Eric Lembembe was a human rights defender, an articulate young man who defended the rights of the gay, lesbian, trans and bi communities. He was brutally murdered in Cameroon last week. As with other murders of prominent gay rights activists, Eric's death was particularly horrific. He will have suffered terribly. As news of his death emerged, I happened to be giving a speech in Canterbury Cathedral in England, and I used that opportunity to highlight the lack of leadership of the Church of England (or Episcopalian Church in the US) and the worldwide Anglican Communion in general in speaking out against the persecution of the LGBTI community across the world through often draconian criminal sanctions.
Over 80 jurisdictions still criminalize same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults. 42 of those jurisdictions are members of the Commonwealth, including Cameroon, whose anti-gay laws are a sad residue of a distinctively British colonial past. Introduced by their colonial masters in the 19th and 20th centuries, sodomy laws, buggery laws, gross indecency laws, call them what you will, are a British imperial legacy. Criminalization of LGBTI identity is not the sole cause of persecution in ex-British colonies and mandates, but it is the cornerstone.
It isn't hard to find the source of common law jurisdictions' anti-gay legislation: canon law, or rather its suppression by successive Tudor monarchs as part of their drive to create an English Church, separate and independent from Rome. In 1533 King Henry VIII introduced what has become known as the Buggery Act. The Act was to replace canon law sanctions and to shift the jurisdiction of such offences from ecclesiastical courts to civil. Popular anti-clerical propaganda at the time saw monasteries as hotbeds of same-sex orgies, or in the language of the Act "abominable vice". Through Parliament the Crown, whether intentionally or not, had placed the regulation of private conduct under the supreme power of the state rather than the Church. The result: a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon form of persecution of gay men was born with the full backing of the State.
The Buggery law, give or take a few amendments and additions (including the creation of new offences such as gross indecency in the 1880s that could only be committed by gay men), remained on Parliament's statute books and for over four hundred years the Anglican Churches followed, rank and file, the state. Then in 1954 the Church's Moral Welfare Council published The Problem of Homosexuality: an Interim Report, unexpectedly calling for the repeal of laws criminalizing gay men. This document, which fed into the later and more famous Wolfenden Report of 1957, recognized the role of the State in regulating society, but it also acknowledged that the rights of homosexual men were being violated and in the name of justice and humanity the Church called for a change in law.
In the following decade the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey vocally supported moves which led to the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in England in 1967 through the Sexual Offences Act.
Since then the Church has been ominously quiet on the subject, despite the fact that in most jurisdictions where the Anglican Communion thrives criminalization remains. I appreciate the structure of that worldwide Communion and that Canterbury is first amongst equals, yet Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, does speak out on LGBTI issues, only statements tend to conflate all things related to human sexuality. Its position on gay marriage, gay clergy and gay Bishops should have no bearing on the serious and systemic human rights violation which is the criminalization of gay sexual identity. Nor is it sufficient for the Church to oppose the death penalty for consensual homosexual offences, which implies that criminalization can be acceptable, subject to the penalty.
To give him his due, the former Archbishop, Rowan Williams, pointed out that criminalization created an uneven playing field. The current Archbishop, Justin Welby, in his address to Synod at the beginning of July, also condemned homophobic bullying in schools and pointed with horror to the executions of gay men in countries like Iran. He admitted that ordinary people in the UK are increasingly intolerant of homophobic behaviour and that they "look at us [i.e. the Church of England] and see what they don't like". He mentioned the need to demonstrate "the lavish love of God to all of us", but still failed to condemn criminalization per se. Some individuals within the Church hierarchy have been unequivocal: the Bishop of Leicester has called on all countries to end criminalization and Archbishop Desmond Tutu went so far as to describe it as the "ultimate blasphemy"; others have been far less lavish in their love. Comparing same-sex marriage with the Holocaust, whatever your views are on gay marriage, as a previous Archbishop has done, is certainly of no help in bringing to an end the persecution of LGBTI people.
Why, when the Anglican Church has in the past been vocal in its support for decriminalization in England, is it so silent now in other Commonwealth jurisdictions? What is it about the quality of a gay man in England that makes us more worthy of the Church's benediction than a gay Ugandan or Belizean? In a recent legal challenge to the anti-gay laws in Belize, the Anglican Bishop there joined with other churches to intervene in the court proceedings against attempts to decriminalize.
When the lives of extraordinary human rights defenders like Eric Lembembe are cut short it forces us all into a degree of soul searching. We still do not know the circumstances of his death. We may never know what happened. Reports suggest that there will not be an effective investigation. What we all suspect is that but for the existence of those laws criminalizing LGBTI people, Eric may still be alive today caring for his family (he was their sole breadwinner).
As Archbishop Ramsey recognized, there is no such thing as benign criminalization. Gay men in countries which criminalize are unapprehended felons. The very existence of laws criminalizing homosexuality will undermine human dignity, a key aspect of human rights protection and, ironically, in part, a legacy of the Anglican Communion's development. With criminalization will come persecution and a culture of impunity. The levels of persecution may vary, but it is still persecution nonetheless. What the Church says, and what it fails to say, matter because across the world millions listen. We need the Church to lead and to give an unequivocal and universal statement calling for world-wide decriminalization now.