The Methodist Church of South Africa (MCSA) has disputed recent media claims that it has “changed its stance” on the rights of LGBTQIA+ Methodists and clarified any misunderstandings one may have had.
In a recent social media post, Graeme Codrington – a “Futurist, Scenario Planner, Speaker, Author, Unlearner” married to a member of the MCSA clergy, stated, “The Methodist Church of Southern Africa yesterday officially changed its stance on gay marriage and announced that effective immediately the Methodist church recognises and affirms the rights of LGBTQI people to be married. Officially, this also means that LGBTQI people are to be welcomed and affirmed in Methodist churches.”
Condrington further goes on to state” “I first engaged with the Methodist church as a consultant to their very first official discussion document on this issue about 15 years ago. It was such a contentious issue then that the clergy who authored the discussion paper did not even put their names on it. For the past few years, I have been part of the leadership of the first South African Methodist church to be openly LGBTQI affirming, Melrose Methodist. As a pastor of that church, my wife Jane put her name to the resolution that was submitted to Synod a few years ago officially requesting this change in policy, and I supported and defended it through the various stages of its acceptance. This is only one step on the long journey to fully including and affirming LGBTQI people in the church, but it is a big step in the right direction.”
The post set social media abuzz with popular blog Good Tings Guy picking it up. EXIT approached representatives of the MCSA on 8 October for clarification and comment. The Church responded in a statement saying that “Contrary to some statements circulating on social media, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa never rejected members of the LGBTQIA community and would therefore have no need to welcome them back.”
It then goes on to refute that an official decision had been taken and that is was still “developing a theology on marriage”.
The full statement reads:
The Methodist Church of Southern Africa at its 2001 conference adopted the principle that “the MCSA seeks to be a community of love rather that rejection…” and in 2014 that any form of victimisation, hatred or violence towards homosexual people should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.” These are statements that the church still stands by.
The MCSA, however, remains in conversation about the theology of marriage, the exercise of conscience, pastoral implications and the perceived marginalization of people in same-sex relationships and is not yet ready to apply for its ministers to officiate at same sex unions.
The MCSA also acknowledges that within the South African context, the Civil Union Act, 2006 makes provision for any citizen to enter into a legal union and thus upholds the legal rights of persons choosing to do so. Therefore, based on broad-based consultation, the Connexional Executive 2020, tasked with handling some conference (the highest legislative body of the church) business, resolved that while the MCSA continues its development on a theology of marriage, no citizen of a community within the six countries of our Connexion that allows Civil Unions shall be prevented from entering into such a union which can be as same-sex or opposite sex couples.
So, until conference has pronounced differently, the MCSA encourages all members of the church to continue in respectful dialogue as we prayerfully continue our development on a theology of marriage.
Writer Siya Khumalo, author of You Have To Be Gay To Know God, which won the Desmond Tutu-Gerrit Brand Literary Prize, weighed in on the discussion. Speaking to EXIT, the author clarified the misunderstanding many of us had on the Methodist Church of Southern Africa’s updated position on LGBTI rights, and discussed what the implications for themselves may be.
“The position, as I see it, is simply that the church acknowledges the existence of the social contract that sponsors our Constitution’s Human Rights’ framework. At its most progressive points, this social contract hasn’t burdened itself with arbitrary bigotries and repressions. Until it’s reached this position, the church has had the burden of explaining why it won’t play nice with same-sex married clergy or baptise same-sex parents’ children, for example — never mind the question of why it won’t officiate same-sex marriages,” said Khumalo.
Khumalo continues, “Although the church’s move in the direction of inclusivity is and appears progressive, it’s also a tacit admission that the institutions that once gave society moral direction have lost their relevance. There’s a resignation at play here. The church has no compelling alternative vision to offer the world, and so now are being guided by that world, mostly because the alternative visions they offer call for arbitrary self-sacrifice. In Christian theology, it’s often said God calls people into self-sacrificially loving acts of service towards other people, and this makes intuitive sense to most people because the less selfish we all are, the better off we all will be.”
The question of same-sex relationships, and the status of LGBTQIA+ people, continues to be controversial across the world. The United Methodist Church, with an estimated 10.4 million members, has current policies that are strongly against the LGBTQIA community. The church’s 2016 Book of Discipline recognizes the “sacred worth” of all persons but also states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and bans financial support of LGBTQ-based groups.
At a special conference in February 2019, convened specifically to address divisions over LGBTQ issues, delegates approved the “Traditionalist Plan” which affirmed the denomination’s teaching on homosexuality. It also hardened the denomination’s approach to “rulebreakers”. It closes loopholes that conservatives believed had allowed some LGBTQIA people to be ordained as clergy and some bishops to avoid enforcing the rules. It enacts new across-the-board standards for punishing ministers who perform same-sex weddings: a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first wedding, and permanent removal from ministry for the second.
In early 2020, the United Methodist Church proposed splitting into separate entities in order to resolve long-standing disagreements over the issues of same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, according to a statement shared by the United Methodist Council of Bishops. The conference was set to convene in May 2020 to vote to break up over differences on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ pastors but due to the Coronavirus pandemic the Church was forced to postpone the potentially momentous conference to 31 August to 10 September 2021.
Same-sex marriage in South Africa has been legal since the Civil Union Act, 2006 came into force on 30 November 2006. South Africa was the fifth country in the world and the first in Africa to legalise same-sex marriage. However, under Section 6 of the Civil Union Act, government-employed marriage officers can refuse to solemnize same-sex unions if they state their religious objection in writing to the Minister of Home Affairs.
In 2017, the then Minister of Home Affairs acknowledged that 421 of the Ministry’s 1,130 marriage officers were exempt from performing same-sex civil unions as they “objected on the grounds of conscience, religion or belief”. Same-sex and same-gender couples attempting to enter into civil unions or partnerships in terms of the Civil Union Act have reported persistent systematic refusals by some officials of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) to offer services to them including those related to the civil unions and partnerships because of their sexual orientation. Leading Human Rights organisations have urged President Cyril Ramaphosa to sign off on the Civil Union Amendment Bill that affords same-sex or same-gender couples the right to be married by any state-employed marriage officer and magistrate they so choose.
Estian Smit, Research, Advocacy and Policy Manager, Triangle Project, said: “Denial of marriage equality for LGBTQI+ people and same-gender couples have a severely detrimental impact on the lives of these couples, their families and broader communities. Homophobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination is unconstitutional and has no place in South Africa’s laws, policies and practices.”
“Heteronormativity and many of the church’s rules around human sexuality have, in the past, been lumped together with this call to be loving, but the church has never satisfactorily explained why. What it doesn’t realise is that in the ancient Roman world where relationships were about power, pleasure, social duty, etc., the church introduced a counter-cultural paradigm where the purpose of relationships was a love that originated in God and was to be extended through people to other people — to men and women, to slaves, regardless of social position or class. This paradigm set first-century Christians in deadly conflict with the powers-that-were until the Church became the powers-that-were. For a good number of centuries, it was the voice of progress but as it got closer to power it became the voice of the status quo. Now it’s neither here nor there, and everyone applauds when it catches up to where reasonable people have been for a good while,” concluded Kumalo.