Bishop Christopher Senyonjo has found a calling and a new ministry in his retirement years. This calling and ministry now calls him to serve the LGBT community in Uganda, a community that is not only marginalized and faces systematic discrimination, but also faces emotional and physical violence from government and religious institutions. No human being deserves to live this way.
The Anglican Church of Uganda considers him an enemy and a heretic because of this calling. But instead of being able to silent him, he continues to ask his church (and the rest of the Anglican Communion) to stand up for human rights, and to reject the fear and hate his church spreads in Uganda; a fear and hate that fellow human beings feel every day there and around the world.
I share with you his reflections from last Christmas. He is truly an inspiration.
“No Room” At The Anglican Inn?
(As the Anglican Communion reflects on the future of its international relationships, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo urges the Anglican Church to speak out on human rights abuses.)
For 24 years, I served the Anglican Church of Uganda as the bishop of West Buganda.We built the great cathedral of St. Paul as the spiritual heart of a diocese of one million souls. When I retired, I decided to serve as counselor to anyone who needed me, without discrimination. My new community came from the most marginalized sections of our society, the lesbian, gay. Bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
I made it clear to my church that LGBT people should be respected and listened to without intimidation or condemnation. After a decade of work, my mother Anglican Church of Uganda still has no place for LGBT people or myself.
From being a bishop of a great diocese with its marvelous cathedral for a million souls, I now pray and break bread with the most despised and rejected ones. In my retirement years, I am rediscovering theChristmas message that God continues to come among us to reveal his love for all human beings. Jesus Christ is Love incarnate.
The Church of Uganda has stripped me of my pension and rights to exercise my ministry as a bishop, but I have found comfort in remaining a faithful member of my home parish of St. Andrew’s, Bukato.I am there because I believe the seed of inclusiveness in the church will grow from within and not from without. I have not given up on the church that has rejected me in the same way many LGBT people have not given up on the good news of Jesus Christ and his inclusive love. It is difficult for them to come to our parishes where the messages against homosexuality still ring out from our pulpits. So where are they to go?
I remember one young man named Thomas. We were looking for a place to accommodate the programs of St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Center in Kampala and he saw a big garage and suggested that it should be well used for our prayer services that he had been deprived of by his mother church.
Thomas said, “The church has made hell of our lives. We need to find a sanctuary to worship God from.”
I was very moved by what I heard from him and took in what he said. He was a Christmas angel to me. I still have a ministry. It is good news to me. It was a Christmas message of joy! Because of Thomas and others, that garage will soon become a sanctuary. We can certainly start using it this Christmas. My church has forced us out of the churches and cathedrals but we will worship God in a garage. From this humble place, many who are in hiding for fear of their lives will pray for strength and an end to their persecution by the state and the church.
This year, we ask all faithful Christians who receive the new born king in churches and cathedrals this Christmas to remember us as we remember you. This is what it means to be the Anglican Communion. We are together.
Sadly, many who have to worship in garages do so because they are LGBT or they are battered women trying to find a way to save their own lives and spirits. Some will worship there because they are just poor. All of them are unwanted by the bishops and today’s potentates.
All faithful Christians will read the same story of our beginnings as Christians. The story in Luke’s gospel is of a family that had nowhere to go but the stable because they were unwanted.There was no room for them to stay in the inn. In our case, there is no room in the beautiful churches or soaring cathedrals, only the garage is open.
Behind the scenes of Jesus’ birth were kings who were frightened by this child and plotted to kill him. Today, in Uganda, tabloids incite hatred and mob actions against LGBT people by publishing names and photos of me, a straight man, and LGBT people with “Hang the Homos” as a headline. Months later, I still am waiting to hear my Anglican Church speak on the side of the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. But they have been very busy with drafting the “Anglican Covenant.”
The proposed Anglican Covenant emerged from the threats of schism following the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, an openly gay man. Although it is cast as the last hope for unity, it was written specifically to humiliate and disempower LGBT people and their supporters by creating a lower level of participation for those bodies. Even though my brothers and sisters in the USA have never been part of the British Commonwealth (and even Ireland left it many years ago to escape imperial authority) they are now excluded from the inner circle of a sadly misnamed “Anglican Covenant.” This document establishes a new elite power structure and reads more like a model for British Commonwealth rule than a religious covenant.
Tragically, church officials from Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Australia and Anglican North America announced that the statement did not go far enough to exclude and condemn any support for LGBT people.
All of the African countries listed above imprison LGBT people because of who they are. As a bishop in the midst of those countries, I am now a shepherd caring for the lost sheep who are persecuted by the church and prosecuted by the state. I preach the new covenant of Jesus Christ sealed in love as we read in John 15:12. This is the heart of the Gospel--the Good News. This sacrifice of love is mocked when sister churches tolerate or promote the violation of basic human rights. Life and liberty are at risk and we must hold each other accountable. A loving Anglican Communion should not keep quiet when a paper openly supports the “hanging of the homos,” including a fellow bishop! Is there no archbishop for the outcast and persecuted minorities in my congregation? Silence has the power to kill.
The churches failed to protect minority communities in Europe during World War II when people were sent to the gas chambers and concentration camps. Many religious people in Europe emerged from that experience to help create the Declaration of Human Rights.We now have sixty years of building an internationally recognized framework for the protection of human rights in every country. If Anglicans in one country dehumanize, persecute and imprison minorities we must be true to the Gospel and challenge such assaults on basic human rights.
African Anglicans have a rich and powerful history of speaking out on human rights in the most difficult of situations. Bishop Colenso worked with Zulus to establish an indigenous church while being fought by his fellow English bishops. Bishops Trevor Huddleston, John Taylor and Desmond Tutu resisted Apartheid. We must not demean our great tradition by oppressing LGBT minorities under the guise of an “Anglican Covenant.” The proposed Covenant speaks more from a Lambeth palace than from a Bethlehem stable. If we are to heal our bloody imperial past as Anglican Christians, we must not default to a 19th Century model of superiority. If we are to proclaim the blood of Jesus Christ is shed for all and be in solidarity with the marginalized, we need a Gospel framework.
If exclusionary forces prevail, the Episcopal Church and others may find themselves abandoned.But just as my ministry is continuing without the support of my beloved Church of Uganda, the ministry of the Episcopal Church and other churches may also be in exile. Nevertheless, exile can lead us to a new journey towards wholeness and holiness. I have found a new calling in my 78th year on this beautiful earth and remain a faithful Anglican, even if the larger church rejects me and my people. We rejoice from the garages and stables for we are in good company with the one who came 2,000 years ago.