JThe British Empire may be dead, but its ghost refuses to go to bed. Over the past fortnight, two relics, the Commonwealth and the Church of England, have risen to prominence, chanting 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 under their feet.
The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham showed a real breakthrough: for the first time, disabled athletes achieved equality in the medals and the ceremony of the games. But it’s Tom Daley’s dive to spoil the parade. He pointed out that out of 56 member states of the Commonwealth, 35 prohibit homosexuality and imprison, beat, stone or kill homosexuals. They include Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. While a few athletes carried the rainbow flag in Birmingham, Daley told the BBC most were terrified of being identified.
The answer that the Commonwealth is not political will not suffice. Countries have often left or been expelled for their politics. South Africa left 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 spate of executions in 1995. Politics is also behind the steady decline in the number of those who accept the British Queen as monarch, who is now only 15 years old.
The Commonwealth has never been more than a trading bloc, especially since the UK joined the EU. Apart from a quadrennial medal party, this is a club whose values are shared and to some extent enforced. Persecuting gay people should surely rank with a rigged election as disqualifying a country from, if not membership, at least attending an £800m party. If the Commonwealth shrinks as a result, that should be a credit to its moral cohesion.
The C of E ends up in an almost identical mess. The Anglican Communion spans 165 former colonies, mostly with a Briton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the putative leader. The current primate, Justin Welby, has suggested it was some sort of 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 prevent them from constantly lagging behind Parliament on social reform, particularly on sexuality and marriage.
Every decade the bishops of Anglicanism meet in Lambeth to discuss doctrine, with the most recent meeting, attended by 650 of them, ending on August 7. The meetings have no legal value but are supposed to express “the spirit of communion”. Churches “recognize” and even “bless” homosexual relationships and homosexual clergy. Member churches in the United States, Canada and Scotland now perform same-sex marriages, but they are a minority. But of the 85 million members of Anglicanism worldwide, the majority do not tolerate what they see as a mortal sin and view the West’s position as arrogant. They will not deviate from local policies that homosexuality is a crime.
In Lambeth it was soon apparent that many members could not contemplate any change in the public position of the Church. The bishops of Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda even refused to attend the conference to discuss it. Desperate to avoid further division, Welby felt compelled to reaffirm the conservative position of the 1998 Lambeth conference that “sex and marriage are only permitted between a man and a woman”. This was not about an imperial hangover, but about the empire fighting back.
If the Commonwealth and the C of E want to be taken seriously as promoters of moral and social values, they must stop protecting their members by appeasing the more reactionary tendency of imperialism. This month they faced an issue that they could have taken a stand on and tricked him.
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 [email protected]