Something remarkable has just happened in Kingston, Jamaica. A two-day conference, "An Intimate Conviction", explored the relationship between Faith and the criminalisation of sexual intimacy between people of the same sex. The focus was the Anglican Communion but the conference encouraged all faiths, Christian and others, to attend. All were welcome.
The conference attracted some of the leading figures in the Christian community across the Caribbean as well as from the UK and Canada. It was a very powerful line up. The Anglican Archbishop of the West Indies even gave the keynote address. The US Embassy was there, so too were the British. And of particular significance, the Commonwealth Secretariat gave a Special Address. The Conference took place at the University of the West Indies. The audience was principally men and women of faith interested in, and concerned about LGBT issues. Even faith groups who did not attend, such as the Seventh Day Adventists, explained their reasons in a cool headed way, avoiding invective and language that can foment hate. The media coverage was calm and objective.
Underpinning the event was the fact that the Church of England led the calls for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales back in the 1950s, yet most former British colonies - where Anglican churches loom large - continue to criminalise. Their laws are a British colonial legacy. But back in the UK, it was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who, fifty years ago in 1967, supported the legislation which permitted intimacy between men in private when both men were over 21 years. And with the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, the shackles of the criminal law and the associated shame of being gay began to lift. The Church of England, and Archbishop Ramsay in particular, recognised that criminalising gay men wasted their potential, as well as affecting the Church's ability to minister to homosexuals. Lambeth Palace in those days was ahead of public opinion. It guided and led on the issue of homosexuality.
The central question that was addressed in Kingston at this conference was: what is the role of Faith in the current climate where still half the countries of the world continue to criminalise gay men and at least half of those countries also criminalise lesbians? Are there lessons that Anglican churches in the Global North can offer those in the Global South? And what of other Faith communities? Can a coalition of Faiths end LGBT persecution?
Criminalisation of homosexuality is not the only cause of anti-LGBT animosity, but without ending LGBT criminalisation those that peddle hatred will always justify their actions on the basis that homosexuality merits prosecution. Those that incite hate often base their arguments on the Bible and other religious texts. The Bible, they say, forbids homosexuality. They rely on a selected interpretation of the Bible. The Gospels says nothing about homosexuality and if Jesus was as concerned about it as some Christians say, might he have mentioned his revulsion of homosexuality? Jesus did acknowledge that it might be best for some men not to marry, but he didn't utter a word about men who find love, happiness and peace with each other. And even those few paragraphs in the Old Testament or St Paul's utterings that suggest opposition to homosexuality can be given a completely different meaning depending upon which translation of the Bible you rely upon.
The Kingston conference's focus is not on these theological questions. It raises more fundamental and moral questions. What is it about the quality of a gay man in England which means the Church of England could extend the hand of friendship? Yet, for gay men living in most other countries of the Commonwealth, to be embraced by the Anglican Communion, let alone local Anglican churches, requires negotiating the criminal law.
That this conference is happening in Jamaica is remarkable. Jamaicans can be notoriously homophobic. The words of some Dance Hall songs about killing the Batty Man still haunt the LGBT community there. But this conference is turning that stereotype on its head. Jamaica trail blazes. Will the rest of the criminalising world follow the lead set by this conference and have these conversations in an open, rational and transparent way? Will the faith communities and the Anglican Communion in particular pick up the challenge being posed by this conference? LGBT persecution can end. The Churches have a duty and responsibility to end that hate.
As we approach the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018 which is hosted by the UK, there is a real opportunity for change. The fact the Commonwealth Secretariat was part of the opening panel of this conference bodes well for the future. All credit to the Commonwealth Secretary General, Patricia Scotland, for leading by example. A committed Catholic, the Secretary General sets a great role model for the Faith communities to follow. She listens and is always keen to learn. She is driven by her commitment to equality. Under the leadership of Dominica-born Patricia Scotland the Commonwealth has come out of the shadows on LGBT issues. She expects the Commonwealth to be part of the debate on the future of LGBT rights.
But the true hero of this event is its organiser, Maurice Tomlinson. Maurice is a top-class lawyer from Jamaica who refuses to accept that his sexual orientation relegates him to second-class citizenship status. He too lives by example and the only offence that is being committed are the attempts to label the love he shares with his Canadian husband as a crime.