundred at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth People’s Forum on Wednesday, Sharma said the Commonwealth was about democracy, development and diversity, pointing to the 2009 affirmation of the Commonwealth values and principles.

“This includes a clear commitment to tolerance, respect and understanding,” he said.

“This means we embrace difference, and that includes sexual identity. Discrimination and criminalization on the grounds of sexual orientation is opposed to our values and I have had occasion to refer to this in the context of our law-related conferences.”

The Sydney National Times carried an more opinion piece written by former Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirkby, who said this:

“Of about 80 countries that still criminalize same-sex, adult, private, consensual conduct, more than half (41) are members of the Commonwealth. Given that there are 54 Commonwealth countries, that means three-quarters of them still impose criminal penalties on gay people. The fact that such laws exist leads to stigma, discrimination, violence and an awful lot of personal misery.”

Bishop Christopher toured the U.S. for three months, and I am reflecting both on what is happening in Australia this week as a significant political watershed moment and the tour I organized for the bishop. What does it actually take to get the leaders of the church and governments to face up to unnecessary discrimination that would deny access to HIV information and services to millions of Africans and other members of the Commonwealth merely because they are LGBT?

The danger of Neo Colonialism from American Fundamentalists

The Senyonjo pilgrimage began in Scotland – where several centuries of healthy distaste of British Imperialism colors the Scottish support of LGBT human rights. (Did you see the horrific story about the gay Scotsman who was brutally beaten and burned alive last weekend?)

The bishop began his tour with a lecture on “Uganda - The Worst Place On Earth To Be Gay?” illustrating the remarkable attention Uganda has brought to the larger issue before the Commonwealth this week.

David Bahati’s “Kill The Gays” bill, which resurfaced this week despite international condemnation, has put a face on an issue that was largely underground for decades.

The rotting Victorian anti-gay laws of the Colonial era received a new jolt of energy from American fundamentalists in the past decade. New missionary fervor led by Scott Lively in 2009 and Paul Cameron this week in Moldova is a compendium of lies and misinformation designed to undermine LGBT rights in Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

Opening possibilities for a global dialogue on LGBT rights

The bishop’s story is about success out of failure and insult -- and being on the right side of justice.

The bishop’s humble ministry, destroyed several times by the Church of Uganda’s co-option of fundamentalisms preoccupation with gay sex, continues to thrive. With no pension, no pulpit and no recognition from his peers, the bishop has become the most famous African prelate since Desmond Tutu.

Bishop Christopher lives a message of compassion and resurrection. His wife came with him this time because he wanted her to see how much support he has in the U.S. Having said this, why don’t younger African bishops step out like Christopher? Some have LGBT family members and children, and some walk a fine line between responding pastorally to changing realities in Africa while remaining under very authoritarian Archbishops as in Uganda.

The bishop has a lot of support among clergy and bishops (some of whom he taught) but are afraid of the consequences of aligning themselves with a more inclusive model of the church that might welcome the marginalized. So the bishop’s tour was most of all a clear message to younger bishops and politicians in Africa and in the Commonwealth, that there is support for them and a compassionate message in significant parts of the world.

To what extent American seminaries, parishes and non-profit organizations seize the opportunity to open their doors and build deeper relations with their African neighbors remains to be seen. The tour opened up new possibilities for everyone.

The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is President of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and lives in San Diego. Donations for the work of Bishop Christopher can be made by clicking HERE.