South Africa

Church Crusaders: Fighting for gender justice from the inside

By Andrea Teagle 1 June 2016

Last week Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho Tutu-van Furth, left the priesthood after the Anglican Church resolved to revoke her licence in light of her recent same-sex marriage. Far too often, religion seems to act as a handbrake on achieving gender justice. However, currents of change are beginning to swirl within religious bodies. Some rights groups are working to promote inclusivity and challenge discrimination from the inside. By ANDREA TEAGLE.

A couple of years ago, I attended the opening night of the documentary God Loves Uganda, which detailed how American evangelicals have sowed homophobia in Uganda to devastating effect. The film left me with a lingering sense of hopelessness. How do we stop these “missionaries” spreading hatred when they have such an unshakeable belief that they are in the right? When a belief is based on faith rather than logic, how do you challenge it? And when religions are used to justify oppression – whether on the basis of sexual orientation, race or gender – how do you respect or engage them?

Present at the screening was a Ugandan religious leader, featured in the film, who has been championing gay rights. He suggested that criticisms be framed in the language understood by members of the religion: that the same tools used to “justify” discrimination could also be used to fight it. Rather than pitting human rights efforts against religion – and running the risk of alienating and silencing those within, rather than liberating – a more effective means of achieving equality may be by challenging religious interpretations and amplifying voices calling for greater inclusivity from within.

Organisations such as the gender desk of the Anglican Church (currently handled by the social development programme, Hope Africa) and Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) are doing just that. IAM has received international recognition for combatting discrimination against gay and lesbian people through dialogue. According to its website, IAM is “the only organisation in Southern Africa that officially targets the religious leaders of the mainline church communities – especially those that still adhere to patriarchal and fundamentalist values”. The gender desk under Hope Africa, meanwhile, promotes greater inclusivity from within the Anglican Church – a positioning that Hope Africa’s Lacey Oliver says is critical to its efforts.

Hailing from Tennessee, USA, 25-year-old Oliver is a Christian. She is also a feminist. She is also gay. For Oliver, these elements of her identity are not in conflict. Having joined Hope Africa earlier this year, Oliver is responsible for helping to draft a practical three-year plan to combat gender-based injustice, working from the starting assumption that religion is not inherently oppressive.

The timing is significant. Last week, Mpho Tutu-van Furth, daughter of Desmond Tutu, was forced to resign from her ministerial post after marrying her female partner, Dutch academic Marceline Tutu-van Furth. Tutu-van Furth told the City Press: “Ironically, coming from a past where difference was the instrument of division, it is our sameness that is now the cause of distress. My wife and I are both women.”

The incident painfully highlights the fact that the church doesn’t share the progressive views of its newly established gender desk. But, arguably, neither does the church’s stance necessarily reflect the underlying values of the religion.

Religion has been used to uphold these sort of normative ideas about gender; it’s been used to uphold the patriarchy; it’s been used to hold up a lot of really terrible injustices,” Oliver concedes, including racial oppression during apartheid South Africa. But she points out that at its inception, women played prominent leadership roles in the church, and that Jesus himself belonged to a marginalised community.

I think that at its heart, religion can be liberative, but it’s about reclaiming that, and taking it away from the really normative ways that it’s used.”

On a theoretical level, this is done by challenging interpretations of religious texts and by contextualising passages used to defend discrimination. As Dr Miranda Pillay of the University of the Western Cape writes in Let’s go Biblical on Gender, “ “the Bible clearly states that” is the mantra of those who continue to interpret single passages from the Bible without locating the passage within the larger fabric of meaning in the canon as a whole”. Explaining away gender-based discrimination on the basis that “the Bible clearly states that…” is, arguably, a little like explaining how you’re not racist because “some of my friends are black”.

Dr Pillay also notes the importance of differentiating between scriptures that are descriptive – merely describing the social norms of the time – and those that are prescriptive, or instructional. In the case of the latter, it is reasonable to question whether that instruction is applicable beyond the particular social and historical circumstances in which it was given. Advocates of liberal interpretations point to shared themes and underlying religious values that hold across context.

How does this translate into practical steps for overcoming gender-based oppression? An obvious first step is to increase female representation in religious structures. Another is through education and dialogue. Hope Africa is aiming to have gender studies incorporated into next-generation priests’ training, and to encourage the use of gender-inclusive language. (It would be interesting to watch people’s reactions if a priest dropped a “her” and “she” into the sermon every now and again.)

Another of the gender desk’s action items is the introduction of premarital counselling curricula to encourage couples to question the traditional roles played by husband and wife – roles that, even in supposedly liberal circles, are often assumed (sometimes supposedly jokingly) and reinforced. The perpetuation of unequal power dynamics between the sexes has tangible consequences: it makes women more vulnerable to gender-based violence, and places them at higher risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. But even if gender-based violence was not a serious issue in South Africa, demanding that one human submit to another on the basis of gender (or race, culture, or sexual orientation) is fundamentally unjustifiable, a fact recognised and upheld by the South African Constitution.

Overcoming the tension between freedom of religion and gender equality has been a theme of post-apartheid South Africa. Not all attempts have been successful. For example, Muslim marriage is still not recognised in South African Law. (Last year, a compromise bill was rejected by the Islamic community for allegedly not being in line with Islam.) Professor Waheeda Amien of the University of Cape Town argues that, ironically, the continued illegality of Muslim marriages has undermined women’s rights in these communities, as women’s financial claims are unprotected. Like Oliver in relation to Christianity, Amien argues that there is room for a women-friendly interpretation of Islam that reconciles religion and gender equality.

But while rights groups like Hope Africa can advocate for gender justice, they cannot demand it. Incremental steps born of carefully calculated compromises can be frustratingly slow. On the other hand, when the church pushes liberal interpretation of scripture that its followers are not ready for, it risks bleeding members – and money. In some cases, a church may be forced to split over the dissent. The Episcopal Church, Anglicanism’s American branch, to which Oliver belongs, was suspended for three years for consecrating same-sex marriages. The Southern African Anglican Church will decide this year whether to adopt its Bishops’ proposal to officially welcome gay and lesbian married couples into the church.

The movement of progression is a tango between a religion and its members: just as religion influences beliefs, societal norms direct the church’s stance on key issues. While gender justice and acknowledgment of gay rights within church structures is excruciatingly slow in coming, under the surface of the church’s great body, organisations like Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) and Hope Africa are giving women and marginalised groups within the church the tools with which to lead the charge. DM

Photo: Reverend Canon Mpho Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Executive Director of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, speaks at a press conference regarding the health of her father in Cape Town, South Africa, 16 July 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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