When will the Commonwealth and Anglicanism move on from colonial-era prejudices? | Simon Jenkins

It should not have been down to the athlete Tom Daley to call out blinkered attitudes to LGBTQ people

The British empire may be dead but its ghost refuses to lie down. In the past fortnight, two relics, the Commonwealth and the Church of England, have come to prominence, incanting their slogans of virtue. The Commonwealth claims to be a “major force for change in the world”, the C of E to be a bond of “living in love and faith”. They are strong on abstract rhetoric, but leave little firm ground beneath their feet.

The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham displayed one genuine breakthrough: for the first time, disabled athletes were given equality in medals and games ceremonial. But it was left to the diving athlete Tom Daley to spoil the parade. He pointed out that of 56 Commonwealth member states, 35 outlaw homosexuality and variously imprison, beat, stone or kill gay people. They include Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. While a few athletes carried the rainbow flag in Birmingham, Daley told the BBC that most were terrified of being identified.

The answer that the Commonwealth is not political will not do. Countries have frequently left or been expelled for their politics. South Africa went because of apartheid in 1961, Fiji in 1987 for a military coup, as did Pakistan and Zimbabwe for election rigging. Nigeria was expelled for a splurge of executions in 1995. Politics also lies behind the steady dwindling of those accepting Britain’s Queen as their monarch, now just 15.

The Commonwealth was never just a trading bloc, least of all since the UK joined the EU. Apart from a quadrennial medal-fest, it is a club whose values are shared and to a degree enforced. Persecuting gay people should surely rank with a rigged election as disqualifying a country, if not from membership, at least from attending an £800m party. If the Commonwealth shrinks as a result, that should be a credit to its moral cohesion.

The C of E finds itself in a near-identical mess. The Anglican communion is spread over 165 mostly former colonies, with a Briton, the archbishop of Canterbury, as its putative head. The present primate, Justin Welby, has suggested this is something of a colonial hangover. A different hangover, from the middle ages, is that Britain is the only world state other than Iran whose clergy have seats reserved for them in parliament. This does not stop them persistently lagging behind parliament on social reform, not least on sexuality and marriage.

Every decade, Anglicanism’s bishops gather at Lambeth to discuss doctrine, the most recent meeting, attended by 650 of them, ending on 7 August. The meetings have no legal force but are said to express “the mind of the communion”. Churches now “recognise” and even “bless” gay relationships and gay clergy. Member churches in the US, Canada and Scotland now perform same-sex marriages, but they are a minority. But of Anglicanism’s 85 million members worldwide, the majority are intolerant of what they regard as a mortal sin and see the west’s stance as arrogant. They will not diverge from local policies that homosexuality is a crime.

At Lambeth it was soon clear that many members could not contemplate any change in the church’s public position. Bishops from Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda refused even to attend the conference to discuss it. Desperate to avoid further division, Welby felt obliged to reassert the conservative stance of the Lambeth conference of 1998, that “sex and marriage are permissible only between one man and one woman”. It was a case not of imperial hangover but of the empire bites back.

If the Commonwealth and the C of E want to be taken seriously as promoters of moral and social values, they must stop guarding their membership by appeasing imperialism’s more reactionary tendency. This month they faced an issue on which they could have taken a stand and funked it.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at guardian.letters@theguardian.com


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