Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, reflects on today’s meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the world’s 78-million strong Anglican Communion, during which he urged Welby towards an understanding of the gay community.
Archbishop Welby is clearly struggling to reconcile his support for loving, stable same-sex relationships with his opposition to same-sex marriage. I got the impression that he wants to support gay equality but feels bound by church tradition. He accepts that discrimination is not a Christian value but can’t bring himself to state publicly that banning gay couples from getting married is discrimination and wrong.
The Archbishop told me “gay people are not intrinsically different from straight people” but there is an “intrinsic difference in the nature of same-sex relationships” and this is a sufficient reason to deny gay couples the right to marry, even in civil ceremonies in register offices. When pressed to say why this “intrinsic difference” justified banning same-sex marriage he merely replied: “They are just different.”
I am hopeful that in time the Archbishop will resolve his moral dilemmas and encourage the church to move closer to gay equality. He struck me as a genuine, sincere, open-minded person, willing to listen and rethink his position.
The Archbishop did not accept that the ban on same-sex civil marriage amounted to discrimination. He told me: “I don’t accept the word discrimination.”
Welby said he was “apprehensive” and “cautious” about the “consequences of redefining marriage,” adding that he was unconvinced that it would be to “the advantage of society.”
However he added that in future “marriage may evolve.”
Justin Welby said he mostly opposes the government’s same-sex marriage bill because it is a “bad bill”. He supports a proposed amendment to open up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, which is something Peter Tatchell has campaigned for ever since the Civil Partnership Act was legislated in 2004.
“Parliament has a right to legislate same-sex marriage… the church has a right to oppose it… I am in favour of the state recognising same-sex relationships but not in favour of redefining marriage,” said Welby.
I urged Justin Welby to apologise on behalf of the Church of England for the centuries of homophobic persecution it inflicted on gay people. If not an apology, then some expression of remorse and regret.
The Archbishop replied: “I hear what you say. I will need to think about that.”
I also urged the Archbishop to meet other LGBT organisations and campaigners, from within the UK and in Africa.
I don’t represent all LGBT people. It is important that a wide range of LGBT voices are heard; especially in countries like Nigeria and Uganda where the Anglican church is actively stirring anti-gay hatred and supporting repressive homophobic legislation.
Today’s meeting was the first ever meeting between an international religious leader and a leading international gay rights campaigner.
My Open Letter criticised Justin Welby as “homophobic” for supporting a legal ban on same-sex civil marriage. It also criticised the Anglican Communion for colluding with local dioceses in Africa that endorse the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in countries like Uganda and Nigeria.
Discrimination is not a Christian value. The Archbishop should therefore oppose all discrimination against gay people, including the ban on same-sex civil marriage.
While the church can maintain its refusal to conduct same-sex religious marriages, it should cease opposing the marriage of gay couples by civil authorities in register offices.
The church is currently in the forefront of attempts to force the government to abandon its plans to legalise same-sex civil marriage. It is actively supporting the current ban. This is homophobic discrimination.
I am asking Archbishop Welby to make a clear distinction between what he and the church believe is morally wrong and the law of the land.
While the Archbishop is entitled to reject homosexuality as unacceptable, in a liberal democracy he is not entitled to insist that his religious beliefs are legislated into law by banning same-sex civil marriage ceremonies.
The Church of England’s opposition to same-sex civil marriage is a direct and un-Christian attack on the human rights of gay people.
While Anglicans have a right to refuse to conduct religious gay marriages, they should halt their campaign against gay marriages hosted by civil authorities. The church should have no jurisdiction or veto over marriages in register offices.
This is the first time any Archbishop has formally met me. Even a liberal like Rowan Williams never welcomed me to Lambeth Palace. Justin’s invitation is progress.
In 1997, ten of us from the gay rights group OutRage! scaled the walls of Lambeth Palace, hid among the roses and jumped out to confront the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, as he entertained 16 Anglican primates in the garden.
We were protesting over his refusal to dialogue with the gay community and his opposition to an equal age of consent, fostering by gay couples and the legal recognition of same-sex relationships. This time I’m going to Lambeth Palace through the front door at the Archbishop’s invitation. It makes a nice change.
Peter Tatchell is director of the London-based human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and coordinator of the Equal Love campaign.
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